“Teacher,” the rich man declared to Jesus, “I have kept all these commandments of God since I was a boy!”
“Then, there is one thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
- Adapted from Mark 10 (NIV)
When you live in the wealthiest and most powerful society in the history of humanity, texts like this don’t sit well. Invariably, discussions about the text focus on whether Jesus’ command to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him is universal in nature: Did Jesus issue this command to this one person, in this one instance, or does it apply to everyone?
Such a question leaves those of us who are a part of comfortable, suburbanite-type families in a dilemma. To say that the passage applies only to this man seems to cheapen Jesus’ words. But if the command applies to us, then we must face the fact – like this man did – that we are spiritual failures.
No wonder that, for 40+ years, almost every discussion I’ve heard on this subject ends with a lot of head scratching and puzzlement. There seems to be no easy way out of this one. You walk away from it feeling either overly dismissive or hopelessly guilty.
But as I’ve thought about this passage recently, I have started to wonder if the discomfort we feel when encountering this passage is not the problem, but the point.
To illustrate, I need to begin by pointing to a part of this text that tends to get ignored in discussions about this text: the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ statement that it is “hard” for rich people to be saved.
Why would they think this way? I doubt they thought every rich person would make their way into God’s kingdom. However, some, like this person – who seemingly kept all God’s commandments from his youth – apparently struck them as being super-righteous. If they can’t make it, they later to say, who will?
I want to suggest that this perception – that there are certain wealthier people among us who are super-righteous – is perfectly understandable, even in our own cultural context. In fact, I think that both the comfortable suburbanites such as myself and the marginalized of our society, both struggle with this narrative of “wealthy righteousness,” and that it explains a lot of why churches struggle to keep people who are poor, addicted, or divorced within their walls.
More specifically, I want to suggest that one of the many advantages of wealth is that it allows people to buy their way out of sin.
I know that statement may sound a little strange. “What do you mean? Money can’t help you avoid sin, can it?” you may ask. In some cases, I think so – particularly when it comes to the kind-of sin that is blatant and obvious.
Just stay with me for a minute, and consider this: When you have plenty of money and food, it is unlikely that you will be tempted to engage in prostitution, or to be dishonest with someone, or to steal. In our culture, at least one member of your family probably doesn’t work long, hard hours – or cover the night shift to make ends meet – so its possible to spend a lot of time with your kids, training them to be good and “proper.” Stable, white collar labor and financial security help you to avoid a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that is prevalent among the poor, and it means much less stress on family relationships. As such, families are much more likely to stay together, and they are much more likely to give the appearance of something that is healthy. Also, less stress with respect to the basic necessities of life means its less likely you’ll try to escape your troubles through alcohol or substance addiction.
And, yes, I know it isn’t quite that simple. Wealthy people do have their own set of temptations and sins. But, for the most part, the more obvious “vices” are much milder, and much less impactful on their lives. The ability to own their own homes, work in their own offices, and move about independently also makes it much easier to conceal what problems they do have.
Now, think about how the “wealthy righteous” lifestyle looks to the lower-middle income, white male who moves from job-to-job doing blue collar labor, and who goes through long periods of unemployment. He has probably never had enough income security to take a wife, and if he did have one, there is a good chance the family broke up during a period of unemployment. He has probably taken up smoking or drinking, as they provide one of the few forms of escape that he can afford. When he looks at the large, extravagantly decorated churches in his town, and at the families that pile out of minivans in their parking lots, cleanly dressed and well groomed, the first thought that is going to enter his mind is this: “they are too good for me.”
He may think this defiantly, or resentfully, suspecting on some level that it isn’t really true. He still has some pride, after all. But in truth, he cannot afford the lifestyle that is necessary to put on a proper façade of righteousness. His “sin” is obvious for all to see.
It’s the same story for the single mom who gets off her shift at 6:00 am on Sunday. Because of her lifestyle, she doesn’t have the luxury of a good night’s sleep before Sunday morning church, and since she hasn’t done a load of wash in a week, she can’t even send her kids in clean clothes. She won’t be there. Neither will the kid who spends most of his life on the streets and at the local tattoo place because the company he finds there is a lot better than what he experiences in his abusive home. Or the stripper who doesn’t know any other way to make enough money to pay the rent.
When you have a little spare cash and a little free time and space, its easy to make yourself look good. In fact, in some more obvious ways, its easier to be good.
Which brings me to my point about the rich man in this text: What if Jesus’ command in this instance was not made because there is some inherent merit in selling everything you have, but to make it abundantly clear to the peasants and fisherman who were looking on that he, too, is a sinner? What if Jesus’ objective is to expose the disturbing reality of wealth-addiction that rests behind his righteous façade?
Only seconds earlier, he was bragging about all the commandments that he had kept throughout his life. He was, in effect, like the well-dressed family getting out of the minivan at church: he looks awfully righteous from a distance. Yet now, as he walked away sadly, it was obvious that he could not bring himself to being fully obedient. He was just like the rest of them.
No. Not just like the rest of them. Worse than the rest of them. His problem is so great, Jesus goes on to say, that it is akin to getting a large, stubborn beast through an impossibly small hole.
Even Jesus realized that he had just asked this man to do the impossible.
That is why I say that our discomfort in reading this passage is not a problem of interpretation, but the entire point of the passage: we know full well that we, like him, would never do what Jesus asked of him. It strips strips our suburbanite sheen and exposes us for who we really are.
And if we are willing to acknowledge that, it suddenly becomes possible for us to come alongside the alcoholics and strippers and single moms who never take their kids to church, and the young adults with tattoos who smell of marijuana smoke and pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
That is why this story ends with good news. The poor and hungry are indeed blessed by God as Jesus often taught, but guess what? The journey through the needle’s eye is not impossible where God is concerned. It may be difficult, it may be painful (the Camel must go “strand by bloody strand” C.S. Lewis once wrote). But it can happen.
Yes, as strange as it may sound, God can even save those wealthy people who go to church on Sunday mornings.