Hebrews 4:12-16 | Mark 10:17-31
King David was a billionaire by today’s standards, and his son Solomon richer still. Abraham’s faithfulness to God was marked by great wealth, and even the story of Job ends with his loyalty being rewarded by giving him double – 14,000 sheep and 6,000 camels. The Temple was built from the finest of materials, the most expensive woods and cut stone and gems and silver and gold. While there were exceptions, of course, the basic rule was that wealth was a sign of God’s approval.
So the rich man who runs up to Jesus just as he is about to leave on a journey (and I wonder if that itself isn’t interesting – the man has waited until Jesus is just about to leave before approaching him – was he too busy with his business to find time for Jesus until he realised the chance was about to pass?) was a man who could clearly be seen to be blessed by God. He would be welcomed at Synagogue and Temple alike, invited to all the best parties, listened to with respect. Everything and everyone around him would have reinforced the message – “you are one of the good ones. God has given you much”.
But as Jesus is about to leave he overcomes whatever it was that held him back and ran to fall at his feet. A rich man, at the feet of an itinerant preacher with no wealth, no resources, no home even except what others shared with him. Perhaps it took the idea that Jesus would be gone to make the man realise there was something he needed to know, a question he needed to ask.
Because whatever anyone else said to him, he knew that there had to be something more. He had everything that everyone said mattered, but there was something missing.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“You know the commandments,” Jesus replies, and then lists them for him.
Except that he doesn’t.
There are a couple of strange things about the list of commandments that Jesus offers in his response. The first, and perhaps most striking is that of the ten commandments – the Decalogue – that formed the heart of the Jewish law, he Jesus only names six. He leaves out the first four – the ones which are primarily about God – worship no other Gods, make no idols, do not take my name in vain, honour the Sabbath.
Perhaps because these commands were really reflected in the religious life of the community more than in the lives of individuals.
Or perhaps because Jesus knew that these more religious commands were not going to present a problem to a respectable, upstanding member of society.
Or perhaps because Jesus wanted to make a point: that though the man came asking a question that was ostensibly about God, the answer lay not in his relationship with God, but in the way that he dealt with those around him.
For whatever reason, Jesus named the six other commandments, the ones more explicitly about how we treat one another.
Except, again, he didn’t.
I don’t know if you noticed, but five of the six commandments that Jesus recites are basically taken straight from the Decalogue. But one is changed. The tenth commandment – “you shall not covet what belongs to your neighbour”” is replaced with “you shall not cheat your neighbour”.
Now I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus didn’t know the commandments, or made a mistake reciting them. It seems as if instead he has subtly twisted the commandment in the same way that the rich man had reinterpreted it within his own life. As if to say – these are the commandments that you are living by – can you see what is wrong?
By the end of the story we know that the rich man not only has wealth, but that he is very attached to it. He is attracted to wealth, he seeks it, he has acquired it, he wishes to hold on to it. This being so, there is no way that he could ever truly say that he had kept the commandment never to covet that which belongs to someone else; for covet he has.
No, he has done what we so easily do – he has reinterpreted the commandments, replaced the one that would convict him with one that he can obey. He has been honest. He has not cheated, not defrauded. His wealth is fairly gained, through the hard work of his hands and his mind, and no doubt a fair slice of good fortune.
He is probably someone we would respect – someone we would welcome as a member of the St. John’s community. Not at all like that tax collector, Zacchaeus, for instance…
Perhaps there is a hint of puzzlement in the man’s voice as he replies to Jesus – “I’ve always kept those commands”. Was he looking for Jesus to validate him, to tell him “in that case, you’re fine”? Or was there a genuine seeking here – as if to say “but it feels like there ought to be something more. I might seem to have everything, but something is missing”
For Jesus looks at him, and loves him, and continues.
It’s a strange little phrase, thrown in there “Jesus looked at him with love”. Isn’t that something we kind of just assume about Jesus – that his dealings with them are motivated by love? Perhaps Mark includes it here to remind his reader that whatever it looks like, what Jesus is about to do, to say, is an act of love.
“There is one thing…. sell your stuff. Give to the poor. And follow me.”
The love that told the rich man what he needed to hear, and not what he wanted to hear.
In our reading from the letter to the Hebrews we read “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are”. I don’t think I realised quite as clearly what that means until I read it in the context of the story of the rich man, and Jesus’ words to him.
That Jesus can speak hard words to the rich man as an act of love because he knows what it is like.
C.S. Lewis once said that he felt he had no right to comment on the sin of another when that sin was one to which he felt no temptation; Jesus can speak to the rich man words which are both challenge and love because he does understand what it is like.
And understanding what it is like, he also knows what is needed. It’s like the recovering alcoholic who can speak to someone drinking their life away and tell them what to do with an authority that those of us who have never felt the visceral lure of substance abuse cannot have.
Jesus can speak these words to the rich man because he understands that his addiction, his weakness, is his wealth; he can name the problem, push the man to accept that there is a problem, a show him the way forwards. The way back to real life – eternal life, where eternal is not so much about quantity as it is about quality.
This was the big thing for this man. This was the commandment that he had rephrased, to allow him to justify himself. This was the barrier that needed to be breached. And Jesus loved him enough to tell him what he had to do.
And the man was shocked and went away grieving. What did he do next, though? We don’t get told. Did he grieve his wealth as he gave it away, or did he grieve his life as he continued to hold on to the thing that held on to him? We don’t know. Because in the end this isn’t a story about this man. It is a story about everyone.
Wealth, and the lure of wealth, was his thing. It may be yours, or mine. Or it may not. But I suspect that each of us have things in our lives where we know that somehow, subtly, we have changed the rules, the standards, to accommodate the behaviour that we want to be allowed to live by.
And Jesus looks at us and loves us, and challenges us to take the first step of solving any problem: the step of admitting that the problem exists.
He looks and loves us and speaks words which, in the wise saying of an old friend of mine, don’t make you feel bad, but make you feel as if you could be good.
And often those words, if we are ready to hear them, shock us and grieve us, for they tell us that we must be ready to give up something that we think we love, think we want, think we need, but know somewhere deep within is really hurting us.
I wonder, if you or I fell at Jesus’ feet and asked him what was in our way, what would he say?
I suspect you know, for yourself. And if you don’t, I suggest you ask.