This morning we have the fairly well known story of what has come to be called the “rich, young, ruler”, although in our version from Mark the man described as neither young nor a ruler. He is rich, however, having many possessions from which he is unwilling to part. What do we learn from this man’s encounter with Jesus?
Who is the rich young ruler? The man in question is apparently an upstanding citizen in every way. He is respectful – calling Jesus “Good Teacher” as a sign of deference. He is humble – although he is well versed in his religious faith, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers and asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. He is virtuous – when Jesus answers his question by reciting the commandments, the man honestly and innocently responds that he has kept all of them since his youth. And, finally, as we’ve noted, he is wealthy. In ancient Israel, wealth was presumed to be a sign of God’s favor and blessing. It seems that this man is one of life’s charmed people – he’s got everything going for him.
That is, until he encounters Jesus. One minute he is secure and serene. The next minute he is “shocked and grieving”, because Jesus asked him to sell his possessions, give his money to the poor, and follow him as one of his disciples. That was quite and honor because rarely does Jesus directly ask someone to follow him. And clearly the man was attracted to Jesus, otherwise he wouldn’t have sought him out in the first place. Yet, the man plainly was more attracted to the status and security of his wealth, so he turned Jesus down and went away “sorrowing.”
What is happening here? Some people think that this encounter is only about money. They say that Jesus’ command to sell our possessions and give our money to the poor is a universal mandate for all Christians. Other people think that this passage is not about money per se, but about where we put our trust and find our security and identity. Sure, money could be the culprit, but it also could be accomplishment, or right living, or family, or anything else.
What do I think? I had a professor in seminary who used a great line when asked about any kind of controversy. He said, “On the one hand, some of my friends say this. And on the other hand, some of my friends say that. As for me, I agree with my friends!” His line is apropos in this case, I think. I agree with my friends that clearly the passage is about money. Wealth is an obvious source of misplaced trust and security. Wealth has a not so subtle way of making you think that you can do what you want how you want and when you want. There is a reason that Jesus calls money a false God, saying that no one can serve two masters.
And if the passage is not about money then why would Jesus say, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Wealth is to be given away. Perhaps this is why the organizers of our lectionary readings always place this passage around church stewardship season!
And yet, I also agree with my friends that this passage is about more than money. As another scripture tells us, money is not the root of all evil, but rather the love of money. And given what we know about the rest of Scripture and theology, we have to reject the idea that the means to salvation is simply selling our possessions. That quickly becomes works righteousness, which leads inevitably to self-righteousness.
An example of this was in the New York Times Book Review last Sunday. You may have heard that the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy was an aristocratic heir to a vast estate. When he married at 34, he was young, rich and a kind of ruler, but that’s where his similarity with the man in the scripture passage ends. He was clearly not virtuous, nor a commandment keeper. Before his wedding night, he forced his 18 -year old bride to read his journal containing descriptions of all his vices – fornication and gambling at the top of the list.
That didn’t stop Leo and Sonya, his wife, from marrying and having 13 children. He went on to become the most famous novelist in the world. He and Sonya constantly bickered, but still Sonya dutifully copied all her husband’s manuscripts by hand.
Fifteen years into their marriage, Tolstoy decided to take Jesus command to the rich young ruler seriously. He was determined to live by the ethics of Jesus as he understood them. He became a vegetarian, made his own shoes, and gave his money to the poor. When guests came to dinner, he ordered them to empty their own chamber pots while servants stood by. People applauded Tolstoy’s conviction. Sonya, however, wryly noted that Leo’s love of humanity never extended to his wife and children.
Late in Tolstoy’s life, a young religious zealot visited him and fawned over Tolstoy’s brand of Christianity. He quickly replaced Sonya as the writer’s confidant, convincing Leo to disown all his copyrights and change his will. Sonya became unhinged. She and her husband had a violent confrontation and Tolstoy fled on a train, traveling 4th class so he could be with the peasants. He caught a chill on the drafty train and became deathly ill. He got off the train at a small village and lay dying in the stationmaster’s dingy cottage. Sonya, his faithful wife and mother of his 13 children was forbidden to see him.
In many ways, Tolstoy followed Jesus command to the rich, young ruler but clearly came no closer to inheriting eternal life. So what are we to take away from this morning’s gospel reading? The answer, I think, comes from the exchange between Jesus and his disciples. They too assume that wealth is an indication of God’s favor. If it is hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, then how much harder is it for the rest of us! “They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Jesus, then, drops the bomb that should first shock and grieve us: not only is it hard to enter the Kingdom of God, it is impossible. No one can get it.
Perhaps the chief danger for the rich young ruler is that everything seemed possible for him. Things were going so well for him that he couldn’t see past his riches and accomplishments. Who is the rich young ruler? When things are going so well for us, perhaps we are the rich young ruler. But his encounter with Jesus exposed his weakness – he couldn’t let go of his possessions. But Jesus looked at him and loved him, even as he went away sorrowing. But that is not the end of the story.
The man in the story is a foil not only for Tolstoy, but for another rich, young, ruler. This man was virtuous. He truly kept all the commandments from his youth, both internally and externally. This man was humble, preferring the company of the least and the little. This man was a ruler – in fact one ode to him described him as “ruler of all nature.”
And boy was this man rich. Who is the rich young ruler? Of course, I’m talking about Jesus. The great 19th century preacher imagines Jesus at the right hand of the Father before his incarnation. He says, “Lift up thine eye, believer, and for a moment review the riches of my Lord Jesus before he condescended to become poor for thee. Behold him sitting upon his throne and declaring his own all-sufficiency. “If I were hungry, I would not tell thee, for the cattle on a thousand hills are mine. Mine are the hidden treasures of gold; mine are the pearls that the diver can not reach; mine every precious thing that earth has seen.”
For this man truly all things were possible. But unlike the rich, young ruler who would not part from his possessions, this man, the scripture tells us “did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself…humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” Who can be saved? With human beings, it is impossible. But the death of this rich, young ruler on the cross makes all things possible. He opens the doors to the Kingdom of God for the likes of you and me and the rich young ruler to come in rejoicing. Now, everyone can get in!
I’ve heard a helpful acronym for Grace: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. We who do not deserve God’s riches receive them anyway. Even the impossibly difficult Tolstoy’s life ended with a note of God’s grace and a reflection of the One who comes after us even when we go away sorrowing.
When word got out to the world about the great writer’s impending death, Sonya came immediately to the stationmaster’s cottage. When she was denied entrance, she stood out in the cold and peered in at her husband through the window, looking at him with love. Finally she is admitted, holding him as he breathed his last, as he finally, through the cross of Christ, inherited eternal life and entered the Kingdom of God. Amen.