Sabbath Day Thoughts: “Possessed” Mark 10:17-31
Americans don’t like to talk about money. In May, Business Insider Magazine conducted a poll of 2,130 people to determine the topics they were most likely to discuss with friends. Last on the list was money, outranked by current events, family, health, sex, relationships, and politics.
Rachel Sherman, a sociologist with the New School, reports that how we feel about discussing money may be determined by how much we have. Affluent Americans say they are circumspect about money because they don’t want their lower-wage-earning friends to feel bad. Middle income Americans tend to shy away from the topic of money because they may be economically fragile—the cost of their kid’s college education, a surge in healthcare expenses, or an unexpected big-ticket home repair can leave them reeling with more month than money. Working class Americans are much more transparent about money. They freely discuss the challenges or even impossibilities of supporting a family on minimum wage work. They swap ideas about how they stretch their dollars and cut corners.
Kimberly Chong, an anthropology lecturer at University College, London, teaches that at the heart of the taboo on money talk is a cultural belief that money is associated with personal worth. Social status, power, and respect are tied to our paychecks and our bank accounts. It’s like that bumper sticker, “The boy, who dies with the most toys, wins.” That sort of thinking is uncomfortable in a democracy where we affirm the equality of all citizens, even as we acknowledge the reality of income inequality and the concentration of wealth.
We don’t like to talk about money, if we can help it. We really don’t like talking about it in church. Perhaps my calling our attention to the topic has got you feeling uncomfortable—or wishing that I would change the subject.
Jesus didn’t have any trouble talking about money. He talked about it a lot. Indeed, the only topic that Jesus talked about more than money was the Kingdom of God. If you counted, you would see that eleven of Jesus’ thirty-nine parables are about money. Today’s reading from Mark’s gospel speaks frankly about the tension that can exist between our understanding of earthly riches and Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God.
As Jesus and his friends were departing on a missionary journey, a rich man stopped them and asked the Lord an urgent question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In Jesus’ day, eternal life was just another way of saying the Kingdom of God. Jesus sounded impatient as he counted off the requirements of the Torah: no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, no fraud, be sure to honor your parents. Perhaps feeling relieved, the man was quick to share that he was all about that sort of righteous living.
Mark gives us a window into Jesus’ feelings. The Lord, seeing the rich man and hearing of his obedience, loved the man. Jesus saw that it was this man’s heartfelt desire to love God and love his neighbor as himself. This man had disciple written all over him. And so, Jesus extended to him the same invitation he had made to Levi the tax collector and Peter, Andrew, James, and John, the fishermen: “Follow me.”
When the rich man heard the cost of discipleship, he balked. The thought of selling his property, and parting with the proceeds made his heart skip a beat, tied his stomach in knots, and sent his mind scampering down rabbit trails of worry and fear. The rich man went away grieving. The Greek word that describes how the man felt is stugnasas. It means shocked, surprised, and in sorrow. The man had a crisis of character. He turned away from Jesus, unable to accept what the Lord asked of him.
It’s a story that is hard to hear and perhaps harder to understand. Even the disciples struggled with what Jesus had to say about the rich man and camels passing through needles’ eyes. In the ancient near east, wealth was seen as a blessing from God. From the point of view of the disciples, this rich man was one of God’s beloved ones. How else could he have amassed that land, those homes, those belongings, those slaves? It didn’t make sense to the twelve. If the rich man wasn’t first in line at the pearly gates, then who could be saved?
Over the centuries, Bible scholars and preachers have grappled with how best to interpret this tough story, a story that questions our relationship with God and money. The monastic tradition has long looked to this passage as a proof text for vows of voluntary poverty. Postulants of the Franciscan, Claretians, and other religious orders take vows of poverty upon entrance, renouncing their worldly possessions. What they own becomes the community’s and is used or disposed of for the benefit of all.
In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, our spiritual ancestor John Calvin taught that the rich man’s problem was more than money. The rich man wanted to know what he must “do” to inherit eternal life. For Calvin, that smacked of works’ righteousness, as if we earn our way into God’s Kingdom by accruing God’s particular favor with good deeds. Eternal life, Calvin taught, is God’s freely given gift for all who place their trust in Jesus. We cannot earn our way into heaven, but God’s grace makes the impossible possible for us.
During stewardship season, generations of preachers have used this story to invite us to be generous givers. The rich man makes us question what we truly value. Is it Jesus and a life spent in his company, or is it our money and the things that we possess? In our love for Jesus, we are inspired, maybe not to sell all that we have, but to hold our possessions loosely. We prayerfully consider how our abundance may be used in Jesus’ purpose. We live generously as a blessing to church and community.
I think those are all valid and responsible ways of preaching about the rich man. Some are called to a life of voluntary poverty and radical sharing. Heaven is ours only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are, indeed, blessed to be a blessing to our church and others. Ultimately, all we have and all we are belongs to God, whether we are rich men and women, or middle-class families, or the working poor who live so creatively on so little.
But the story of the rich man goes deeper than all that. Jesus calls us to question the core assumptions and the cultural beliefs about money that possess our society. Jesus contradicts the premise that our personal worth is tied to our net worth. That assumption prompts us to value some people over others. It’s a short leap from there to what the disciples presumed: that the rich man’s wealth was a sign of God’s special favor.
But that wasn’t how Jesus saw the world. Jesus loved the rich man. Yet, Jesus also loved those low-status, vulnerable children whom he hugged and blessed. Jesus loved those disciples, who struggled to understand his teaching. That abundant and overflowing love of Jesus was a reflection of God’s love. After all, God so loved the world that God sent the beloved son to die for us.
At the close of today’s reading, Jesus told his friends that those core cultural beliefs that we hold about personal worth and net worth don’t apply in the Kingdom of God. There, many who are first will be last and the last will be first. Jesus invited his friends—Jesus invites us—to let go of our false assumptions. We are called to envision a world where the penniless Haitian migrant at the southern border is as loved by God as the billionaire businessman. It’s a world where the illiterate day laborer is of equal value to the university professor. It’s a world where the residents of Edgewood House, and others who are reliant upon the social safety net, are every bit as valued and beloved as those who are enjoying a leaf-peeping getaway at The Point this weekend. That’s some radical stuff, Jesus.
If we accept what Jesus has to say, it will change how we see not only our neighbors but also our possessions. If our personal worth isn’t incumbent upon the size of our paychecks or our 401Ks or our brokerage accounts, then it gets easier to live generously and share freely. Our abundance becomes a way to shape a world where all may know that they are the beloved by our limitlessly loving God. That’s an invitation to discipleship that can make us feel stugnasas—shocked, surprised, or in sorrow. Or, Jesus’s invitation just might grant us a foretaste of the Kingdom to come and the life eternal. Jesus says, “Follow me.” How will we respond?
Black, C. Clifton. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Loudenback, Tanza. “A Survey of 2,000 Americans Found . . .” in Insider: Business Magazine. Accessed online at businessinsider.com.
Menendez-Atun͂a,Luis. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 10, 2021. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Pinsker, Joe. “Why So Many Americans Don’t Talk about Money” in The Atlantic, March 2, 2020. Accessed online at theatlantic.com.
Thompson, James J. “Theological Perspective on Mark 10:17-31” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.