However, I do not mean relative in the sense that many will think, or hope, that I do. Yes, relative to Bill Gates I am not rich, but this is a meaningless comparison. Rich is not relative to those who have more than me, but to those who have less. Let’s say there are two of us in a room. My clothes are in need of a wash, my belly rumbles with hunger and I have all of two pennies in my pocket. However, the other in the room has empty pockets. I am rich. You see what I mean when I say rich is a relative term?
“If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you?” (1 John 3:17, TNIV)
This simplifies the argument of how we define rich immensely. Do we base it on median income? On savings rates? On education? How about employment? No, it is based on me, relative to the other. It’s relational.
This should be profoundly disturbing to us. If we will have three meals today, then we are rich relative to those who will have fewer. If we will sleep with a roof over our heads tonight (made of something other than cardboard), then we are rich relative to those who will not. If we will have a choice of what clothes to wear tomorrow, then we are rich relative to those who will not. You get my point. We are rich, and therefore, Jesus’ teachings regarding the rich apply to us. And that, to put it mildly, should give us cause for concern.
This leads us to one of my favorite passages of Scripture. And when I say favorite, I mean “keeps me up at night.”
I have a strange affinity for some of the nameless characters of the Bible. You know who I’m talking about—the Woman at the Well, the Rich Young Ruler—folks like that. I’m not sure what it is about them that appeals to me. Maybe it’s the way they show up, teach us something, then disappear. That we don’t even know their names highlights the fact that we know next to nothing about them. They’re an object lesson, not a story. Maybe without names, it’s easier for us to imagine ourselves in the same position.
“That could be me. In fact, I think that is me.”
The Rich Young Ruler, in particular, has caught my attention. In biblical times he would have been an exception as a rich man, but I think he’s more of an Every Man for us today, at least in the West. He could be the poster child for our materialistic culture, and as I stated earlier, this is not to be taken lightly.
As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he 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. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:17–22)
I like how The Message phrases verse 22: “The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he expected to hear, and he walked off with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.” That kind of makes me wonder how tightly we are holding on to things. How tightly I am holding on to things.
With that in mind, let’s jump for a moment to Luke 4. Jesus is actually reading from Isaiah when He stands in the synagogue at Nazareth and says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (4:18). And again in Matthew, when John’s crew has come to see if Jesus is the real deal: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Have you ever wondered why the Gospel of Jesus is good news for the poor? I mean, it’s good news for all of us, but why the poor in particular? What is it about this Gospel that would sound like good news to the poor?
Now, let’s fade back to our friend the Rich Young Ruler. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor …”
Uh-oh. I’m not sure I like where this is going.
If the rich were to sell what they have and give to the poor, that would be good news, wouldn’t it? I mean, if I were poor it would be good news. If I were rich … well, that’s another story. (Wait a minute … I am rich.)
I wonder if the Gospel is good news for the poor, in one sense, precisely because it’s bad news for the rich? It was certainly bad news for my friend the Rich Young Ruler. Bad enough that he refused, and walked away—very sad indeed.
The Gospel of Jesus as bad news? Blasphemy, I know. But still … worth thinking about.
There’s another element of this story that keeps me up at night. What did Jesus do when our friend walked away? Did Jesus call him back, saying, “Look, I was only kidding. We actually need more rich folks in My crew. Keep what you have and let’s get going”? Or, barring that, did He say, “No can do? OK, how about half? Can you sell half of what you own and give that away?” No. As our friend walked away, Jesus, whom the Scriptures tell us loved the man, just let him go. Goodbye. Spend a few minutes thinking about that little nugget. Not very seeker-sensitive of Jesus, was it? Jesus let the guy go.
Whenever I hear this passage discussed, the speaker is usually quick to point out that despite what Jesus said, it isn’t really about money. No, it’s about the thing we hold back, the thing we just can’t give up. The thing that is more important to us than following Jesus.
I’ve got two responses to that approach. First, to be blunt, I don’t think it’s correct. Jesus’ response to the disciples as they stood there, mouths hanging open, should tell us that He was, in fact, referring to money.
Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! 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."
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" (Mark 10:23–26, NRSV)
But let’s assume for the moment that these well-intentioned naysayers are correct. It’s not about money, but about the thing that takes priority in our life. Unfortunately, this does not make me feel any better. For most of us, that thing that keeps us from completely surrendering to Jesus is money. Or material wealth. Or prosperity. Or security. Whatever you want to call it. Either way, directly or indirectly, this passage seems to be about money.
"How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!"
As much as I’d like to pretend otherwise, I’m forced to deal with the inescapable fact that Jesus said that. He said that.