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The Trap
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
03/04/12

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
MARCH 4, 2012

The Trap
Numbers 21:4-9
Mark 10:17-31


A lot of people like the story we just read in Mark because they read it conveniently and inaccurately. They turn it into a morality tale on the evils of the rich and then read it in a way that it could not possibly be about them. Mark tells us that this man who approached Jesus and asked, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" had "great possessions." Matthew adds the detail that he is a "young" man, and Luke calls him "ruler," and adds that he is "very rich." So we have conflated all three Gospel accounts of this story and named it Jesus' story of the "Rich Young Ruler." Today we might add that he is a member of the "1 percent," the wealthiest group of Americans whom we are currently blaming for the vast majority of our social ills. Saying the Rich Young Ruler is part of the "1 percent" further assures us that this morality tale could not possibly be about us, but about those awful, amoral, elite rich people who Jesus really nails.

Let's admit it. We often do not like successful people who seemingly "have it all." We may like their stories, but we don't like them. Two years ago one of the most popular movies in America told the story of how unlikable, and what a jerk, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, really is. The movie told us a story we want to hear. And who really likes a Donald Trump or Steve Jobs?! I have just read Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson. I admire what he accomplished, but he is very hard to like, given how cruel to others and often blind to his own shortcomings that he could be.

Most of us, as much as we like our own riches, and attached as we are to our own wealth, and as reluctant as we are to describe our money using words like "wealth" and "riches," do not like the riches of others, especially those who have more wealth than we do. It is not that we do not like the rich in general; we just don't like those who are richer than we are! So the Rich Young Ruler has one strike against him out of the gate. Secondly, he is young, and we really don't like young people who "have it all." We might even accuse him of possessing an "entitlement mentality" and add the word "arrogant" as we throw him under the bus.

But Jesus is considerably less harsh on this man than we are prone to be. All three Gospel accounts of this story, if you read them with care, tell us he is a virtuous man. He knows the law and he has kept it. All the commands that Jesus mentions he tells Him matter-of-factly that he has kept. If Jesus listed these commandments to us and added "coveting" or "love your neighbor as yourself," as Matthew does, it would silence most of us, and shame us too. "Teacher, all these I have kept since my youth," he says confidently. And this man is not bragging, because Jesus has prompted his reply. He is good and he has done good. That is no small thing.

Secondly, the New Testament tells us that this Rich Young Ruler is a seeker. "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He comes to Jesus much like Nicodemus did, sensing that he lacked something important. In Matthew's version, he asks one more question, "What do I still lack?" I do not think these are insincere questions, and they do not simply speak of conceit or greed or pride. Rather, he is genuinely interested in his own salvation, and he senses that even with all he has and all he has done, something is still missing. He is incomplete and he knows it. He comes to Jesus not out of pride, but out of a certain emptiness. Having done from his youth all the things he was supposed to do, and having everything life has to offer, "having it all," he asks, "What do I still lack?" That's a poignant question and I admire him for having the courage to ask it. A whole lot of folks I know who feel the same emptiness just go on a shopping spree or try to use people to fill the void.

Then comes the punch line from Jesus: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." "When he heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions." Or, as the New International Version puts it, "His face fell, and he went away sad, because he had great wealth." "Aha!", we say. He proves here how greedy he is, how much he has trusted in money rather than Jesus. And too often, this is where the Rich Young Ruler exits, never to be heard of again in the scriptures.

But this is exactly where the story for us begins, or where it can begin, where you and I enter into it! Who of us willingly and easily, and without some sorrow, would give up that which is most dear to us, in order to follow some vague future destiny that Jesus calls us to pursue? Who here would give up all you have worked to save for a lifetime and not be sad about having to do it? The problem with this rich young man is not that he is not good; it is that he is just not good enough. Or more to Jesus' point, goodness is not good enough.

His position is ours exactly. You and I also want to think of ourselves as virtuous people. We try so hard to be good people. We may not always do it, we may not always have the right definition of what the good is, but most of the time we are people who strive to be good. (And God save us if those who are virtuous ever ceased to strive to do good!) We may or may not be rich, but we all have things, God-given things, that enrich us, and with which we would be unwilling to part. (And additionally, we all have "many possessions" with which we would have parted long ago if we were not so attached to them!)

So just to make sure you understand that this is not just about money and great wealth and therefore applies only to those who have more than you do, let's hear Jesus say what He says in a different idiom: "One thing you lack; give away your talent, give away your time, your brains, your looks, your business partnership, your home, your pension plan, your children, your spouse, your dreams, your ambitions. Give up all of it; and come, follow me."

This is not just about money. It is about us! And since this is what Jesus is saying, we better know that not one of us here would be willing to do that. We would all of us go away from Jesus very sad. And we would all of us hold onto these treasures, these God-given treasures, like the drowning person in a shipwreck holds onto his gold rather than let it go to reach for a life preserver.

So the disciples hear this exchange. And Jesus says to them, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples are "perplexed" at these words. Actually, the word "horrified," or "appalled," might be better, for most Jews in Jesus' day believed that wealth was a sign of God's blessing, not a hindrance or a barrier. Then Jesus says the same thing again to His "horrified" disciples. And He adds one of His best known sayings: "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."

So if this Rich Young Ruler who was virtuous, who "had it all," cannot be saved, then who can be?! That is what the disciples ask Jesus. "Jesus looked at them…." I imagine Jesus looked at them just as He looked at the Rich Young Ruler, that is, He looked at them with great love in His eyes. And He said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." "Eternal life" is a God-thing, not something that can ever be our own doing. There is a prayer I love that begins, "Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…." Thank God that salvation and eternal life are God's business and not ours!

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" There is nothing we can "do." If the Rich Young Ruler could not do it, neither can you. "With mortals, it is impossible, but not with God; with God, all things are possible."

I once read of a denomination in America that spoke of "salvation by character." As important as character is, it will never save you, for who will ever have one sterling enough? I love William Temple's words on this: "The only thing I contribute to my own salvation is the sin which Christ alone can redeem." Or, as Jesus said it, "With God, all things are possible." Even the salvation of the Rich Young Ruler! Even your salvation and mine. (God can even get the camel to pass through the proverbial needle's eye!) God saves us in spite of ourselves because of who God is. Jesus said it. "Only God is good." And if this good God can make the universe out of nothing, and call it into being with His Word, think of what God can do with you and me?

AMEN.
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