Job 23:1-9, 16-17+Psalm 22:1-15+(Hebrews 4:12-16)+Mark 10:17-31
We are in the “difficult teachings” section of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem where the anticipation of conflict and violence are looming, and he is running out of time. So, he is hammering away at the hard stuff like divorce and amputating anything that gets in the way of following him and entering into the reign of God. The message is clear: there is nothing of more value, or greater importance, than relationships with God and each other. Nothing.
Today, Jesus sets his sights on money.
The rich young man in our story today was not a bad person. He affirms that he keeps the commandments. He did not get his money through defrauding people. And it’s interesting that Jesus changes that 10th commandment about not coveting to not defrauding. There were plenty of unscrupulous people then and now more than willing to get rich by swindling an unsuspecting old widow or something. No, this man claims his innocence on all accounts. He should be good to go, right?
This is where Jesus, as he so often does, turns the tables. Plays a little trick.
It can be hard for us to understand the context of 1st century Palestine, and we often are tempted to impose contemporary interpretations on ancient things. Sometimes it works, but most of the time, how we look at the world is very different than how the people of Jesus’s time did. Throughout the bible, wealth is viewed as a blessing from God. Success was because God had shown favor on you. There are plenty of people today who still believe this to be true. The prosperity gospel is thriving even now.
One of the astonishing things about the Job saga is that this is turned upside down. He was a wealthy landowner with a home and a family and fields and flocks, blessed by God. And God has handed him over to Satan to do with as Satan pleased, and Job simply cannot understand why.
Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments. (Job 23:2-5)
And the part we read this morning ends with
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face! (23:17)
In Job we hear echoes of the psalmist’s lament
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress? (22:1)
Words that will be echoed from the cross when a good man, one blessed by and beloved of God, will hang dying a tortured death.
The wealth of Job, the wealth of the rich man, were supposed to signify something. They were #blessed.
Why, then, is this not enough? Theologians and biblical scholars and preachers have wrestled with this text for centuries trying to find an out. Surely he can’t mean give it all away? Maybe this man wasn’t as pure as he makes out. I mean, listen to that lack of humility, bragging about how righteous he is. He has too much pride. That’s the problem.
No, the problem is that he has a lot of money and can’t imagine giving it up.
Last spring when Forbes issued its 2021 richest persons list, an accountability advocate at the nonprofit Public Citizen crunched some numbers and figured out that the founders and families of the Big Five Silicon Valley tech companies “’could end global hunger, eradicate malaria, end homelessness in America, AND end the famine in Yemen,’” and still have $20 billion to share.”
Do they? No. They all gained massive amounts of wealth even during COVID, and the last I looked, poverty and homelessness and famine are still a thing.
They can’t imagine giving up what they have, not all of it, and not even some of it.
Of course, they are the super-rich. This week’s outrage discourse on Twitter came after someone claimed that an income of $400,000 is “middle class” in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, LA, and Miami. The objections to that statement came fast and furious, from poor folk and actual middle-class folk and even some people who earn that much. My favorite was the one who said, and I paraphrase because it was a bit raw, “you’re rich. You just aren’t personal servant rich.”
How much is enough? Is it acceptable to be rich if you give away a billion dollars and keep that other billion for yourself? Is it enough to earn $400k and give away 25% of that?
For Jesus, the actual figure doesn’t seem to matter. You have to be willing to part with it all.
Now, there are those who say that it’s all about our relationship with money. If we allow it to distort the way we are in the world, thinking that somehow we deserve the things we have more than that poor schlub on the street corner; or we delude ourselves into thinking that $400k isn’t rich when, even in NY, it puts you almost in the top 1%. If we’re all about accumulating wealth and keeping it all for ourselves or allowing it to make us think we are better or more important, that’s the problem, right?
So how much do we have to give up then, Jesus?
Remember how last week Jesus told his followers that you have to become like a child to enter the kingdom of God? As I told you last week, children were particularly vulnerable in Jesus’s time and relied completely on the goodness of others to take care of them and when others failed them, they were absolutely trusting that God would not. Children have absolutely nothing to lose.
While news of doom and gloom about the dying Church is everywhere in the western world, the global church is growing in the poorest and least developed parts of this planet. When Good News is proclaimed to the poor and the oppressed, they hear a story of their liberation. What do they have to lose?
When Peter points out that the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, don’t forget that they were poor fishermen and laborers except for Matthew the tax-collector who was despised and whose livelihood was precarious, caught between the Roman rulers and those they oppressed. What did any of them have to lose, really?
What about us? What do we have to lose? Everything, actually.
Do we trust enough in God’s provision for us that we will give up our money to help end poverty?
How about re-home a refugee from Afghanistan?
How about making sure no one in our neighborhood goes hungry?
If we have too much to protect, there is no way we are going to give it all up. We are spiritually incapable of unclenching our hands from around what we have in order to receive what Jesus is offering us.
It’s no wonder the rich man grieved as he went away. He was trapped by what he had.
In many ways, we are trapped, too.
But Jesus is showing us another way. A way to liberation. A way that frees us from concern for what we have and leads us toward those who have nothing. Putting ourselves last so that they might be first.
The rich young man is the only person we read about who rejects Jesus’s invitation to follow. He surely wasn’t the last, and the offer is still on the table for all of us.
“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” (10:21).