The gospel for this Sunday was the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Here’s what I said.
One of the biggest stories of the past week was the leaking of nearly 12 million documents revealing the hidden wealth, tax avoidance, and in some cases money laundering, of the world’s rich and powerful. Known as the Pandora Papers, the leaking of the documents shows how some of the most powerful people in the world manage to secretively hide away their wealth.
What is significant about the Pandora Papers is that they name names and provide documentary evidence. They highlight the way in which the rich and powerful will do their utmost to cover up their wealth and hide their financial activities.
But it struck me that this is not anything new. The Pandora Papers might give us names and details, but they don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about rich people in general. Because generally speaking, the rich have always wanted to hold on to their wealth and avoid sharing it with anyone else. It was as true at the time of Jesus as it is now. And one person in particular was really attached to his wealth – the rich man who accosts Jesus in our gospel reading this morning.
Mark tells us how Jesus is setting off on a journey when a man runs up and kneels in front of him. As we find out he is very rich, and he has a problem. He knows that there’s something about his life that he hasn’t got right and he can’t for the life of him see what it is. So he comes to Jesus seeking answers.
But Jesus can see exactly what it is and perhaps is even wondering why the rich man is oblivious. And, perhaps more interestingly, everyone else witnessing this encounter would have seen exactly what the man hasn’t got right.
Let’s think about what happens in this encounter. A rich man wants to inherit eternal life. But is he doing what he needs to? He needs reassurance. So he comes to see Jesus to find out what it is he needs to do that he isn’t yet doing. He has clearly recognised in Jesus someone who will be able to help him sort his problem out. And what is Jesus’ response? He reminds the man about the commandments – which the rich man would have known anyway – but perhaps Jesus knew that he, and those who witnessed this encounter, needed reminding.
Just look at what Jesus says: You know the commandments – you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.
And the rich man’s response is, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
And that’s the problem. Look again at what Jesus says, and his list of commandments. He’s quoting from the ten commandments, in fact listing the last six – the first four deal with our relationship with God and the last six deal with our relationships with each other.
And it’s these last six that Jesus quotes. But he gets one wrong – at least he appears to. Have you spotted the mistake? Who knows the ten commandments well enough to know which one that Jesus mentions isn’t one of them?
None of the ten commandments says you shall not defraud. Has Jesus simply got the commandments wrong by mistake? Of course not! No first-century Jew would ever get the commandments wrong. What Jesus has done is, seemingly quite deliberately, replace the commandment you shall not covet with the commandment you shall not defraud.
And this is why. We live in a capitalist society. Some people happen to be rich and unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary we assume that they have got rich legitimately and are free to use their riches how they wish as long as they do so within the law.
That’s not how it was in Jewish society at the time of Jesus. They were anything but a capitalist society. They lived – as far as they were able given that they were occupied by the Romans – under the law of God. And the law of God, as any intelligent reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, will show you is that equality and justice is at its heart. God repeatedly tells his people that this is what he wants. When it comes to ‘levelling up’, a term currently in vogue with some politicans, it was God who first came up with the concept.
And there was an understanding that in economic terms everyone was supposed to be equal. As one commentary I read this week puts it Economics were viewed as a zero-sum game (Apologetics Study Bible). And therefore if you were rich there was only one way you could be so. It was commonly understood that the rich had become rich by defrauding others of their fair share. Fraud was seen as the particular way covetousness – forbidden by the tenth commandment – showed itself in the rich.
And so when Jesus lists the commandments to the rich man, he reminds the rich man of the particular form of covetousness that everyone knew the rich were guilty of – fraud. Jesus has recognised that this is where the rich man is falling down.
So how does the rich man respond? Well, he clearly doesn’t get the point. Everyone else would have! Everyone else would have understood what Jesus was saying. But he misses it entirely. And he goes on to reply to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And there is the problem. He hasn’t. Jesus knows, and everyone else knows, that since he is rich he has broken the commandment of covetousness because he can only have become rich by defrauding others. But he can’t see it for himself.
And it’s obvious what he needs to do but he just can’t bring himself to acknowledge it. So Jesus points it out to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Essentially what Jesus is saying to the rich man is, your one problem is that you haven’t kept all the commandments, even though you think you have, because there’s one you’ve broken – you have coveted to the extent that you have defrauded others of their rightful share. So put things right by selling your riches and giving the money back to the poor where it belongs.
And as we know from the story the rich man is shocked by the response from Jesus. And he goes away grieving for he had many possessions. He is faced with a dilemma. Eternal life or continuing to break one of the commandments. Mark never tells us whether he was able to overcome that grief and give his possessions away or not. Perhaps he was, in the end, able to embrace that one thing that Jesus says he lacked. We shall never know.
One thing we do know is this. Jesus’ words to the rich man about his wealth apply to all of us. I’ve heard preachers over the years say, “We don’t have to worry – Jesus is only speaking to the rich man, he doesn’t mean we all have to sell what we own and give away the money to the poor!”
Well, I’m sorry, but there’s no way you can read that into the text. Jesus goes on to make clear to his disciples that wealth is a problem for everyone. “How hard,” he says to them, “it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
But don’t worry – I’m not going to go on about wealth and riches this morning and tell you to sell everything you own to give to the poor. Rather I want to go back and think about the question the rich man asks Jesus at the beginning of our gospel reading, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Because it seems to me that this gospel reading is as much about how we might respond to the answer Jesus would have given if we had been in the rich man’s position.
Imagine that you are there, on that day, instead of the rich man. Imagine that you are before Jesus. You are there, just where the rich man was, kneeling in front of Jesus, and you put the question that you so desperately want the answer to, “Good Teacher, What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And just as he looked at the rich man with the eyes of love and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on you with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is you need to do.
And Jesus first establishes that you are already keeping the commandments, as he did with the rich man, because if you’re not already at least trying to keep the commandments that needs sorting out first. And not just the last six about our relationships with one another, but the first four about our relationship with God as well! And then he says to you, just as he said to the rich man,“You lack one thing …”
How do you think he might finish that sentence, speaking to you? “You lack one thing …” What might that one thing be for you? Don’t be like the rich man and make yourself believe that you’re keeping all the commandments – we all fall down somewhere. What might that one thing be that you lack?
Only Jesus, and you if you are willing to listen, can know the answer. The rich man was not keeping one of the commandments. What is the commandment, or commandments, that you struggle with? Be honest with yourself. The rich man couldn’t be, yet Jesus knew, just as he knows what we struggle with. And the answer Jesus gives to each one of us will be deeply personal. What is it that we do, or don’t do, that gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus or our ability to live as he wants us to?
The problem might even be that you believe – and it’s a dangerous belief but many Christians have it – that there is absolutely nothing in your life that you need to change or to deal with because actually you’re a good, upstanding, moral Christian already. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What is the answer Jesus gives to you?
We might feel that to acknowledge what Jesus says to us deep down in our hearts, to deal with whatever it is Jesus says is the thing we lack or have to deal with, would just be a step too far. And we’d have to go away, like the rich man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly. And so we choose to just struggle on as we are.
Don’t be like the rich man. Don’t go away. Stay, kneeling at the feet of Jesus, and let him help you to achieve what might seem impossible. Let him help you deal with those things that seem just too difficult to deal with, or too hard to give up. Those things that Jesus has said to you when he said, “One thing you lack …” Trust that Jesus means it when he says, “For God all things are possible.”
And then do what Jesus told the rich man to do – follow him. Follow Jesus with all that you are and all that you own at his disposal – with your whole life centred on him and the kingdom of God.