“Some people are so poor, all they have is money.”
I think it was Stanley Houerwas who said that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been so watered down that now it boils down to, “God is nice, you be nice, too.” Judging from our passage from today’s reading, I don’t know where on earth we got that idea. At least in this reading, Jesus does not come across as a very nice man. He’s demanding, he’s judgmental, and he doesn’t cut the rich ruler any slack whatsoever – not even for keeping all the commandments, which I daresay I haven’t been able to do.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the same story with a little different twist. At least in Mark’s version it says Jesus loved him – we don’t get that here in Luke’s gospel. In Matthew’s version, the man was young, which at least gives him time to reconsider. Here, Jesus seems to be no sympathy for this rich ruler. Just a ringing indictment: “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom.”
We don’t know why the man came up to Jesus. As Fred Craddock notes, there is no indication that the man is somehow in a “desperate state,” no suggestion that “the emptiness of riches in the life” left him “searching for a satisfied and peaceful heart.” It could be, Craddock muses, that the man already figured that his prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing and he was just looking for confirmation that “eternal life was his.” After all, Craddock notes, “Godliness is in league with riches; prosperity is the clear sign of God’s favor.” [Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 192, 213.]
At least that’s what some people believed, and with good reason. That’s one of the theological threads of the Old Testament. As a professor once summed it up, “the good get the goods.” Even the disciples seem to assume this: if the wealthy can’t be saved, who can?
And if this rich guy really had kept all the commandments, well, that really was something. He had no need to seek forgiveness, nor absolution. It kind of seems like he didn’t really need anything, to tell the truth.
So what did he want from Jesus?
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is his question. “What must I do to inherit life everlasting?”
Jesus’ answer must have knocked him off his feet: “There’s one thing lacking. Sell everything you own and give it away to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
The issue, it seems, is the very thing that makes him seem to be so blessed. The issue, it seems, is his wealth. What he lacks is, well, nothing. Nothing is what he lacks. “Sell what you have, and follow me.”
In Luke’s gospel, ‘salvation’ means something very particular. It means, “leading a life before God as a member of God’s people.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, “Social Dimensions of Soteria,” Contested Issues in Christian Origins and the New Testament: Collected Essays, 191.]
The rich ruler probably thought he had been doing just that. No, Jesus says, you’re mistaken.
“Sell what you have, and follow me.”
Jesus, why did he have to say that?
The truth is, Jesus could have answered any number of ways. He could have said, “Son, you don’t need to do anything. God’s blessing is yours because you are a Son of Abraham, a child of God, and that is true for eternity.” He might have said that.
Jesus could have said, “Go, sell half of what you own and give it to the poor.” That would have been a heck of a lot of money, and the rich man could have slept well knowing he had sacrificed a great deal and done a very good thing.
Jesus might even have said, “Use your power to rule wisely; be a good steward of your authority; seek wisdom and act justly,” because heavens knows we need people like that in this world.
And, if I had my druthers, Jesus would have said, “Support the Temple and your local synagogue. They depend on generous people like you.” The stewardship committee would love it if he had said that.
But he didn’t. He said, “Go, sell it all, and give everything to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
And if that weren’t enough, Jesus adds, almost parenthetically, “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
Really? Any rich person? Just how rich, exactly, are we talking about here?
The million-dollar question, so to speak, is whether Jesus is talking to this man, or everyone who has wealth. Is this culture specific, something about the context of the Gospel, about this particular man? Or is he speaking to us, too? And if he is, what is he saying? Are we supposed to sell everything? If that’s the case, then why haven’t we yet? I don’t know anyone who’s sold all they have to follow Jesus. But maybe we’re off the hook because he’s only speaking to the wealthy, which in my experience always means “people who have more money than I do.” In that case, we’ll all be fine.
But the disciples sold everything they had, too. Is that what’s expected of us? I don’t know anyone who believes that. There must be a loophole somewhere – something bigger than the eye of a needle.
Well, some get around these questions by identifying this passage as very culture-specific. The thinking goes something like this: The rich ruler was part of a cultural system that was “corrupt and corrupting,” and anyone who follows Jesus must distance themselves from “people who rule and profit most from it.”[ John R. Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 153.]
It’s not wealth that’s bad, it’s the environment. So whew, we’re off the hook, right?
Others say, no, it applies to us, too, but it’s not his wealth per se that is the problem, it’s more spiritual. Like other rich people in his day, this man has “become [so] self-righteous… that [he] merits divine condemnation.”[ Schneider, 145; citing Luke Timothy Johnson, Possessions in Luke-Acts, 145. ]
The issue is his self-righteousness, not his wealth. If we think we’re holier-than-thou, we’re in trouble.
Another answer is that he’s covetous. If you notice, when Jesus lists the commandments, he omits the one that says, “You shall not covet.” Maybe the rich ruler kept every commandment but that one, and that’s why Jesus left it out, to trap him. Which means we can keep our money as long as we don’t covet. [ Schneider, 145.]
Others would say, no, it’s about call. God calls different people along different paths, and some are called to leave their possessions – like the disciples, and the rich man; the problem is he refused to answer God’s call. [Luke Timothy Johnson, Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 60.]
Plenty of loopholes, some big enough for a camel to fly right through. No worries – we’re golden.
But something about that just doesn’t sit right.
There’s something else going on here. Something I never noticed before about this passage. Fred Craddock points it out in his commentary. Go back to that question the rich ruler asks Jesus. Do you remember it? The man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.
Think about it for a minute. What do you have to do to inherit anything? Just live long enough, right? You don’t inherit by doing a thing. You inherit because somebody put you in their will. You inherit because you were lucky enough to be the related to someone who had something to leave you. You inherit because somebody wanted to give you something – something you didn’t do anything to deserve.
You can do things to curry favor, you can do things to stay out of trouble, you can do things to earn a living or even invest well. But inherit? That’s completely out of your hands. [ Thanks to Craddock for this insight [p 213]]
That’s something that we call grace.
“Sell everything you have and follow me,” Jesus answers. Sell it all, every last bit. Because that stuff you own? You not only think that it’s yours. You think you got it on your own merits. You think you earned it, and you can earn salvation the same way. Here’s what I’ve got to say to all that, Jesus says: give it up.
I wish Jesus had made this easier. I wish he had said, give 5%, give 10%, even give 20%. But he says, give it all. Because all of it – all of it – is God’s. And if we want to live with God – eternal life, the rich man calls it – if we want that so bad we can taste it, there is only one way. By putting all of our possessions in God’s service.
I don’t know what that looks like for you. I can’t know that. I do know this much: it isn’t just ‘give what you can’, what’s left over when you’ve used everything else the way you want to. It isn’t just a token gift to ease your conscience, a little ‘thank you’ note to God. It’s not throwing what you happen to have on you in the offering plate like you’re leaving a tip for Jesus for good service.
I have a hunch it’s more like something like this: taking all the money you have in the bank, and your investment portfolio, and your 401k and your social security and your pension plan, and your pay stubs, and your tax return, and the deed to your house, and your life insurance policy, and all your good jewelry, and your car title, and your diploma – all that stuff, and whatever else you happen to have – laying it all out on the table and asking, “God, what do you want me to do with all this?”
Can you imagine? All that stuff you tell your financial planner about – can you imagine telling God about it, too?
For heaven’s sake, why not?