Mark 10:17-31 (NRSV)
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Spoiler alert - there will be no camels in this message. I know it’s fun to talk about camels, and how Jesus probably wasn’t really talking about a sewing needle but rather a man-sized gate into Jerusalem that camels couldn’t fit through, and how some rich lady is said to have boiled a camel down into broth in order to prove that a camel could, indeed, go through the eye of a needle (yuck!), but even still . . . there will be no camels in this message. The camel tends to be as distracting to the message as that whole Giant Fish thing is in the story of Jonah.
I always feel a little sorry for the rich man in this story. He seems to be a genuinely good man. He does everything he has always been taught is right and Jesus praises him for that. Then Jesus throws him a curve ball and says, “There is just one more little thing you need to do . . . give away everything you have to the poor and follow me.” And the rich man went away sorrowing, knowing he couldn’t do as Jesus asked.
Peter said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you,” all the while thinking, “Yay us! We rock! We’re disciples! We’re awesome! We are so very much better than that rich guy.” Yeah, well, maybe. But they simply walked away from whatever they had - fishing boats, farms, homes, wives, children, mothers-in-law . . . They said goodbye to their old lives and walked away, and surely their families would experience some hardship, but whatever they had left behind was still there so their sons and brothers and even their wives, could continue supporting the families. That’s an entirely different proposition than Jesus made to the rich young man.
We think of the rich man as probably a hedonist - someone who just uses his money to enjoy himself. You know, the kind who had chests full of treasure and rich clothing, jewel encrusted plates and wine cups, a stable of racing camels, several homes, a private caravan to travel around with, concubines . . . all the of the glitz and glamour we associate with great wealth. It is possible he did have and love all of those things. But it is also possible that those weren’t the things that made giving it all to the poor so difficult. In the first century, a wealthy man would be responsible not only for his own welfare and that of his wife and children, but also most of his family members as well. He would have a houseful of servants, who also had families depending upon him. A large number of tradespeople, scholars, farmers, artisans and neighbors would look to him to keep them and their families employed, even settle any disputes that arise among them. The rich man went away grieved. . . maybe because he really loved his lifestyle, but maybe because he knew that doing what Jesus asked meant casting his loved ones and all the others who depended upon him into the streets, with no one to turn to. Except the Temple, of course, which would make sure they had some food to eat but couldn’t do much about homes or employment for them. Kind of like now. If Bill Gates sold off everything he owned and gave every cent to the poor, a lot of people who depend on him and his wife would have a hard time of it. They might not become homeless - although Bill and Melinda would - but many would be hard put to replace that income. Of course, Bill Gates has actually decided to give the vast majority of his wealth away, but in such a way that it doesn’t negatively impact those who depend upon him.
Jesus wasn’t telling the rich man, “Hey, go make a bunch of people homeless.” He wasn’t even saying that all rich people are bad and unredeemable, although we often look at passages like this one that way. What he was saying is that the more stuff we have, the more we have to focus on stuff and the administration of that stuff, the less we tend to turn our attention where it belongs - to God. He was saying walk away from all your distractions and follow me. Give to others those things that you treasure, for my sake.
People ask us to give all the time. Mostly money. I get urgent pleas to help this or that cause every day, and there are so many of them that if I gave just $10 every time I received a request I would probably have nothing to live on. I give a bit to the causes that mean the most to me - Week of Compassion and the Reconciliation offering, for example. But there are other pleas made that we may not even hear as real requests, because of the way they are asked.
“Give me a break!” Sometimes muttered under our breath and sometimes addressed to God or even a person, this is usually said in frustration, when whatever is going on is just a bit more than we can take. What we are really saying is, “Please, have compassion. Allow me to get through this thing before adding more on top.” It might be a waitress who just got hit with 5 tables at once, or a friend whose car broke down the day before they have a job interview after being unemployed for a while. Hear their plea, and respond. Assure the waitress you understand. Help your friend find a ride. Or listen and find out what the problem is. Sometimes just being listened to is all the break we really need. Give the gift of your heart. Give compassion.
“Give me a minute.” We’ve all heard this, and probably said it. It means, “Please, be patient. Just let me finish this thing I am doing and I will be able to pay attention to whatever you need.” I find that whatever I am doing usually takes longer than anticipated, probably because I am trying to rush to finish so I can give you my attention. That’s usually not a good thing. Like, when I am well aware that there is a long line behind me and I’m trying to stuff my change in my wallet, grab my bags of purchases and get out of the way. I probably don’t need to tell you that those are the times when I am most likely to drop my change or grab just one bag handle and spill everything onto the floor. I end up apologizing profusely to the person behind me and feeling terrible. It’s always better when she says, don’t worry. No rush. Or even just smiles. Give the gift of your time - give patience.
“Give me a hand.” This is not a request for applause, although that really never gets old, right? *eye roll* And this is one request that we actually hear as a plea for help. It might be grabbing a package that’s falling, or helping design something new and cool for the church, or opening a door for someone whose hands are full. The thing is, people often don’t ask for a hand when they need one. I tend to stubbornly try to do everything on my own, like carry all my groceries in from the car in one trip and try to hold them all with one hand while unlocking the door with the other. I will, actually, accept help when offered. I just really hate to ask. Offer your help when you see someone who might need it. Do not be like that Boy Scout who insisted on helping the old lady across the street even though she didn’t want to cross. But do watch for opportunities to reach out a helping hand when someone needs one. Give the gift of observation and effort - reach out in loving care to friend and stranger.
The thing about giving, especially giving of ourselves, is that we usually get back so much more than we gave. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields.” This does not mean that if we give money, we will get lots of money back. You will not find a $100 bill on the ground if you re-post that Facebook meme saying that if repost it you will be blessed with money. You will not win the lottery if you give the last of your savings to that televangelist who needs a new house. Jesus was not suggesting that leaving everything behind in order to follow him would result in great earthly wealth. But when you focus on living as Jesus lived, when you give of yourself as he did, you will find that you have received gifts greater than any earthly wealth. The teachers among us know - seeing a student’s face light up with understanding is a far greater reward than the salary you receive. Anyone who has ever gone on a mission trip, or helped to build a Habitat for Humanity house, or served dinner to the hungry, knows that you leave that work having received far more than you had hoped to give.
The wealthy man of Mark’s gospel left Jesus’ presence grieving, for he did, indeed, have many possessions. He might or might not have be able to comply with Jesus’ request - but probably not. Imagine how you would feel if someone told you to sell everything, pick up an actual cross, and hit the road with nothing. But Mark tells us that Jesus loved him. He didn’t condemn him or say that the rich man was evil. Only that it would be hard for anyone possessing wealth to live in God’s kingdom. Only that because we focus so much on our wealth (or lack thereof) and the preserving and growing of what we do have, instead of focusing on what we have to give, it is very hard to remember that what we are supposed to be doing is loving one another, giving of ourselves to those who need what we have, whatever it may be.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent - the season of repentance and preparation. As part of our walk to Easter with Jesus let us repent, today, of our selfishness. Let us examine our hearts this week, seeking out those occasions and situations where we withhold love from our neighbors. Let us replace those selfish withholdings with giving - reaching out to with patience, compassion, mercy and care to all whom we encounter in our daily lives. Let us commit ourselves, this day, to our Lord, Jesus the Christ, offering our lives - our hands, our feet, our hearts and our minds - as gifts consecrated to our God. Let us commit ourselves to giving the treasures of our hearts to whomever may need what we have to give, in the name of Jesus, for the glory of God.