Jesus is offensive. There is no two ways about it. Jesus is offensive.
Take Sunday’s scripture reading from Mark 10:17-31. “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom …. It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom” (Mark 10:23, 25). It is blunt. It is direct. And it is offensive to all but the poorest of the poor. And may even be offensive to the poor who might hope, one day, to be wealthy.
Of course, it is also hyperbolic. It is an exaggeration used to make a point. Let’s take a look.
The rich man (Mark 10:16-22) approached Jesus and asked what he must do to obtain eternal life.
In what I believe is a playful tone, Jesus prods the man about calling him a “Good Teacher.”
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God.”
Do you hear the playfulness in Jesus’ tone? You call me ‘good’ … but only God is ‘good’ …. hint, hint …
But then Jesus turns from his playful yet potent banter to the heart of the argument, running through all kinds of dos and don’ts, largely reflecting the Ten Commandments. The man answers that he has kept all these rules since his childhood.
Really? Has he kept all these rules, and since his childhood? Have any of us kept all the rules? That seems like an overly positive assessment of his own faithfulness. But, it’s what the story says, and the Scripture itself doesn’t cast doubt on the man’s claim … even if we can rightfully be suspicious of those claims ourselves.
Jesus looks at the man and loves him.
That’s important. Jesus loves this man. Whatever Jesus says or does next, Mark reminds us that it is rooted in love.
Jesus says to him, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”
Holy inversions, Batman! Just look at that language right there – the man who has everything “lacks” one thing, and that “lack” is everything he owns. What he sees as his greatest asset is the source of what he lacks. What is, isn’t. What he owns is what he doesn’t have. That which he claims possession of is what he is missing.
A few thoughts, in no particular order:
Jesus talks about money, and economic matters, more than any other another issue. How we use our money and our assets is a key part of how we live our faith. There is no denying this fact.
I have often heard the hard punch of this story interpreted away and whittled down, saying that this story is not a condemnation of wealth. In this interpretation Jesus’ teaching is very particular, applicable pretty much to this one particular man, who – it is claimed – had an extremely unhealthy relationship with his money, and that money was *his* particular block to salvation, loving God, and to following Jesus. By making it about this one man, this interpretation tries to limit this teaching’s application to our lives.
If this story were told in isolation, *maybe* that would be a reasonable interpretation. But not only does the Gospel text NOT say such things about this man and his money (remember, the Bible editorializes all the time, but fails to do so here), but instead the text goes on to show Jesus speaking in no uncertain terms about the spiritual perils that wealth creates. “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! … It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom” (Mark 10:23, 25).
God’s Word is Law and Gospel, at the same time. This is a classical lens through which Lutherans have read Scripture for 500 years. Through that lens mahy of us would see this text from Mark 10 largely as law, as God’s Word showing us our sin and driving us to our knees in despair. How do any of us who have some degree of financial means and material comfort not read this word and feel uncomfortable? Christian faith is not all rainbows and butterflies. It is also sacrifice and hard truths, humility and sin, death and new life.
Yet thanks be to God, Law is not the only aspect of God’s Word. We celebrate that “the first will be last and the last will be first” (Mark 10:31). Reversals happen, and we who are loved by Jesus yet who are in some sense captive to our worldly possessions can find release from this sinful captivity now and in the time to come. We should take joy in noticing that the man’s wealth was also the source of his lack, recognizing that even in our stuff we do not find what we need. True joy and fulfillment comes not from stuff but from God’s Word, a word that is incarnate in Jesus and in his body, the church on earth. As much as this teaching can be a hard one to hear, it is also affirming and truth-telling. This truth-telling then frees us relate with our possessions differently, share what we have generously, and trust in the promises of God more confidently.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t throw the man under the bus. Mark tells us that the man “was dismayed … and went away saddened, because he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22). But Jesus’ earlier affection (vs 21) holds true, and Jesus lets this man go without condemning him. It is possible for us, too, to let people with whom we have some difference go without condemning them.
Also, let’s not forget that this man was likely a good-hearted man. He claims to have followed all the rules. He sought out Jesus, perhaps earnestly and humbly, seeking assurance of his salvation. Good people can be conflicted. Good people can have spiritual blind spots and logs in their own eyes (Matthew 7:5).
“Then who can be saved?” the disciples ask. “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible with God” (Mark 10:26-27). These words echo the angel Gabriel’s words from Luke 1:37, announcing to Mary that she would carry the Son of God. God blesses. God works wonders. God – and God alone – gives the promise of salvation. We cannot buy our way into righteousness, or into salvation, or into God’s good graces. Of course, purchasing prestige and position is the way of the world, and sadly has been the way of the church at different times in its history. But it is not the way of God nor of Christ’s church. And whether we’re talking about money or about purchasing our spiritual stature with good works and right belief, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace.