Today, our reading comes to us from the gospel of Mark. The rich young ruler’s encounter with Jesus is a familiar, if somewhat disquieting story–but Mark’s account of this story is slightly different from the rest. So to help keep us from tuning out such familiar words, I want us to listen for a couple of particular things: first, how does Jesus feel about the rich young ruler? Second, why does Jesus ask the young ruler (and later, everyone who would wish to follow him) to give up their possessions and comforts?

Scripture: Mark 10:14-21

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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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.”’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 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.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 

 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!’ 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! 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.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 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, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

In her book Rising Strong, researcher and social worker Brené Brown tells a story about a time when she had a really terrible experience with another speaker at a conference, with whom she was guilted into sharing a hotel room. After this terrible experience, she goes home and rants to her therapist about it. And her therapist offers her a piece of wisdom she’s not quite ready to accept:

“Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could that weekend?”

She, unsurprisingly, does not. At least, not yet. But her therapist continues: “I do…think that in general people are doing the best they can.”[1]

Brené is skeptical, but she’s a researcher at heart, so she starts polling—asking grocery checkout clerks, her family and friends, a bank teller, and a few hundred others: do you believe that people are doing the best they can?

Among her findings were two things that are important for our reading of this text:

First, the people who were the most self-critical and perfectionist were the ones most likely to say “DEFINITELY NOT.” They didn’t think they were doing their best, so why should they believe that of others?

Second, the people who did believe that most people were doing the best they could—or, at least didn’t outright reject the idea—they were the people with the best boundaries. She writes: “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”[2]

So why do I tell this story?

Because encompassed within this story are more questions than what we do with our money: questions about what it means to be generous with our assumptions, our spirits, our time and energy, and our compassion. Even now, we have to decide how we’re going to look at the rich young ruler: is he just greedy, self-righteous, and self-absorbed?

Or is he really doing the best he can?

Mark’s version of this story is worded differently than the versions we find in Matthew and Luke – this is the only one where the young man kneels before Jesus, and where Jesus’ response is not cool and distanced, but love.

According to this narrative, I really do believe that the rich young ruler was making an honest effort to honor Jesus, and to love God with all that he did and all that he had. He’s not trying to trick Jesus or show off. He’s not vying for brownie points. That’s why Jesus loves him, and why he leaves so sad and disheartened.

Peter, on the other hand, is seeking some reassurance that he and the rest of the disciples have, indeed, done what Jesus is asking. We’re okay, right?

And Jesus does offer him that comfort. Yes, he says. You put down your fishing nets. You left the tax collector’s booth. You left your families at home to come follow me all over the countryside, preaching and teaching and healing and learning. I asked you to turn your lives upside down, and you did.

But here’s the confusing part: Jesus also talks about a reward here on earth—a hundredfold what they’ve left behind. But these disciples don’t wind up with massive farms, or even large biological families. We’ll find most of them, in the end, martyrs without any riches to speak of.

But if we turn the idea of ownership on its head, we will find these disciples were rich indeed—they became brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. At the beginnings of the church, every orphan and widow became their family. As they walked from place to place, they gleaned wheat and grain from the edges of many fields. Their reward, in this life, was a new way of seeing the riches all around them. In embracing uncertainty and vulnerability, they not only got to see Jesus in action, but later they became the foundations for the church as we know it.

The rich young ruler couldn’t do both – he couldn’t hold on to his stuff and manage his estates and follow Jesus all over the Judean countryside. He couldn’t hang on to his status and be able to understand what Jesus meant when he said “pick up your cross and follow me.”

The best quote I’ve ever heard about Jesus’ directive to the rich young ruler is this:

God doesn’t ask every single one of us to sell everything we own and give the money away. But if that statement fills you with an overwhelming sense of relief, you might want to check your priorities.

So that leaves us with the big question: where do we find ourselves in this passage? Are we the rich, with too much stuff that distracts us, or the poor in need of a little help? Are we the rich young ruler, who would rather walk away from Jesus than make the sacrifices he asks of us, or Peter, in need of some consolation that our sacrifices are worth it?

Unless Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has decided to join us today–all of us can think of someone richer than us. So does that mean we’re off the hook to work on being good stewards of the money we have? Absolutely not.

At the same time, no matter how little we have, we can also think of someone poorer than us. Does that mean we’re required to sell everything? If you feel God calling you in that direction, sure.

Peter and the rich young ruler show us the two extremes of what happens when Jesus tries to turn your life upside down, but most of us are actually called somewhere in the middle—somewhere between physically leaving our homes and jobs and families to follow Jesus and staying put, never changing, never growing further into the generosity that Jesus shows us.

At the core of this story is the reminder that sometimes, following Jesus is hard. On some days, it seems darn near impossible. When Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who has so much to give it up in order to follow him, even the people who have seen him work miracles throw up their hands: “well, then who could be saved?”

Jesus doesn’t reply: “well, that’s how it is—deal with it.”

He reminds us that for God, all things are possible. He seems to be foreshadowing his own death and resurrection—because he knows that we won’t be able to get it right all the time on our own. We won’t always have the strength to say ‘yes, Lord!’ We will need a whole lot of strength and encouragement and forgiveness and grace before our time is up, and that is what Christ Jesus provides for us.

And as someone who does this whole following Jesus thing for a living, I’ll let you in on a secret: the struggle is absolutely real, but the struggle is so worth it.

I know this because two years ago, I didn’t know most of you—and now I have this amazing church family, and I am so proud and so grateful to be your pastor.  We haven’t gotten here without bumps along the way; (remember that time I forgot my sermon in my office?) but we’ll continue to laugh and sigh and struggle our way through being God’s people together.

But the faithful work we put in to learning who God is, learning how to be generous with our hearts and our wallets, growing into this new sort of life that feels a little topsy-turvy—that is the work that will bear fruit in the world: grace, multiplied tenfold; compassion, fifty-fold; curiosity and vulnerability and connection across boundary lines, a hundred-fold.

If you listen to the pundits and the commentators and the politicians, this sort of life, this sort of culture, is impossible. Unless, of course, God’s people decide to actually let Jesus turn their worlds upside down – then, you never know what could happen.

[1] Brown, Brené . Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (p. 107). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, 115.