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Today’s Gospel is the 1st of two dealing with Jesus’ encounter with a rich man. Taken together with next week’s Gospel, they proclaim some of Jesus’ most pointed teachings on handling wealth. They are both great preludes for our fall stewardship campaign which begins in just 3 weeks, because at the ending of today’s Gospel the rich man who had asked for Jesus’ help went home without making any pledge – in fact, he went home without continuing in Jesus’ kingdom at all, because he thought that Jesus had asked too much.
All 3 synoptic gospels tell this story. In Luke this man is not just rich, but also a ruler. In Matthew he is both rich and young, which is why a lot of our religious literature calls him, “The rich young ruler,” – combining all 3. In all 3 Gospels he walks away from Jesus because he had more riches than he was willing to give away. All of that ought to make us open our ears because this story has something big to say that is very close to where we live.
The rich man came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to be on the path to eternal life?” His was a hugely important question!! We Pastors love it when you ask us God questions. He sought Jesus out, knelt in devotion & respect, and asked his question the way a serious disciple would. Jesus answered him with the 2nd table of the law: “You shall not murder, nor commit adultery, or steal or bear false witness, nor defraud, but honor your father and mother.” To this the rich man boldly and very piously said, “I have kept all of these since my youth.” He saw himself as a righteous man, seriously conducting his life within the covenant of God.
You might be tempted to challenge him, “Son I don’t think you’ve kept all the commandments,” but I want you to notice that Jesus did not say that. It would make this text so much easier if we could say that the rich man was mean, that he left a trail of hurt behind him. Nothing here suggests that. We have been taught that the law always shows me my sin and that all of us fall short. That is surely true, but Jesus does not choose to say that here.
Instead Jesus challenged him by showing him his life’s connection to the very first commandment. “One thing you lack” (Vs 21). “Go sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Jesus had looked into the man’s heart – and He saw “one thing lacking.” He did just what Yahweh had done when He looked into the heart of each of Jesse’s sons before he chose David to be king. David was the one whose heart was right toward God. Jesus looked into the rich man’s heart and saw one thing that kept him from “….loving God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength.” He saw that the rich man trusted his money more than he trusted God. So Jesus told the rich man to give it all away all. Our fall stewardship campaign’s theme comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount - “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” Where the rich man’s heart was is revealed by what he did next. Mark tells us that this rich man who had served God by keeping all the other commandments, refused to obey God in this one, and went away sad and grieving because his heart was devoted to his wealth.
Next week we will hear Jesus graphically describe the danger of wealth and the risk to eternal life that wealth poses for all people, but already here Mark makes the same point that St. Paul put to Timothy, “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil (I Tim 6.10).” As we watch the rich man walk away grieving, Mark would surely want us to remember some other things. Like the day Jesus answered another questioner, “Foxes have holes and the birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mt 8.20).” Jesus didn’t just warn people about the dangers of wealth, He disciplined Himself to avoid them. He had grown up hearing that warning, as his mother Mary sang the song that grew in her heart after Gabriel told her she would give birth to the Son of God: “Yahweh has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, He has brought down the powerful from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty (Luke 1.51-52).” It cannot be an accident that the Church led by Jesus’ apostles, the ones who also had nowhere to lay their heads as they followed Jesus, chose to sell their possessions and share all things in common (Acts 4.32f).” They too disciplined their wealth.
The Western Church has often been embarrassed by Jesus’ command to the rich man. Over and over again, the first thing the Church says after she reads this text is, “There is nothing wrong with wealth.” It is the first sentence in every commentary and the first or second in every sermon. When we do that we sound just like 1st century Judaism which would have answered the rich man’s question, “You lack nothing, dear friend. Your wealth shows that God loves you and already approves of the way you are serving Him.” But regardless of what Jewish society might have said or what the western church often says, Jesus said none of those things. He lovingly said, “Give away what keeps you separate from the love of God.”
This story, like our stewardship emphasis, is not about how to raise enough money to support our budget. Nor is it how to move a rich man to endow the family life center we want to build. It is about the heart of a man whose treasure was not in heaven. It is about another of the lost ones, a rich lost one. Notice what Mark tells us about Jesus encounter with him (vs 21): “Jesus looked and him and loved him.” God does not just love us until we say, “Jesus is my personal Savior.” The rich man would have said that. God loves us so much that He will move heaven and earth to hold us in His arms, reconciled and forgiven. He loves us so much that He sacrificed His most precious treasure, His only Son, so that we might find the treasure of eternal life.
Sometimes we draw lines through parts of our lives like the rich man did……..and very often those lines support our selfishness rather than our trust walk. Praise God, Jesus did not send the rich man away, for the door to God’s mercy was open then, and the Good Shepherd would go on seeking this lamb. May your heart grow to be as open to God as His is to you. And may the way you discipline your wealth also show it. Treasure what He treasures, for only that lasts into eternity.
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