The Rich man

Mark 10:17-31 

As Jesus was starting on his way again, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?”

Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone.”

You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; do not cheat; respect your father and your mother.

“Teacher,” the man said, “ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments.”

Jesus looked straight at him with love and said, “You need only one thing. Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.

When the man heard this, gloom spread over his face, and he went away sad, because he was very rich.

Jesus looked around at his disciples and said to them, “How hard it will be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God!

The disciples were shocked at these words, but Jesus went on to say, “My children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!

“It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

At this the disciples were completely amazed and asked one another, “Who, then, can be saved?”

Jesus looked straight at them and answered, “This is impossible for human beings but not for God; everything is possible for God.

Then Peter spoke up, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

Yes,” Jesus said to them, “and I tell you that those who leave home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and for the gospel, will receive much more in this present age. They will receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields—and persecutions as well; and in the age to come they will receive eternal life.” 

“But many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first.

Commentary:

The rich man is a favorite Bible story, because it helps us in our attitude; toward God and toward our fellow man. bringing to mind that we should share our wealth with the poor and thus gain entrance to heaven and eternal life.  But the story is less about money than it is about power and God’s blessings.

It should be said that being rich in Bible stories was not looked down upon. Great Bible figures were very wealthy in the worldly sense of the word; Genesis tells us that Abraham (Abrahm) was very wealthy; when the Israelites lived in Egypt they became rich; Job was rich before he was tested, and after as well; and Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the wealthy class when he offered his own tomb for the body of Jesus.

In those times of Roman occupation and Roman taxes, there was no middle class. People were either wealthy or poor, and the wealthy usually received their wealth from the poor. The wealthy were considered to be blessed by God to have accumulated wealth and were considered to be on a higher rank than the average poor person, and were always first in line in every consideration.

Jesus had just finished preaching to large crowds in Judea and outmaneuvered Pharisees who tried to trap him into blaspheming the Law of Moses with regards to marriage.

He finished by gathering and blessing the children, considered the lowest rank or last in society, showing what he says in this passage, that the last shall be first in God’s kingdom.

Then a man rushes up, kneels before him, and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?”

The rich man evidently has been watching Jesus preach and is convinced that he is a rabbi or teacher, and maybe a prophet. He wants Jesus to explain to him how he can get eternal life; very important to him as he ages.

The man had asked an unusual question. Jesus never cared much for these “what do I have to do?” questions. He shows his disregard of it. “Why do you call me good?

Translations say the question asker was a rich man, probably deduced from his clothing and jewelry . His statement that he has been obeying the commandments of Moses since he was a young man places him at least at middle age, in those days perhaps about thirty, since the average life expectancy was about forty. In some translations, the rich man is described as a ruler (Luke 18 NKJV), a member of the aristocracy. In Matthew’s account of this story (Matthew 19:22), he refers to him as a young man.

Matthew was a tax collector, a responsible position appointed by Roman authority. It is likely the Romans would have chosen an older, more responsible man. Since life expectancy maxed out at about 40 years in those times, Matthew may have been close to that age, or at least in his high thirties. Jesus was a young man to him, and the rich man could have been around Jesus’ age.

We have no way of knowing how the rich man received his wealth. He may have inherited some or all of it, but he seems to be an action man, asking Jesus “what must I do to receive eternal life?” as if there is a project plan for him to follow. The resurrection of the dead was a relatively common belief in first century Israel.

It is not clear that the man considers Jesus anything more than a wandering preacher. But after his dominant interaction with the Pharisees, it seems to him that Jesus intimately knows the laws of Moses.

The first thing Jesus does is step off the pedestal the rich man has put him on. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. “No one is good except God alone.” What Jesus seems to be saying is why do you think I know? I’m a man just like you.

He responds to the question anyway. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; do not cheat; respect your father and your mother.

Jesus adds a new ‘do not cheat‘ commandment. If the rich man has built his sizable fortune through business dealings, were they all honest or did he take advantage?

Matthew describes the conversation a little differently. Jesus answers the man’s question with “Keep the commandments if you want to enter life.” And the rich man comes back with, “What commandments?” He is a negotiater making a deal.

It is odd at this point that Jesus only summarizes the commandments concerned with relationships with people. He does not summarize the first commandments about relationship with God.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus adds “love your neighbor as yourself” to the list.

The rich man again puts Jesus on the pedestal, looking for approval; “Teacher, ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments.” Another negotiation, as the rich man affirms he has obeyed the commandments Jesus listed. He has not cheated anyone.

Ninety percent of the people in the Galilee area lived at a subsistence level even in good times. With the Roman conquest, and the increase in the power of the local aristocracy, the people were getting poorer; and what little people had was being taken away.

From the point of view of the common people, the rich and powerful had often acquired their possessions through trickery and deceit. But the rich man says he has achieved a spiritual feat that only Moses and Abraham had been said to have achieved, and he immodestly claims that he deserves the rewards that that accomplishment brings.

Jesus is not interested in the man’s personal piety. He is unimpressed with this man falling down in front of him and giving him an honored title. He’s little interested in someone who wants to skip over this life to get to the next one.

Jesus has a way of looking at people and seeing deep into their hearts. Perhaps the rich man had his fingers crossed behind his back. Now Jesus switches his emphasis to the first commandment without ever reminding the rich man what it is. Jesus looks straight at him, right into his eyes, and says to him with love, because now he is going to deliver the bad news. Here is your action plan;. here is what you must do.

Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.”

Jesus was telling him, you are an action person…here is your four-step action plan. You want eternal life; this is what you must do. This is the price. Go…Sell all you have…Give the money to the poor…Then come and follow me.

Perhaps Jesus did not discuss the first commandment because he knew the rich man had not kept it. His wealth was his god and he held it in higher esteem than God.

Because when the man heard this, gloom spread over his face, and he went away sad, because he was very rich. He knows he will never be able to complete all the steps. He wants eternal life now, not in heaven. The price is too high…all he has? He has worked too hard to accumulate his wealth. He can’t get his mind around how he will live without his wealth.

And treasures in heaven? How is he going to spend money in heaven? And so he is only able to complete the first step of the action plan – Go; and he went away.

When Jesus instructed the rich man to sell what he has and give to the poor, he did not say he had to reduce himself to poverty. It may be semantics, but Jesus is telling him he just has to learn to give. But the rich man misses the point; it is too much for him. The man is all about getting and achieving. He acquires; he does not give.

The rich man compartmentalizes his faith. He thought about his faith when he was in the temple, but not when he was balancing his ledgers. Jesus’ message to the man was that his faith should influence all aspects of his life, since how he spent his money had a great impact on the welfare of his neighbors. Sharing what he had would bless him as much or more than those who received it.

Jesus commands him out of love to give away what he has. His wealth has masked his dependence on God and his neighbors by creating a sense of independence, of not needing anyone.

We all miss the point.  There are three types of riches; wealth in money, wealth in power, and a wealth of blessings from God.   The rich man’s focus is on his money, and his money gives him a wealth of power.  When Jesus tells the rich man to sell all he has, he is telling him to trade his power for the wealth of God’s blessings.

Next, Jesus looks around at his disciples and tries to educate them; “How hard it will be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples are shocked at these words, but Jesus goes on to emphasize, “My children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

The disciples are more than worried. If this rich guy can’t get into heaven, who can? Aren’t riches a sign of God’s blessing? Aren’t the people at the top of the economic ladder first in God’s eyes? Jesus says not even close. Everything is reversed in God’s kingdom.

Jesus looked straight at them and answered, “This is impossible for human beings but not for God; everything is possible for God.” Even if the rich think they have the power, it is only power useful in this life, meaningless for getting into heaven.

Then Peter spoke up, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Peter missed the point that, to Jesus, personal sacrifice is not important to him. Peter thinks that he and the other disciples should be held in special esteem for all their sacrifices. Jesus responds more generally.

Yes,” Jesus said to them, “and I tell you that those who leave home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and for the gospel, will receive much more in this present age. They will receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields—and persecutions as well; and in the age to come they will receive eternal life.”

Jesus is saying to them that God’s kingdom has a present as well as a spiritual reality and those who follow him for the gospel will receive a hundredfold more in this present age, in God’s time or kairos; but they will receive persecutions as well. They will receive eternal life in the hereafter.

<But many who are now first will be last, and many who are now last will be first,” is his sum-up statement.

The adoration of the rich and famous exists in our society today, as it does in many societies. We hold them in high esteem as powerful and blessed by God.

Jesus puts forth that God reverses the order of society and those at the bottom level, like the poor, the orphans and widows will be served first.  But not all who are now first will be last, it is many; it is still possible to squeeze through the eye of the needle–very difficult, but not impossible, especially with God’s help.

We, today are that rich man, benefiting from the wealthiest economy the world has known, controlling more than our share of resources, still wanting more, and gaining it by any means necessary. The morality of that rich man puts ours to shame.

We ask the same question. What must we do? I don’t think we want to know.

Jesus points us to something we missed, because we know we cannot pass through the eye of a needle without giving up our power.  Jesus points us to utter trust and reliance upon God’s goodness—the unconditional ground that makes the impossible possible.

When Jesus tells his disciples “It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he is referring to the egos of rich people who think they have power over and can control those who control no one.

A person with an ego the size of a camel cannot pass through a portal made for people who believe they control nothing.  The way a rich person can enter the kingdom of heaven is to give power away and be open to being filled with the goodness of God’s blessings.

The Rich man cannot conceive of this concept.

Eternal life is not something that is earned; it is an exchange of gifts with God. And for all of us? We must learn to share our wealth with those at the bottom, the last in line.  We must learn to give away our power to make room for the wealth of God’s blessings.  And most of all, we must keep the first commandment. Then all the other commandments will be kept, as well.

Jesus on How the Rich Get to Heaven (Mark 10:17-25)