The Rich Young Ruler
Pentecost 19B Mark 10:17-30 and parallels
Wealth and generosity. Money and abundant sharing. Riches and giving it away. The combination of these concepts are at the very heart of Jesus’ teaching. The richest person in the world is the person who gives it away. Jesus teaches us to give away love. To give away time. To give away your self. St. Francis, in the spirit of Jesus, said it well when he wrote: “for it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born again to Eternal Life.”
In the gospel story for today, Jesus is inviting us to lay up for our selves treasures in heaven. How do we do that? How do we lay up treasures in heaven? That is the issue. And Jesus answers that question very clearly: By giving to the poor. Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus invites us to share our resources with the poor and hungry in our midst and around the globe and thereby lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
Jesus said in the same thing earlier in his ministry. Quella, the 200 Bible verses which are common to Matthew and Luke, is thought to be the oldest bedrock of the New Testament, and in those earliest teachings Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth but treasures in heaven; not treasure on earth which are destroyed by moths and rust, but lay up for yourselves eternal treasures which moths and rust cannot destroy. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” That was the primary problem of the rich young rule. His money was the treasure of his heart.
Immediately, our minds often shift to “big money” people like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Warren Buffet in today’s world. Or in yesterday's world to John Rockefeller, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie. We focus on the fact that these richest of the rich people need to become philanthropists with their money and leave a legacy by giving their huge financial resources to the poor of the world. But if we do that, and apply this text to them, we miss the fact that Jesus was addressing his disciples and “little money” people. His disciples, who were “little money people,” applied this teaching to their own situation. We need to do the same.
Today is also World Hunger Sunday in the life of our church. All the children in Sunday School have learning about sharing fish and food with the poor of the world. For the past 28 years, our congregation has given away more than $100,000 a year. World Hunger is our dominant financial benevolence.
Once again, I would like to do a detailed Bible study of this specific text with you.
Today’s story is known as the story of the Rich Young Ruler. That title, the Rich Young Ruler, is a blending of the same story from the three gospels. All three gospels tell us he was rich; Matthew tells us he was young; and Luke tells us he was a ruler, perhaps a Pharisee who was a lover of money. Let us look carefully at that Scripture, using the Gospel of Mark as the basic text. Please pull out your bulletins and let us focus together on the gospel reading of the lesson for today. Please have a pencil with you to make notations on the paper. Let us look at the text.
Above the word, The Gospel, write the title of this story: The Rich Young Ruler.
As he was setting out on his journey. In this section of the gospel, Jesus had left the familiar scenes of being in Galilee, near the Sea of Galilee, in his home town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee and was now heading eighty miles south to Jerusalem, the capital city of the land.
A man. We will learn that he was a rich man. In the Gospel of Luke, he was called a ruler, that is, a Pharisee, a scribe, a lawyer, part of the educated elite of the day. In Luke’s gospels, he would have been a symbol of the Pharisees who the Bible said were lovers of money and hypocrites.
Ran up and knelt before Jesus. This man demonstrates an enthusiasm for Jesus, running up to him and falling on his knees before him. Circle the words, “ran” and “knelt.” Write about those words, the word “enthusiastic.” By reading other stories about Jesus, we meet people who were initially enthusiastic about Jesus and later fell away.
Good teacher. The young, enthusiastic man starts out with flattery. The way people think that you get immediately on the good side of people is to flatter them, and this enthusiastic young man has learned to begin the conversation with flattery. Circle the word, “good,” and write in the word “flattery.” This is the only time in the gospels where Jesus was addressed as “good” teacher.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is the big question and write that in our margin: THE BIG QUESTION, all in capital letter. We all ask The Big Question. What must we do to inherit eternal life? What are the rules? Who is getting in at the final day? It is interesting that the identical question was asked of Jesus previously by a lawyer who asked in the Gospel of Luke, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is the identical same question and that question became the occasion for Jesus telling the story about the Good Samaritan and showing mercy to your enemy. “What must I do to inherit eternal life” is THE BIG QUESTION for you and me.
Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Immediately, Jesus pokes a hole in his flattery and challenges the young man. Jesus was saying to the young man, “Don’t flatter me. Don’t focus on me. Focus on God and God alone is good.” It is like flattery gets you nowhere with Jesus.
You know the commandments. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness or lie. Do not defraud (a person’s family or possessions.) Honor your mother and father. There are two tables or sections of the Ten Commandments: The first commandments are commandment about our relationship with God; the second commandments are about our relationship with people. Jesus clearly spells out the commandments: avoid killing, avoid adultery, avoid stealing, avoid lying, avoid defrauding our neighbor, and honor our parents.
Teacher, he declared, I have done these from my youth. That makes sense to us. The young man declares he is normal and respectable. He is Mr. Respectable. He is Mr. Honorable. Mr. Upright. He has obeyed the basic Jewish moral law and has lived a respectable, honorable and upright life. He is like you and me. He avoids hurting people.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. The other two parallel gospels do not report this significant little comment. Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Jesus had a sympathetic attitude towards the man; he liked the man; he loved the man. Jesus wasn’t hostile to the young man; he did not want to embarrass him or harass him or belittle him.
One thing you lack. Oh, oh, something bad is going to be said about me. How can you love me and criticize me? Well, maybe you can. We know that often, the person who loves us most is the person who is able to speak the truth about us to us.
Sell everything (what) you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Focus on and underline the phrase, “give to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven.” That is the way you lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven: by giving to the poor. Jesus also said that earlier in his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus was asking for a positive action from the young man: do something positive for poor people. In the Ten Commandments, people were commanded by God to avoid doing bad things to others. That is good; that is proper. We should avoid doing bad things to others but that is not the same as doing good for others, especially poor people. Avoid doing bad to someone is not the same as doing something good for them. We expect people to avoid doing bad to others…killing them, committing adultery with them, stealing from them, lying about them, defrauding them. But it is something else to do something beneficial for them. That is what this text is all about. The young man was Mr. Respectable, Mr. Honorable. Mr. Upright. He didn’t do anything bad to people but he didn’t do anything good for people, to make their lives better, to share with those poor people the enormous financial resources that he had.
Sell everything. It is important that you understand this passage and not take it literally. It is part of Aramaic hyperbole or exaggeration in order to make a point. You don’t take these words literally or you get in trouble. Other examples of Aramaic hyperbole or strong exaggeration in language is “anyone who does not hate your mother and father and brother and sister cannot be my disciple.” Or, “if you hand sins, cut if off. If your eye sins, cut it out. If your foot leads you astray, cut it off.” These are all illustrations from the gospels where Jesus used Aramaic exaggeration to make a point. The point is: we are to generously share our economic resources with the poor and hungry of the world. There are three examples of Aramaic hyperbole in this text.
Similarly, Jesus did not ask Zaccheaus, who was the richest tax collector in town, to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus did not ask Joseph of Arimathea, who the Bible says was rich, to sell all had had and give it to the poor. Jesus did not ask Nicodemus, the wealthy man from the Jewish Sanhedrin or Senate, to sell all they had and give it to the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us today to sell all we have and give it to the poor. To think such a thought would misunderstand Jesus and the text.
As Jim Bell said at the Men’s Breakfast yesterday, as we studied this text together, Jesus was putting the rich young ruler to a test to see whether he loved God and his neighbor more than money. In Jim’s mind, this test was similar to the story about Abraham in the Old Testament when God asked him to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham loved God more than his son. Similarly, Jesus was testing this rich young man to see if he loved his riches more than God. Jim said: that is what the story is about. God is testing us to see if we love our money and material possessions more God. We remember Jesus’ teaching when he said: where your treasure is, there will be your heart. The man’s heart was in his treasures.
Give it to the poor. Focus on the word, “poor,” and circle it. “Poor” is a good word for Jesus. Jesus looked with love at people who were poor. In his very first sermon in the synagogue, the first thing that Jesus mentioned in his sermon that day was that he had come to preach the good news to poor people. In his beatitudes in Luke, we heard that Jesus said, Happy are poor people. Throughout his whole gospel, Jesus reaches out to poor people like the lepers, maimed, sick and dying. Poor is a symbolic word that symbolizes people who need food/water. Today, many people look down on their noses of poor people and often think that poor people are lazy and slovenly. Not Jesus. Not the followers of Jesus.
That you will have treasures in heaven. Jesus has told us that before in the Sermon on the Mount. As we give to poor people here on earth, we lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven where rust will not decay those heavenly treasures nor will moth eat and make holes in those heavenly treasures. The way you lay up treasures in heaven is by doing positive actions for the poor here on earth. Jesus’ teaching is quite simple and direct.
Come and follow me. Jesus in the New Testament and today in this sanctuary is inviting us to come and follow Christ, that we would be his disciples, that Christ would be our master and we would be his servants, that Christ would own our hearts, time and money.
At this, the man’s face fell. He went away sad. All three versions in Matthew, Mark and Luke say this. Why was he so sad at what Jesus had said? Mark said that he “went away” and we need to underline that statement. When he didn’t like what Jesus said, he went away from Jesus. That often happens to us when we hear things from Jesus we don’t like. We simply leave the presence of Jesus, so we will not hear his teachings. In other words, Abraham passed the test and the rich young ruler did not.
For he had great wealth. The gospel of Luke says, he was “very rich.” Jesus had read the young man’s heart correctly. That is, the young man had come to love and trust in money, riches and material possessions. His heart was in his money.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples. We remember that the man has left Jesus and so his teachings are now directed to his disciples.
How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The question will ask is this: why is it so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Underline the word, “enter” and we will focus on it in a few moments. Underline the phrase, “kingdom of God” because we have experienced a subtle shift in focus from “what must I do to inherit eternal life” to “what must I do to enter the kingdom of God.”
Why is it hard for people with riches to enter the kingdom of God? To become a true disciples of Jesus? We can think of at least three reasons. Please write these three reasons down in the margin. 1) It is easy to fall in love with money. Money and wealth is seductive and very easy to fall in love with. We become addicted to money and material possessions and like most addictions, we initially don’t realize that we are addicted. 2) Wealth creates a false sense of security. We think that wealth will protect us from the disasters of life and we find out that it doesn’t. 3) Money often makes people more selfish, where the purpose of time, talents and energy is to serve ourselves.
The disciples were amazed at his words. Why were the disciples so amazed at his words? The disciples knew the Old Testament teachings that a sign of God’s blessedness was to be rich. To be wealthy was a sign of God’s blessings on you. Jesus was teaching just the opposite religious values that the disciples had learned from childhood. From childhood, they knew that God would bless the religiously wise with great wealth.
Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. Underline the word “children” because Jesus often referred to the disciples as children, people who were learning about the faith. Underline the word “enter” because that is what this text is all about. Jesus wants us to enter the kingdom and it is difficult. Jesus had earlier taught that the gate was wide that went to hell, but the gate is narrow that goes to eternal life. This is the second time that Jesus has said this in the text. Jesus wants us to enter God’s kingdom. When we enter God’s kingdom and way of life, we love God more than home, family and income.
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. Cross out the words, “go through,” and write above them the word, “enter.” This text is about entering the kingdom of God. Christ wants us to enter the kingdom of God where God rules our life as the number one power in our lives. That is what the kingdom is all about. That God would rule us and we would love God more than our home, family and income … A camel was the largest animal that the Jews in that era would have known of. For us, the camel would be equivalent to an elephant. It is impossible for an elephant or a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Some scholars have suggested that there was a Needle’s Gate in the wall of Jerusalem that was very low and camels could stoop to get in but most scholars disregard this conclusion. This teaching was part of his Aramaic exaggeration to make a point. It is impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Similarly, it is impossible for a rich man to be saved. This is the second example of Aramaic hyperbole in this text.
The disciples were even more amazed. I like the RSV which says, “the disciples were exceedingly astonished.” The rich cannot be saved? Whoever heard of such a thing?
And said, then who can be saved? The answer. No one. Nobody. This is THE SECOND BIG QUESTION. Circle the word, “who.” Who can be saved? Can I be saved? You be saved? WHO is to be saved? The answer: NOBODY.
Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.” This statement is pure grace. Salvation is a pure gracious gift from God. That is why our church the name, Grace Lutheran Church, so we are reminded that we are all saved by God’s pure grace and not anything that we have done. Write in your margins: PURE GRACE. We are all saved by pure grace.
Sometimes, we convert these words, “with God, all things are possible,” into a slogan to hang on the wall or positive pep pill. It becomes “possibility thinking.” With the Sound of Music, we can sing, “Climb every mountain and ford every sea. Follow every rainbow, till we find our dream.” With the man from La Mancha, we “can dream the impossible dream and fight the unbeatable foe and bear with unbearable sorrow to run where the grave dare not go.” But these words from Jesus aren’t simply positive pep pills as much as we like positive pep pills. Rather, in these words in the text for today, Jesus is clearly telling us that we are saved by God, by grace. We cannot save ourselves but God can. God can save rich people and poor people, good people and bad people. God can save anybody. All things are possible with God; that is, God can save us.
It is possible for rich people to be saved. In the gospels, Zacchaeus was rich and he was saved. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus’ body for burial, was a rich man according to Matthew 27:37 and he was saved. Joseph’s friend, Nicodemus, was a member of the wealthy establishment and he was saved. God can save rich people too.
Peter said: We have left all and followed you. Peter is the spokes person.
Jesus replied, There is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much.
Circle the word, “home,’ and underline the words, “brothers, sisters, mother, father children.” Circle the word, “field.” These are our natural loves in life: home, family, income. Jesus is again stressing that our love for God is to be above all of these natural and good loves of life.
A hundred times as much. This again is Aramaic hyperbole or strong exaggeration to make a point. This is the third example of Aramaic hyperbole in the text. The phrase is equivalent, in one of Jesus’ parables, to a plant bearing one hundred fruit. Imagine a tomato plant with one hundred tomatoes on it. A person will experience from God great blessings, abundant blessings, overflowing blessings. This does not mean that those blessings will be material as spiritual and emotional.
In this present age. The blessings from God will flow to us in this life on this side of the grave.
And in the age to come. God’s blessings will be showered upon us in the next life.
In the story for today, Jesus invites us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Amen.
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