Mark 10:17-22: Riches and Religion

Riches and religion are heavy on the mind of a rich man.  So, he asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s a reasonably religious question because we naturally assume that religion is about doing good deeds to earn God’s favor.

And more than that, Jesus is a good teacher.  So, to this rich man, Jesus is the right teacher to ask such a question.  What must someone do to get in God’s good graces, so he inherits eternal life?

Yet, for the astute listener, two warning flags should immediately pop up.  First, what’s this talk about being “good”?  Jesus says, “No one is good except God alone.”  So, the rich man must believe that Jesus is God, right?  Why else would He call Him “good”?  Ah, if only he really understood what he had said!

The man’s question reveals how he thinks.  He thinks in categories of good and bad.  To the man, Jesus is clearly in the good category, where he, too, wants to be.  He doesn’t murder, steal, cheat on his wife, lie, slander others, or dishonor his father and mother.  He’s a model citizen.  Since his youth, he has kept the law, or so he thinks.  And he clearly has a sense of whether someone is good or not.

And so the rich man asks a good teacher what he must do to inherit eternal life.  That’s the second warning flag.  How exactly does someone do something to inherit anything?  You don’t inherit by doing something–it’s based on who your parents are (or in Jesus’ day, the father).

To inherit something, someone else has to die.  And when he dies, you have to be in his will.  That’s how you inherit something.  It’s that simple.  It’s not by doing; it’s by grace, being in the favor of someone who died and left you an inheritance.

Now, Jesus could have just said that and stopped there.  But the expert Teacher knows that someone learns best in the school of experience.  So, Jesus lets the pious man experience some of his religion up close and personal.  The same religion he’s been talking about to his friends and family now comes home to roost.

Jesus says, “You know the commandments.”  And just in case he’d forgotten his catechism, Jesus gives him a little review.  “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”  That’s a condensed description of the Ten Commandments as they are to be lived out toward others.

But this man had been told his entire life that he could keep God’s Commandments–if he would but try hard enough!  So, the rich man told Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these [commandments] since my youth.”  And he meant what he said.  He was sincere.  He believed he kept the commandments.

Jesus doesn’t debate the man.  He could have.  He could have delivered a condensed Sermon on the Mount and said: “Ah, you may have kept them by what you did, but have you kept them in your thoughts and words?  Have you lusted in your heart?  Have you spoken any angry words?”  But Jesus doesn’t do that.

Instead, He looks on this man, caught up in his own commandment-keeping, and loves him.  That’s a little detail that only Mark gives us in his Gospel.  It makes me wonder if the man could’ve have been Mark himself.  Who knows?

Either way, Jesus cuts to the quick.  “You lack one thing: Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.  Then you will have treasure in heaven.  And come, follow me.”  That hit home, and the man went home grieving.  His heart became disheartened and deflated, and he left in sorrow because he had many possessions.

Remember, Jesus spoke those words in love.  If those words discouraged him, it was needed pain to make a loving point.  After all, something was missing in this rich man’s life that first caused him to ask Jesus such a serious a question.  He was rich.  He had everything he could ever want.  He was religious, even keeping the commandments to the letter.  And yet, being rich and religious weren’t enough to stop his nagging doubts: Was he saved?  Was he going to inherit eternal life?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  Jesus’ answer: Follow me.  You almost miss that in the Gospel reading, don’t you?  The rich man did.  All he heard was selling everything and giving the money to the poor.  He only heard another commandment–and one he couldn’t keep.  But he missed the answer to his question.  What must I do to inherit eternal life?  “Follow me.”  Follow Jesus.

Those were the same words Jesus spoke to Matthew: “Follow me.”  They’re more than an invitation.  Those are enabling and empowering words, enabling the hearer to do what they say.  That was the answer to the rich man’s question, to all his searching.  He lacked something; he lacked Jesus!

He lacked Jesus and faith in Jesus.  And Jesus was offering Himself through His words, “Follow me.”  And whatever got in the way of following Jesus had to go.  This rich man needed–not only to lose his attachment to his riches–but also his religion of commandment-keeping.  It’s as St. Paul said in Philippians after reviewing his religious past as a Pharisee:

But whatever gain I had, I now consider to be a loss because of Christ.  But even beyond that, I consider all these things to be a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.  Because of him, I have lost everything, but what I have lost I consider as filth, all so I may gain Christ and be found in him.  I don’t have a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but one that is through faith in Christ–the righteousness from God based on faith.  (Philippians 3:7-9)

It’s not simply a matter of riches, although riches can get in the way of following Jesus.  Jesus would later say that it’s easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  He would say that to His disciples, who had literally given up everything to follow Him.

And Peter, the man who speaks before he thinks, would even remind Jesus that they had given up everything, just in case He’d forgotten.  “See, we’ve left everything and followed you.”  And so Peter unmasks the religion in their hearts to Jesus.  And what do we find out?  It’s not that different from the rich man.  “Look at what we’ve given up to follow you, Jesus.”  Look at what we’ve done; surely, we’ll inherit eternal life because of that!

Jesus is in the business of clearing out whatever gets in the way of you following Him.  I wonder what Jesus would say to me?  What’s getting in the way of me following Him?  Is it my pride?  Is it my wish to be secure in this world?  Of course, it’s my sin!

What would Jesus say to you?  Looking on you in love, wanting you to be His own, what do you suppose He would say?  What gets in the way of you hearing the Word, of receiving His forgiveness, of following Jesus as He leads you through this life, through death, and on to your resurrection to eternal life?

What is the junk that gets between you and Jesus?  It could be anything.  Our hearts can turn any good gift into an idol.  But whatever it is, it surely isn’t worth hanging on to from eternity’s perspective.

I’d like to think the rich man went home, looked at all his stuff, and saw that it didn’t look so good after all.  I’d like to think the man sold it all.  Perhaps, he packed all his stuff into a cart and took it Christian Associates or Blessings.  I’d like to think that he then went back down the road, running after Jesus.

Or maybe the man followed Jesus years later, when he heard the news of Jesus’ dying and rising and then recalled this conversation.  Maybe, it was then that he heard the call “Follow me” in the waters of baptism, and this time gave up his false idols of wealth because it got in the way of gaining Christ.

We don’t know the full story of that rich man.  He’s an example of what takes place when Jesus happens to walk through a town.  Jesus was walking toward Jerusalem, where He would die for the sin of that rich man, on whom He looked with love.  On the cross, Jesus gave what the rich man lacked–the death that would give him the inheritance he needed: eternal life!

Jesus has called you to be His disciple.  He spoke the words “follow me” to you in your baptism with water and the Word.  And every day, Jesus repeats those words to you, as He calls you to repent and return to your baptism.

Following Jesus is not “monkey see, monkey do.”  It’s not a matter of keeping His rules, following His example, or doing what Jesus would do.  If that sums up the Christian faith, then we’ve become nothing but a bunch of Pharisees.  No, the Christian faith is dying with Jesus to rise with Him.  That happens in baptism.  That happens every day when you repent.  It’s losing your life to gain it.

You have inherited eternal life.  It is yours by grace through faith; it’s a gift, not of your doing, all because of Jesus.  You don’t do anything to inherit eternal life.

No, you receive eternal life as the gift that it is.  And anything that gets in the way of you receiving it–whether its riches or the religion of your heart–has to go.  God will see to it that it does, because what He wants to give you is life.  Amen.