The Poverty of Riches
Three of the four gospel writers include an episode that must have been quite impressive to them. This would be the time when Jesus was approached by the rich young ruler. In the dialogue between Jesus and this man we learn what an important influence money can have on our spiritual lives and how great the demands and rewards of discipleship really are. We see that the wealthy are in fact "poorer" in God's sight than the poor because their wealth is a great obstacle in entering the kingdom that the poor do not have.
The Rich Young Ruler and Jesus
First let's take a look at the story as Mark recounts it in his gospel.
17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.
- Mark 10:17-18
Luke calls this wealthy young man a "ruler" because he was the leader of a local synagogue, despite his young age. He approaches Jesus with great enthusiasm (ran to Him) and respect (kneels). He calls Him "good" teacher which was against Jewish custom and for which Jesus rebukes him (only God was qualified as good and this man did not recognize Jesus as divine). He also asks a sincere question which is at the heart of the human condition.
What to do to inherit eternal life?
Of course the question reveals his problem. He thinks that eternal life is based on what you do and he wants Jesus to tell him the thing he hasn't done yet because he thinks he's done everything and still he doesn't have eternal life! Very religious but still unfulfilled.
19 You know the commandments, 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" 20 And he said to Him, "Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up."
- Mark 10:19-20
Now we know that there are two ways to gain eternal life:
- Obey all the commandments of God perfectly and you have eternal life.
- Have faith in Christ and receive eternal life as a gift from God.
God, through the Law and the prophets, had tried to show the Jews that they were incapable of keeping His law and so they had to rely on faith in order to have eternal life. Jesus asks this man a question to draw out of him which way he was pursuing his salvation. By answering that he had obeyed all the commandments since the age of reason (youth), the man revealed several things about himself:
- He had no idea how demanding God's commands really were, and how woefully short man fell in his efforts to obey them. For example, he thought adultery meant taking another man's wife but God defines adultery as simply lusting after a woman in your mind (Matthew 5:27-28). Quite a difference, quite impossible for a lifetime.
- It also revealed that he was seeking eternal life through a method of perfect obedience which he deluded himself into thinking he had done. For example, he had already sinned by attributing to a person he thought to be a man, a word used only for God. This man was seeking for the right thing with the right person, but he was mistaken about his own condition and the way one could obtain eternal life.
Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, "One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
- Mark 10:21
Jesus wants to give him a reality check so he gives him something "to do" which reveals his sinfulness to himself. He was wealthy, so he tells him to distribute his wealth to the poor and come follow Him in order to have eternal life. The young man comes face to face with something he "cannot" do because his sin of greed or possessiveness won't let him.
For the first time in his life he's faced with the weight of the Law, crushing him, showing him that its demands are greater than his ability to obey. He was at the point where his eyes could have been opened; he could have cried out to Jesus to save him because this demand was too great; he was too weak, too sinful to obtain eternal life through perfect obedience.
And Jesus would have saved him; faith would have given him the strength to do what Jesus wanted; Jesus may have even given him back his wealth, now that he understood that salvation was by faith in Him and not perfect obedience to the law.
But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
- Mark 10:22
But this would not be. His inability to accept Jesus (he knew who Jesus claimed to be) or do the thing that Jesus demanded forced him to leave with tremendous grief. Why? Now he knew sin, now he felt the true demand of the Law, now he realized that he couldn't obtain eternal life through obedience and refused to seek it by faith. Now he knew what the most important thing in the world to him was: not God or eternal life (as he deluded himself into thinking) but money.
Had he at least tried to do what Jesus said, in his mind pursuing eternal life through a good work, he would have soon been forced to concede failure and found the mercy of the Lord drawing him to salvation through faith and not works. But he didn't even try because he at once realized that his wealth was the most important thing in his life, by far.
Eternal Life and Money
This brings us to the second part of this story and that is what Jesus had to say about the rich young man and the choice he had just made.
23 And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, "How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
- Mark 10:23-25
Although I've talked about various ideas of salvation and different approaches to eternal life, Jesus clearly states that the problem that this person had was money, not theology. He even makes the general statement that rich people cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven! This was, and is, hard to hear because there are many rich people (especially in America). Jesus says that it is as hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle = impossible.
He doesn't explain why here, but in other places in the Bible we get an idea why this is so:
A. Wealth causes conflict of interest
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
- Matthew 6:24
The pursuit of wealth involves one in activity which is usually contrary to God's kingdom being established in one's heart. The wealthy must pursue wealth and give their total allegiance to it; disciples pursue joy, peace, righteousness, souls and devote their time to this.
Both take time and love and you cannot invest time and love into both at once, you must choose.
B. Love of wealth leads to sin
The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
- II Timothy 6:10
For the young man the love of his wealth led him to reject Christ and the eternal life He offered. Most of us don't have as dramatic a fall, but the love of money:
- Leads to lying, cheating, and killing.
- Leads to abandoning one's duties to family and church simply to make more.
- Leads to desensitizing our consciences so we can permit ourselves to make or keep more and more money.
Haven't you ever felt the temptation to cheat at income tax time? Just for a little money. It's easy to see if you love the Lord or money more: just measure the amount of free time you invest in one or the other, or which one you drop when you have to choose.
C. Wealth isolates
Money enables you to create and maintain your own environment so you can insulate yourself from influences you don't want. Too much wealth builds a wall between you and the voice of the Holy Spirit as well as the cries of the poor (the rich man and Lazarus).
The rich can't see the kingdom because of the glitter of their wealth.
The list of reasons why money blocks the way to heaven goes on and on, but suffice to say that Jesus says that the wealthy can't enter the kingdom.
26 They were even more astonished and said to Him, "Then who can be saved?" 27 Looking at them, Jesus said, "With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."
- Mark 10:26-27
The Apostles are astonished at this teaching (and so should we be) and ask in desperation: well then who can be saved if the rich can't be. In Jewish society, being wealthy was equated with God's blessing. So if the rich were lost, there was no chance for the poor.
Jesus answers what He would have answered the rich young ruler, if he would have taken one tiny step of faith and asked the same question. Rich people can't perceive the kingdom because of the burden of their wealth. But despite this burden, God (through the power of the gospel) will call and will save those who come to Him in faith. For example:
- Barnabas, land owner (Acts 4:36)
- Lydia, rich merchant (Acts 16:14-15)
Wealth is a great barrier to eternal life, a great cause of spiritual failure, but with God all things are possible; even overcoming materialism and riches to find and remain true to the kingdom of Christ.
In the last part of the section Peter begins to question Jesus about the fact that the Apostles did what the young ruler failed to do (leave all and follow Jesus), what do they have to look forward to?
28 Peter began to say to Him, "Behold, we have left everything and followed You." 29 Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, 30 but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last, first."
- Mark 10:28-31
This is a fair question and Jesus gives them three things that their decision to follow Him will produce:
- An abundant life now. They will regain personal relationships that were lost because of their decisions. Our church "family" is usually much larger and more satisfying than our non-believing earthly families.
- Persecutions. God will supply family support but warns that the decision carries the threat of persecution as well. Sometimes it's from authorities or Satan's servants, most of the times it's from the very people you left behind to follow Christ.
- Eternal Life. This, of course, is what the young man wanted and the promise Jesus makes to His disciples. They have done what he refused to do, and they will receive what he so desperately wanted but lost forever because he wouldn't let go. Jesus' final encouragement to them is not to worry about the wealthy who seem to have the best and first in every situation today; those who seem last now will take the first position when Christ comes.
This is a very relevant teaching for our time and society because:
- We are the wealthy in this world.
- Of all the people on this planet, we risk the greatest danger of being blinded by materialism.
Could we still give up everything and follow Jesus if He called us to do that very thing? Would we follow or go away grieving? Don't let your things or your pleasures stop you from following Jesus in the way you know you should.