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."This is a tricky passage for a number of reasons. The players are Jesus, a rich man, and the disciples, and the issue of concern is money. This is a big issue, especially for affluent people like myself. Now, that's not to say I'm wealthy (ha, I'm a graduate student / intern!) but that I live in the U.S. and have a place to live, food, a car, and many other amenities that make me one of the most fortunate people on this planet. If you have the internet to read this, you're probably in a similar position. It's really easy to take this text on in a manner far too concrete, and end up believing that Jesus is saying that it's not okay to be rich, or that in order to receive salvation you need to meet certain expectations, but I think a better answer can be found by reframing our questions about this text.
The rich man in the Mark text comes to Jesus because he is doing everything right, but something has compelled him to ask Jesus what else he needs. Either he's bragging about all his goodness and expects a pat on the back, or he has a sense that perhaps he's missing something in his faith walk. I tend to think it's the latter. To me, this sounds like the behavior of somebody who is trying really hard to live out his call but knows it's impossible for him. The man knows his heart, he knows he has many possessions and he probably enjoys them very much, just like we do.
Thankfully, the story doesn't end after the man goes away grieving, but Jesus explains that what seems impossible is possible. Jesus says that a rich man (and all of us) gain eternal life because of God's work, which is great news. But I think it's also important to think about what it means to enter the kingdom of heaven. You see, the concern of the man was "eternal life", but the concern of Jesus was entering the kingdom of heaven. Eternal life is included in the "kingdom of heaven" but I don't think that's the whole concern for Jesus. Instead, Jesus wants us to receive the transformative power of his life, death, and resurrection now. The rich man was following all the commandments, but something was impeding him from entering into the present reality of Jesus' transforming life. Jesus identified the source of this impediment for this man: his wealth.
To me, the important question in this text isn't how we can earn our way to heaven, or even how we will be saved. The real question is, what's getting in the way of us being active participants in bringing the kingdom here now? And what can we do about it? The rich man loved his wealth enough that being told to sell it grieved him. How can you serve your neighbors when you serve wealth? We serve wealth and love wealth, but we also serve and love other things inappropriately--our jobs, our lifestyles, our spouses and partners, our status, anxieties, fears, pleasure, and tons of other things. We know that the way to fulfill the whole of the law, bring the kingdom here, is to "love God and love your neighbor" and we can't do that effectively if we're serving something else, can we?
What this text challenges me to do is look at what exactly I'm putting my energy into that is preventing me from loving God and others the way that I should. Are you dedicating all your time to the mecca of sports and leisure? Are you more concerned with your 401k than the homeless guy on the street? Do you value your sleep more than prayer? What are your obstacles? We've all got 'em! The good news is, as always, that you're not alone in struggling against those things, because as we know from this text, with God all things are possible.