Mark 10:17-31
March 10, 2002


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church

During January term of my Junior Year in college, I enrolled in an elective course entitled “Contemporary Theology.” The course was taught by a guest professor about whom I knew nothing at the time, but the topic caught my attention, and the majority of my friends signed up to take the class as well. It met for just two weeks, so I assumed that the expectations would be modest. I’ll never forget the class’ collective response when we read through the syllabus for the first time. We had to read ten books, complete additional collateral reading in related journals, write two papers, do a class presentation, and take a comprehensive essay exam. Believe me, it’s true. I checked the syllabus in my file drawer this morning to make sure that I wasn’t exaggerating. Just ask Arthur Climenhaga–he was the teacher! I wondered, at first, if he was serious. I soon found out that he was.

Much the same sense of bewilderment often enters our minds as we encounter this passage in Mark 10:17-31. You will recall that, in1:1-8:30, Mark recounts various events during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee in order to present us with a picture of who Jesus is–he is single-minded, caring, awesome, and balanced, yet capable of feeling intensely frustrated when his would-be followers continually fail to “catch-on” to his teaching. In 8:31-10:52, however, attention shifts toward Jerusalem and the price that Jesus will soon pay to save the world. “Being God’s chosen one,” Jesus informed his bewildered disciples in 8:31, “will cost me my life.” “Being my followers,” Jesus alarmingly continued, “will cost you yours.” “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Having stated the general terms of following him–radical self-denial–Jesus now continues to provide examples–case-studies–of what self-denial actually involves.

Here in Mark 10:17-31, an unnamed man approaches Jesus. The same story appears also in Matthew and Luke, and we have come to know this man as the “rich young ruler.” Interestingly, Matthew alone informs us that he was young (19:22), and only Luke informs us that he was a ruler (18:18). All three, however–Matthew, Mark and Luke–clearly tell us that he was rich. In our story, this unnamed rich man approaches Jesus and asks how he might gain eternal life. In response, Jesus repeats the core commandments—“You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery,” and so on. Without apparent hesitation, the man suggests that he has in fact kept all of these commandments since he was a child. One might very well expect Jesus to laugh at this point. “Get serious,” we wait for him to say. “Are you arrogant or delusional?”

But Jesus never says any such thing. Instead, Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. When you think about the love of Jesus, what comes to mind? When do you sense the love of Jesus the most? Is it when something turns out well for you? Is it perhaps when things clearly go your way–something wonderful happens–and you feel overcome by the love of God? “God is good,” we then say. Notice, however, what genuine love pushes Jesus to do here as he interacts further with this rich seeker. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Please understand this. It’s the love of Jesus that leads him to place such seemingly outrageous expectations upon this rich man. It’s the love of Jesus, not any desire on his part to be judgmental or unreasonable, that causes him to probe to the very core of this man’s values. Jesus’ instructions, as demanding as they might be, are rooted in his profound and lasting love for this man.

I understand this very well with respect to human relationships, and so do many of you if you take a moment and stop to think about it. When a situation requires you to confront an obvious “sore spot” in someone else’s life, that other person’s defenses typically go up rather quickly. You’ve no doubt experienced this in various contexts. You’ve confronted a friend at school about something they are doing that you believe will eventually cause them harm. You have genuinely sought to help your spouse work through a problem area that has caused pain for a long time. You have had to go face to face with one of your children and insist that they stop doing something that might very well hurt them or even destroy them. Why do these things? Why confront a friend who is making terrible choices? Why encourage your spouse to deal with troublesome areas in his or her life? Why insist that your son or daughter dissociate from potentially harmful behaviors and activities? There are, I realize, a great number of wrong reasons why we might do these things, but there is also a very good reason. Love. We confront such people because we love them. Because we want them to be all that they can be. But it is difficult at times, isn’t it, to help the other person realize that we are on their side. Let me say it again to make sure that it is unmistakably clear: Jesus instructs this man to give up his possessions because he loves him.

Why, however, does Jesus specify possessions? Why does he ask that this man surrender his wealth? Why, for that matter, is money the second-most common theme running throughout all of the Bible? One might imagine several reasons, I suppose, but these seem to rise to the top. Money, first of all, has a seductive and even addictive quality to it. Money makes attractive promises, and you can never get quite enough of it. It promises you happiness, lasting satisfaction, and security during times of trouble. Money, sometimes so quietly and subtly, teases you into wanting more and more, and it inevitably blurs your ability to distinguish between what you genuinely need and what you simply want. Before long, we begin to mistake all of our wants for needs, and we find ourselves trapped in this incessant and unending quest for more.

The warnings in Scripture about the seductive powers of money are ones that we do not have to take on faith alone. Just look around you for first-hand evidence. There are obviously absurd examples, as when Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox held out of training camp last year because he felt underpaid, even though he earned over ten million dollars a year. But forget about that. Dwelling on such ridiculous examples only tends to cloud our minds to the ordinary symptoms of money’s addictive tendencies. People working too many hours to achieve financial security. People living beyond their means, dependant upon multiple incomes and struggling under the stress of credit cards that are maxed out. People accumulating far more than they will ever need, even if they live to be two hundred. Make no mistake about it. Money has seductive and addictive qualities, and before long, it begins to take the place of God himself.

I remember a time in seminary when a fellow student experienced significant hardship. Sickness hit his family, and everything he owned seemed to breakdown and malfunction. One afternoon, I vividly heard the Lord tell me to give this student the last $100.00 that Deb and I had in our bank account! There we were, working hard to pay our way through my seminary years, and God asked us to give our final $100.00 away. Being the spiritual giant that I was at the time, I said “no!” Fortunately, I am married to a woman who cares more about listening to God than she does about money. “Give it to them,” she said when I informed her about the situation. So I did. Regardless of how little we might have, money can enslave us.

Jesus knows this, and his love for the rich man requires that he abruptly call his attachment to wealth into question. He doesn’t want this man to settle for money when all of heaven is available to him. He doesn’t want to see this man devote his time and energy to something that ultimately matters very little. And so, like a parent who recognizes the addictive qualities of drugs and insists that his son or daughter give them up before they ruin their lives, so Jesus tries to free this man of his dependency on wealth.

But Jesus, I think, has more in mind than simply liberating this man from his unhealthy financial attachments. It’s so easy for us as we consider Jesus’ demands upon our lives to consider only what we are asked to give up, as though the Lord derives great pleasure from taking things away from us. What a morbid but common way to look at Jesus. Listen carefully. Jesus isn’t like that. He doesn’t take things away from us just for the fun of it. He doesn’t ask us to do something merely to prevent us from doing whatever it is that we really want to do. The Jesus of the Bible just isn’t like that–he’s not petty, trite, and nasty. When he asks something of us, he invariably has something wonderful in mind.

So it is with this rich man. When Jesus asks him to give up his money, he is in reality inviting him to participate in an unbelievable project. Although the world God originally created was very good, something happened to throw everything out of whack. The world in which we now live is fallen–it’s broken. Wherever you look, you can find corruption and poverty and injustice and drug abuse and people who are desperately in need of the Lord. As a result, God is now focusing his creative energies on “recreating” this world–he refuses to simply throw it away. And here is yet another mystery–he asks us to help!

“Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” Jesus instructs this rich man. Your money, so worthless and even harmful if you cling to it, can be a tool in God’s all-out assault on evil in the world. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, though ultimately directed toward the salvation of souls, is proclaimed and lived out in a world of real and tangible needs, a world where people need to be fed and clinics need to be built and schools need to be established and churches need to be planted and new believers need to be discipled. You talk about an exciting and exhilarating project! Such activities, of course, cost money, money that the Lord invites this rich man and all of his followers to contribute. Money is a tool–a powerful tool. Once its seductive and addictive tendencies are recognized and destroyed, money can be released to help change the world for God’s glory.

In a profound sense, when Jesus asks this rich man to give his money away, he is really encouraging the man to imitate himself and his heavenly Father. God, by his very nature, gives. He gives. From start to finish, Scripture depicts a God who gives and gives and gives. He provides Adam and Eve with a garden in which to live. He gives Abraham and his descendants a homeland to call their own. He provides prophets to help his people stay on the right track. This giving God went so far as to give his only Son in order to win this sinful world back to himself. Our God is a giving god, and the Lord Jesus is a giving lord, and all committed followers are asked to give as well. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians (5:1), “and live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” In giving, we act like God, and what a wonderful thing that can be.

It occurred perhaps during my second year at the college. The director of campus ministries told me about an international student who was experiencing considerable financial difficulty. My family decided to share some money with this student, so we placed $100.00 in an envelope and simply wrote his name on it. We went to the campus center, where Tim and Jordan, who were just little boys at the time, excitedly dropped the envelope into campus mail. How we wished we could see the student’s face when he opened the envelope! Giving can be an absolutely exhilarating thing.

“Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Jesus lovingly announces to the rich man. And in so doing, Jesus wants desperately to help this man. Jesus wants to free him from his obsession with money. He wants to empower him to use his resources for the greatest cause ever known–building the kingdom of God here on earth. In short, Jesus wants this man to imitate God himself by learning to give, and give, and give some more.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have read this somewhat frightening passage and arrived at various conclusions and interpretations. Some have said that we should literally sell everything that we have and give the proceeds to the poor. Others have read the story about Jesus and the rich man as a sort of symbolic encounter–a simple warning to all of us that we should trust in God rather than in other things. At the very least, let me provide a few modest suggestions to help us along the way:
1. Recognize that everything you have, regardless of how hard you have worked, is a gift from God.
2. Joyfully accept your call to participate with God in redeeming the world.
3. View your material resources as powerful tools in carrying out this redemptive work.
4. Live within your means, and create financial margins so that you avoid burdensome monetary stress.
5. Begin, regardless of your economic situation, to give the 1st tenth of your earnings to God and his church.
6. Plan intentionally so that your giving increases as your resources increase. Do not simply accumulate.

Mark 10:17-31 is a tough passage. A demanding passage. It’s one of those texts that everything within me wants to domesticate and tame. When I read it, it’s easy to wonder, as I did in Dr. Climenhaga’s class, if Jesus is really serious. Whatever we ultimately decide to do with it, I can’t help but ponder Lamar Williamson’s nagging words: “If this message does not take our breath away, if we are not shocked, appalled, grieved, or amazed, we have either not yet heard it or heard it so often that we do not really hear it any more.”