As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’
Preached and written by Doris Powell
Are there any passages of scripture that terrify you? For me, this is one… the story of the rich man seeking eternal life. So terrifying, I still remember a sermon preached on this text over forty years ago. Why terrifying? Because even then, I knew I was rich.
Today, you can go to a website, GlobalRichList.com, to learn just how rich you are. Say, your annual net income is $25,000. Enter $25,000, and click: “Show my results.” Watch the numbers whir in the results box to learn:
You’re in the top 2% richest people in the world!
I admit it lacks context… a $25,000 income in the USA means a pretty modest life-style. $25,000 in Ghana means you live in luxury. Still, it’s a bit shocking: the top 2%.
Forty years ago, I didn’t need a website to tell me I was rich. I had a modest home with a mortgage, heat in the winter, enough food, a steady job, and an education. I was rich. Maybe not mega-rich, but rich enough.
The Rich Man
The man in this story was likely mega-rich. Many Bible translations title this story, “The Rich Man. ”In Jesus’ time, there was no middle class. So, if you “had many possessions,” you were rich. This was a memorable event. It happened right in front of Jesus’ disciples. The strong emotions and surprise they felt meant it would live in their memories. They were “perplexed” and “greatly astounded” as Jesus taught:
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
Extremely perplexing in a society that believed God showed favor by conferring wealth. If the wealthy couldn’t be saved, who could?
This encounter is recorded in all three Gospels with only slight variations. Matthew identifies the man as “young” and Luke as “a ruler.” In Mark’s Gospel, two added details make it feel more personal to me, more human. The rich man knelt before Jesus. I can picture his reverence in this act, as well as in his words, “Good Teacher.”
Jesus, as a devout Jew, gave the honest answer one might expect he’d advise everyone, about observing the commandments. Imagine how the man’s simple response must have affected Jesus.
“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
He wasn’t bragging. He was looking up at Jesus, telling of his life-long spiritual journey. Here is the second detail recorded only by Mark:
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Jesus, looking into his heart, then gave him a very personal answer:
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The encounter concludes:
“When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Then followed the discussion with Jesus’ disciples about:
‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ … “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
So, forty years ago when I heard that memorable sermon, I was kneeling at Jesus’ feet with that rich ruler to hear: “Go, sell all what you own…” Could I do that? I didn’t think so. Truly, the passage we read from Hebrews got it right:
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active… it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
The sermon I remember began with a caveat: Jesus was speaking to an individual, not giving generic advice. The Bible is NOT saying, Doris, Betsy, Kenny… all of us… MUST sell all we own to gain eternal life. But I still didn’t feel totally off the hook, so I tried to follow the advice offered in the rest of the sermon by our minister, Lester Moore.
1. Go home, pull out your excess and give it away. You don’t need it, and it can meet the needs of others. I did that. It wasn’t too hard.
2. Learn to distinguish NEEDS from WANTS, or you’ll quickly accumulate new excess. Makes sense. That was a bit life-changing for me, always asking myself, “Do I really need that?” It’s not that I never buy anything that I just want, but there are many things that I haven’t acquired. And I never got sucked into a life-style of living beyond my means.
3. The things you need to keep: find a way to share them. This suggestion was surely the most life-changing for me. I’d never thought about it quite that way before.
Patterns for Everyday Life
I decided I needed to keep my car. How could I share it? Within the week, a coworker came up to me and asked if I might consider taking on a rider to work. An Iowa State University student, working part-time in the mail room, needed a ride in. She could pay gas money. Would I consider it? I was able to share my car! I told her I didn’t need gas money. She was right on my way. And I was blessed with an incentive I needed to get to work on time.
I also decided I needed to keep my house. Within the year I was able to share it with a dear friend, Sandee, who was trying to be a mom, a full-time student, and a part-time worker to afford housing. It was too much. She and her son, Ryan, lived with me for two years. It was the most harmonious time of my life. After she went off to seminary, I had several students stay with me at different times while they were doing their job searches. And the blessing came back around to me when I spent seven weeks enjoying Betsy’s hospitality as I recovered from ankle surgery. A great friendship blossomed.
Last week, I was delivering Meals on Wheels with Lawrence, when it occurred to me… I’d found a new way to share my car, delivering meals. This morning’s Call to Worship got it right: “Here we set the patterns for everyday life.”
For years after that sermon I lived, what I called, “a simplified life-style.” It freed me to follow the call I heard to go to seminary where I lived in a small studio apartment for the next three years. I’d look out over San Francisco Bay and feel so blessed.
There it was. It was there all along. I had just missed it. In my worry over possessions, I had totally missed The Invitation:
“Go, sell what you own… then come, follow me.”
Jesus looks at each one of us and invites us: “come, follow me.” The following will take a different form for each of us. Our calling is unique. And what we must unburden ourselves from, to be free to follow, will be unique too.
The UCC calendar identifies this Sunday as “Disabilities Awareness Sunday.” For many, an attachment to possessions can be disabling; but for others, it will be something else. An addiction? A fear? A grievance? An old wound? When Jesus looks on you and loves you… what will his next words to you be?
If I’m honest, I have to tell you, I’ve back-slid. One look at my house and you can see I haven’t been living that simplified life-style for some time. Distinguishing needs from wants takes discipline. Living in a large (for me) house, for twenty-five years hasn’t helped. But after a life-time of working on it, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, habits of sharing possessions and time have endured.
The Good News is: “Come and follow” is an open invitation. An open-ended invitation. It didn’t come with an expiration date. It’s right here, for each of us.
Sometimes I wonder about that rich man. I can’t imagine he could get those few moments with Jesus out of his head: what it felt like to have Jesus look on him with love. Did the invitation play over and over in his mind? In his dreams? Did he find “grace and help” in his time of need? Maybe later he sold and distributed all he owned and followed. We don’t know. Or maybe, after Jesus’ resurrection, he became part of that community we read about in Acts last week:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
As Jesus assured his disciples:
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
May it be so for us, too… Amen.