Note: Bible studies are usually more interactive than this. If there is something you want to ask or comment upon, please email me. My goal here is clarity as we get to know one book of the Bible very well. Please let me know when something isn’t quite clear. – Thanks, Pastor Rick.
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Today’s passage continues the themes of yesterday’s passage very nicely, but adds to our understanding of questions of wealth, goodness and mercy.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
These starting words can take us aback: With all our hopes for being good enough, Jesus is saying that none of us, even him, are good. So, only God is good enough to save us from the power of our sins. We would say that it is the goodness of God through Jesus Christ, but he is emphasizing that there is nothing we can do that is good enough to earn or inherit heaven.
In answer to the young man’s questions, Jesus quotes a few of the commandments. To this the young man has a quick answer.
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
So this eager and idealist young man stands before Jesus, and Jesus loved him for it (like a proud father), but Jesus mentions the final step towards righteousness. He tells the young man to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor,
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
This moment feels devastating and the young man has a broken heart. We don’t know if he is driven by personal considerations or if his wealth supports other family members. In any event, we can see that he feels trapped by his wealth and cannot step away from it so easily. The main point is that he has trusted his wealth and is not ready to trust God alone.
This moment calls for people to trust God rather than trusting money and property. To people in a capitalist society like ours it sounds like Socialism or Communism, but it is really about trusting God enough to do away with the things that we cling to for security. In that first century world which the rich young man lived, most people had very objects to hold on to for security. So, it was easier for them to give away what they had to follow Jesus.
Back to the book of Acts and on up to the present day, there have been millions of Christians who showed extreme devotion by joining monastic orders. Every monk and nun would enter that life by giving up all their personal possessions. It has been a sign of devotion throughout the history of the church. There are protestant groups that have monastic women and men as well, but the great majority is still among the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is not seen as a requirement to be saved, but a way of dedicating all of one’s trust and efforts to God.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
For people who haven’t heard it before, Jesus’ words can be shocking. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” It was hard for the disciples because the rich men in their communities were often seen as the most holy and respectable people. Only rich men could afford to spend much time to study in the synagogue. It was the rich who paid most of a synagogue’s expenses. A fair number of teachers (rabbis) came from affluent families. Although the disciples knew of some rich people that were evil, they also imagined that the righteous all came from wealth. It was still a common belief that wealth was God’s reward for being good.
So the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus goes back to his starting point that only God is good. “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” So, the rich enter eternal life the same way the poor get there… through God’s mercy and not their own merits.
By first century standards, most of us are extremely wealthy. We have food, shelter, and clothing beyond their wildest dreams. Most of us would see a visit to the palace of Caesar and Herod as being places of beautiful stonework, but drafty, dark, and without basic amenities. We would feel like we were “roughing it.” So, the words about rich people, apply to us.
Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
In response to Peter’s statement, Jesus points out that we are led into something larger when we follow him. We give up little comparatively little wealth to inherit the world and what comes after. If we lose family ties in following Jesus, we also gain hundreds more of brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children. By moving our trust from money to God we gain everything.
In the early chapters of the Book of Acts, we are told that the early church tried to function as a communal unit, where people pooled all their resources together for the common good, but this early arrangement (that resembles communism) didn’t last very long. Within a couple decades, it clear that some Christians are maintaining their wealthy status and using that wealth to support the church in Jerusalem, and the missionary journeys of people like Paul.
So, wealthy people do not have to surrender their wealth, but they have an important role in the care of the poor and marginalized. If you are wealthy, you are called to use it for the sake of those who need physical, emotional, and spiritual support. We are given our wealth to do good works in the eyes of God, but we know that they are never “good enough” to win us a place in heaven.
One Christian I admired very much was a wealthy American writer named James Michener, who wrote many novels that topped the “best sellers” lists. He was raised in the relatively small Quaker tradition of Christianity in Pennsylvania. As best can be determined, he gave away much more than 90% of his earning away in his lifetime. He lived a modest middle-class life but gave more than a hundred million dollars to charities, libraries, universities, missionaries, and churches. He died in 1997, but his generosity still helps many people in need. Still, he was far from being a perfect person, and he openly depended on God’s forgiveness to enter eternal life.
All people, rich and poor, sinners of many different sorts, all enter eternal life through mercy and God’s transforming love.
Questions to Ponder: If you were given unlimited amounts of money, how much would be enough to meet your needs? How do you think the wealthiest people in society should behave?