And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
Give to the Poor
It’s indisputable. Jesus favored helping those in need, and most of us could do that a lot more than we do. If our gospel reading today makes you:
- take out your checkbook today and write a check to help the poor
- want to adjust your lifestyle so that you have more resources available to help the poor
- moves you to get involved with organizations that help those in need
… all of that would be good.
The early church practiced extreme generosity towards its poorer members. The first Christians shared their possessions (Acts 2:44-45). They took offerings for other churches (Acts 11:28-38, 1 Corinthians 16:1-3).
John Wesley’s advice on money was this: “Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” Most of us live by only the first of those three sentences.
Give to the poor. Jesus advised it, and Jesus was not alone. Charity is not exclusively a Christian attribute. Generally speaking, generosity was already considered to be an admirable trait when Jesus came on the scene. If “be generous” – or even “be extremely generous” – is all that we hear in today’s reading, then we’ve missed the gospel message, for “give to the poor” is not all that Jesus said.
He said, “Sell all you that have …. and give to the poor.” Even the most generous of us are not likely to do all that Jesus advised the man in our reading to do.
Sell All That You Have
To whom does Jesus give this advice? To all people, in all times and places? To this man only, because of some particular trait in his life?
Why does Jesus give this advice? Because kindness to the poor is the essence of religion? Because poverty is morally superior to wealth? Because one can only earn salvation through acts of extreme goodness?
Let’s set this passage within the context of the gospel Mark to suggest some answers to these questions.
As part of his work, Jesus gathered an itinerant community around him of those who responded to his proclamation of the coming kingdom. Like Jesus, they shared in the power of God (6:7), but they also share Jesus’ poverty and vulnerability (6:8). When Jesus called his itinerant disciples, they left their nets and their homes (1:16, 1:20) to accompany him.
They adopted a mendicant lifestyle (6:8). Like Jesus, they depended upon the receptive hospitality of those to whom the kingdom was proclaimed and the kingdom’s gracious power revealed. Those who received Jesus’ “little ones” (9:42) opened their lives to the future power of the kingdom, but those who rejected the disciples’ message by refusing hospitality closed themselves off to the kingdom’s grace (6:10-11).
Thus, Jesus’ itinerant disciples lived a life of vulnerability, depending upon God and exposing themselves to the power of evil in this world. Even in their poverty, Jesus demonstrated that God would provide for them. Mark twice tells the story of the feeding of a multitude (5000 in 6:35-44 and 4000 in 8:1-8). Twice Mark says, “And they ate and were satisfied” (6:41, 8:8). The disciples leave all – including family and farms – to follow Jesus, but Jesus gives them a new faith-based family (3:33-35, 10:30) with new, shared resources. Even God’s providence and the support of the community of faith, however, will not protect the disciples from experiencing evil in this world.
The wealthy man of chapter 10, then, is not unique in Jesus’ call on his life. What Jesus asks of him is not significantly different than what he has asked of many others. Jesus asked this man to abandon himself solely to the grace of God as a member of Jesus’ itinerant community. The man’s wealth makes it harder for him to answer the call and Mark’s setting this episode of the gospel just before the final entry into Jerusalem reveals just what is at stake.
Jesus’ gathered community represented a form of prophetic demonstration, a sort of living parable. Gathering the community of disciples was a prophetic act, like the Jeremiah buying a field (Jeremiah 32:6-15) or Hosea marrying an unfaithful woman (Hosea 1:2-9). The dramatic act of gathering and sending the disciples preached a sermon without words:
- The gathering of the community was a sign of God’s coming new creation. God was doing something new.
- It demonstrated kingdom values – the values of the new world which God would create.
- The itinerant disciples’ total dependence upon the grace of God represented a lived-out, bet-your-life-on-it (“existential”) form of faith. It shows us what faith really is.
It should be noted that Jesus encountered very many people whom he did not call to join his itinerant band of disciples. Many responded in other ways to the grace of God in their lives. Jesus did not call most of those who were healed, fed or forgiven to follow him on the road. So, even though Jesus’ call to the rich man in Mark 10 was not unique, neither was it universal.
The word “call” is the important word here. The important question is, “In what form is Christ calling you to live out your faith?” The religious word for that is “vocation.” To what specific way of life is Christ calling you? How do you know your vocation? Through …
- Bible reading and prayer
- Guiding of the church and other believers
- Circumstances of your life
- Talents, abilities and interests
- Thinking and gut feelings
It’s not an exact science.
For most of us, God’s call is going to look pretty ordinary. Jesus calls most of us to belong to him in the midst of our family raising, working at a job, and so forth. You can see that even in the New Testament church. Even though the early church practiced Christ-like generosity, the church was not merely an extension of Jesus’ original band of disciples. (The scope of those differences is beyond what we can discuss here. Put simply, the New Testament Church was not a mendicant religious order – or a communal utopia for that matter.)
I like this quote from the Cross Alone Lutheran District:
We reject the false teaching that would elevate advocacy for self-chosen high-visibility causes above the common participation of Christians in the life of the world as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, employers, workers, artists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, etc. The Word of God is silenced among us and driven out of the Church whenever the daily vocation of Christians is denigrated.
I resonate with that statement more and more, and yet I know that God does still call many men and women to extraordinary journeys away from home. To what way of life is God calling you? There is no better answer than, “Do your best to discern God’s call, and then follow it in faith.”
Whatever one’s vocation, Jesus’ call of the first disciples reveals something essential about our faith: we should love God more than anything in this world, trust him in all circumstances and seek his kingdom first of all.
To grasp on to God, we need to let go of the other things that rule our hearts.
Some religions teach detachment because they believe the material world is evil or illusory. The Christian faith proclaims that creation is good! Our primary attachment, however, must be to the creator and not to the creation. We seek the giver and not the gift.
It’s not just material wealth, however, that can hold on to us. Jesus also warned about our attachment to our families or to our work. All of these things are good gifts from God, but they are not God.
Jesus told a parable about a merchant who found a pearl of great worth and sold all that he had to buy it. And another parable about a man who found a treasure in a field, and sold all that he had to obtain it. God himself is that pearl of great price and that treasure in the field. Christ calls all of us, in our own ways, to seek him with all our hearts, and to put away all other attachments that would separate us from him.
All Things are Possible
So how many of us are really able to do that?
When Jesus told the disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to be saved, they asked, “Who then can be saved.” And he answered, “With God, all things are possible.”
The Gospel of Mark is the gospel of imperfect discipleship. The disciples – all of them – are hard headed, spiritually blind, and self-centered.
Immediately after this episode – and just before Jesus goes to the cross – two of them ask for special places in the kingdom – at Jesus’ right and left hands. Have they understood nothing?
Just before this episode, the father of a boy with seizures gets it right. When Jesus tells him, “All things are possible for the one who believes,” the father responds, “I believe … help my unbelief.”
In Mark’s gospel, all of us are a mixture of faith and faithlessness.
You will NOT earn your salvation, put God in your debt or become more holy by following what you believe to be your call in life. You won’t hear the call perfectly or obey it perfectly, and your life is too entangled in this sinful world to have any illusion of holiness about what you are doing. But do not despair, since that’s not what the Christian faith is about anyway. You are a sinner saved by grace.
In Jesus, God demands from us everything … but we will never fully give what God demands! The gospel for us is that God provides everything!
We will never fully understand God’s call, and we will never fully follow even where we do understand. In Christ, we’ll grow some in our ability to understand and obey, and that’s good, but we won’t approach anything like true holiness in ourselves. We can’t learn enough or give enough or do enough to earn God’s favor. Even the best, most unselfish actions we take are wrapped up in our sinfulness, and we’ll never untangle that knot.
The rich man in Mark 10 approached Jesus with a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus did not give him one more hurdle over which to jump, but rather invited him to trust fully in God.
We do not live as faithfully as God demands, but God’s grace is greater than our faithlessness and lack of trust. I believe … help my unbelief. Thanks be to God.