Material for Worship at Home for Sunday 10th October 2021

The story of the rich, young, ruler appears in three Gospels. In Luke the man is a ruler; in Matthew he’s young. Here, in Mark 10.17-31, he is simply a man who has many possessions. He’s comfortable enough in life not to come to Jesus looking for healing, or food, or with worries about his harvest, but free to pursue the good-life-to-come. That’s what wealth meant in his day. Wealth earned fairly was a blessing from God that freed a person from the daily grind so that they could serve Him. Therefore, the man approaches Jesus with no shame about his many possessions. If anything, they are his credentials which show how obedient he has been, and give him the right to ask his question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Maybe he expected to be asked to buy shoes for everyone in Palestine, or better yet, to put all his luxurious furs into storage and accompany Jesus on his travels. Jesus, however, gives him the bog-standard, learned it in Sunday school, just like everyone else, answer: keep the commandments.

“I’ve done that, my whole life”, the man replies. And Jesus loves him. Just like that, because it’s not a pompous or frustrated reply but a plea – “I’ve done all of those things, but I know it’s not enough. I’m a rich man but I know that that’s not enough either. Neither the law nor my wealth can get me where I want. Jesus show me the way”.

He is ready for God and Jesus looks at him deeply and with compassion, longing to make the man whole, to offer him life transforming healing. Loving him, Jesus says, “You’re missing just one thing”. These aren’t words of condemnation or criticism but a call, an invitation, to confront a weakness and walk more closely with Christ. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, Jesus says tenderly. “Then come, follow me.”

A rich prescription for a rich man. It’s supposed to ease the anxiety of his heart, to lift the burden from his back. To enable him to be more agile by closing his earthly accounts and opening one in heaven instead. It’s a challenge to him to become something new and to interact with the world in a different way. To be defined not as rich, powerful, educated, or obedient, but free – free to God.

I’m sure that most of us know this story well. And I’m sure that a lot of us wish it was one of those forgotten instances in Jesus’ life, then we wouldn’t have to scratch our heads and wonder if Jesus really means that we have to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor.

There’s no escaping it, however, this passage is about money. For Jesus, money is like nuclear power, or social media: able to do a lot of good in the world but only if it’s carefully regulated and contained. Most of us aren’t very good at handling it: we get contaminated by its power and contaminate others by wielding it carelessly ourselves – we want it too desperately, use it too manipulatively, believe in it too fiercely or defend it too cruelly. Every now and then someone manages to use it well, but the odds are about as good as those of a camel passing through a microchip.

However, if it were a story that was only about money, then we could scrap most of St Paul’s writings about grace and the rest of Christ’s teaching about faith, and just buy our way into heaven. But we know that that is not how it works. None of us, no matter what we do, can earn eternal life. The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the wealthy can buy it with their riches. It is God’s gift to the world.

The catch is that you have to be free to receive it. You cannot be tied up in other things, have your hands full, or be otherwise engaged. I think that is why the man went away sorrowful. He understood completely that his wealth had not freed him to pursue God after all but was a ball and chain dragging behind him. And poverty scared him more than such bondage. He couldn’t believe that the opposite of rich was not poor, but free.

Eventually our friend Job will realise this (Job 23.1-9, 16-17). He’ll say that before his ears had heard of God but only now that he’s lost everything (and at the point where we’ve joined him this morning it seems like he’s lost God too) do his eyes truly see.

Afterward the man left, the only person in Mark to walk away from Christ’s invitation to follow, Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”. They were amazed, totally astonished, even though they themselves had left so much behind to follow him: their fishing nets and boats; their families; a lucrative career as a tax collector; a political cause. They had all left something. Not because it was required of them but because they wanted to. Jesus called and nothing else seemed as important anymore. Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives that following him wasn’t heroic. He’d set them free. It wasn’t their achievement. It was Christ’s gift.

And I know: the children and grandchildren, the mortgage payments, the doctor’s appointments, the climate emergency, the fuel prices, the future. I know that there are days when it does indeed seem that threading a camel through the eye of a needle is easier than following Jesus.

So, who can be saved? Who is brave enough to be free?

The questioned hasn’t changed much. But neither has the answer. For us it is impossible. But not for God. For God, all things are possible.

Loving God, you know what holds us back and the things it’s hard for us to let go of. Help us to trust in you. Give us courage. Renew our hope. Set us free by your grace to follow you and be your healing touch in the world. In Jesus name, Amen.