This story from Mark’s Gospel is commonly called “The Rich Man.” Frequently the focal point of commentary on the story is the instruction Jesus gives to the unnamed man: “Sell what you have and follow me.”

But to dwell on the dramatic divestment aspect of the exchange between the man and Jesus causes what I believe are the critical underpinnings of the story to be lost. The context of this encounter is formed by the ancient words God entrusted to Moses – the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue — words that would provide Judaism’s essential framework. And if essential to Judaism, essential to Jesus. And if essential to Jesus, something we should pay attention to.

The historian Thomas Cahill writes of the origin and abiding truth of the commandments: “If I can peer through the mists of history and see the begrimed, straightforward faces straining upward toward the terrors of Mount Sinai and if I can imagine the simple souls trudging through the whole of history—all the ordinary people down the ages in need of moral guidance in all the incredibly various situations and cultures this planet has known—it must be admitted that it would be fairly impossible to improve upon the Decalogue as we have it. The sins it catalogues are great sins, and those it does not mention explicitly—such as withholding sustenance from those who have nothing—can be deduced from it…there are few who do not know that if we were to keep these commandments our world would be an entirely different place. This is such a simple, incontestable thing to say that it sounds banal. But for all our resourcefulness we have never yet managed to do it.”[1]

We have never yet managed to do it. Yet the unnamed man in Mark’s Gospel says he has honored these commandments, all his life.

Who among us can say the same?

  1. K. Chesterton wrote, “Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.” [2]

We are too timid to endure responsibilities. If it happened in Annandale or Ankara, in Oregon or Afghanistan, what is that to me? Jesus might respond by reminding us of the two great commandments – love God, love your neighbor – great commandments, great responsibilities.

These commandments, and the responsibilities they bring, do not change over time and are not altered by situation. They are not one way for me, and another way for you; one way for people we know, and another way for people we don’t know; one way for people like us, and another way for people unlike us. Like the rain that falls on the just and the unjust, they apply equally to everyone. Cahill writes of their “famous absoluteness …. They require no justification, nor can they be argued away. They are not dependent upon circumstances, nor may they be set aside because of special considerations. They are not … ‘ten challenges.’ They are exactly what they seem to be—and there is no getting around them or (to be more spatially precise) out from under them….They have been received by billions as reasonable, necessary, even unalterable because they are written on human hearts and always have been. They were always there in the inner core of the human person—in the deep silence each one of us carries within.”[3]

When I hear this story of the unnamed man asking Jesus about eternal life, my heart goes out to him. I think of the “deep silence” he carried within, and his determination in seeking out Jesus. His honesty in confessing his desire for eternal life.  And the frustration I imagine he felt in being presented with a challenge he simply could not meet. I would love there to be a happy ending for him: to receive a blessing from Jesus, or to be able to rise to the occasion and sell everything, give the money away, and follow Jesus. But this is not to be.

However, there is a bright spot in this story. Jesus, knowing full well the imperfections and failings and strivings and yearnings of this man, looks at him and loves him. Isn’t that what each one of us wants? To have Jesus see us and love us, despite who we are, because of who we are.

Rather than calling this story “the rich young man,” we might think of it as the calling of the unnamed disciple. Follow me: the words are less commandment than call; less instruction than invitation.

What happens next is a prediction of everything that will happen in the coming weeks on Jesus’ journey.[4] Jesus looks at the world with love, and the world does not love back. Jesus invites the world to follow him, and the world turns away. But Jesus just keeps on loving, giving up his body and his blood. And the invitation – “Follow me” — still stands.


[1] The Gifts of the Jews, pp143-4

[2] What’s Wrong with the World

[3] The Gifts of the Jews, p 142

[4] Carol Penner’s sermon at http://www.canadianmennonite.org/articles/one-thing-lacking provided valuable perspective on this passage.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Sermons