The Rich Young Ruler, Money, and Downward Mobility

By on Feb 4, 2015

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*Here’s an editorialized version of a sermon on Mark 10 and the rich young ruler. You can watch it here*

Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” And if you’re like me, you tend to agree with Mark Twain.[1]

For example, I don’t understand a lot of the book of Revelation and that bothers me a little bit, but it doesn’t bother me near as much as the Golden Rule…because I do understand it. I’d rather take my chances with the lake of fire than I would treat other people the way I’d want them to treat me.

It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand that bother me. Amen, Mark Twain. And as we continue our series called “Conversations: A Look at Some Run-ins With Jesus”, we’re going to listen in on a conversation that isn’t very hard to understand, and that’s why it bothers me.

So Jesus is setting out on a journey with his disciples when this man runs up to him, kneels down before him, and then asks him, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life? What do I need to do to be a part of God’s everlasting kingdom?”

Jesus responds: “Well, you know the commandments—don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t defraud, honor your father and mother.” And upon hearing this, the man is pleasantly surprised because he’s done all that since he was a little boy. This is a good guy—certainly a better guy than me and I’d suspect a better guy or gal than many of you too.

So it’s interesting what happens next. We’re told that Jesus looks at this man—one of those deep, soul-searching looks, a peek down into the bottom of his heart—and that Jesus loved him. It’s the only time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is specifically said to love someone. Jesus loves this guy.

So Jesus puts his arm around him and says, “Man…I love you, and so there’s this one last thing that you gotta do. Sell everything you own, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me. Come be my disciple.”

Upon hearing this, we’re told that the man’s face, which was shining bright as the sun, turns cloudy. His face becomes overcast. What Jesus has said has made him very, very sad, and now we learn why—he’s a very, very wealthy man and that will make it very, very hard for him to sell his possessions and go follow Jesus. This whole encounter shocks the disciples and leads Jesus to say, “It’s very, very hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.”

And ever since this rich man walked away from Jesus 2000 years ago, shocked and sad, we’ve been trying to avoid, deflect, or “qualify to death” what happened and what Jesus said, because we don’t much like people talking to us about our money and our stuff, unless it’s about how we can get more money and more stuff. And we tend to do this avoiding, deflecting and qualifying to death in one of two ways.

Deflection #1: we’ll tell ourselves that while Jesus is saying “sell all your possessions and give them to the poor if you want to be my disciple”, he’s not really saying that.

I like this deflection and here’s how it works. What Jesus says to this guy is more or less a metaphor: you have to give up whatever you’d cherish more than God; for you, that’s money, so you have to be willing to give up your money. Now you don’t actually have to give up your money, and it’s not really even about money so much as it’s a reminder to make sure you love God more than anything else.

Like I said: I like this deflection, especially because, well, it lets me keep my money and my stuff so long as I tell myself I don’t love them and would be willing to give them up if Jesus asked for them…but of course he won’t :). R.T. France says it well: this is a “dangerously comfortable conclusion.”[2] And here’s why I don’t think it works.

Jesus tells this guy he has to give away all of his stuff to the poor if he wants to follow Jesus. The guy can’t do it, so he walks away grieving…and Jesus doesn’t chase after him and say, “Dude, come back! I was just kidding. It was just a metaphor. Just read your Bible a little more instead and we’ll call it even.”

No. Jesus told this guy to give away his stuff, all of it, to the poor, and when he can’t, Jesus lets him walk away. It’s not “just” a hypothetical and it’s not “just” a metaphor. Is the bigger issue that he loves something more than God? Yea, and that something is his stuff. So he can keep his stuff or he can follow Jesus. He can’t do both.

Which brings us to the second way we avoid, deflect, and qualify to death this run in with Jesus.

Deflection #2: Ok—maybe Jesus is really saying that. He really is saying that affluence is a massive barrier to the kingdom of God, but he’s not talking to me, because I’m not affluent, I’m not wealthy, I’m not rich. I know people who have way more than I do.

So the billionaire thinks Jesus is talking to the trillionaire, and the millionaire thinks Jesus is talking to the billionaire, and the doctor thinks Jesus is talking about the millionaire, and the nurse thinks Jesus is talking about the doctor, and the teacher thinks Jesus is talking about the nurse, and somewhere far down the line the beggar waits with an empty stomach, wondering if any of us will ever entertain the possibility that Jesus is indeed talking to me.

The funny thing about affluence and wealth is that we have the hardest time seeing we’re affluent and wealthy.

Growing up, I would have never considered my family wealthy. Did I get a car when I turned 16? Yea, but not a brand new one like my friend. Did I have nice clothes? Yea, but other people had more nice clothes. Did we live in a nice house? Yea, but other people had nicer houses.

And then one day I had a friend over and as we drove up to my house, he was amazed that we had a second story. And when he learned my parents had bought me the truck I drove, he was amazed I had my own truck. But it wasn’t until he saw our go-cart in the backyard that he turned to me and said, “Dude, yall are rich!”

And I remember thinking, “What!? We’re not rich. We’ve just got what we need and maybe a little more.” And isn’t that what your possessions always whisper in your ear: “You don’t have too much. You’ve just got what you need and maybe a little more.”

The common observation at this point is that wealth is relative and that’s true enough, but let’s not use it as a diversion tactic. The simple fact is that a good many of us in here have a good bit more than we need which means we are wealthy. Are there people wealthier? Yep, but that’s not the point. The point is that most of us have far more than we need, so much more in fact that we really have no idea what it means to need something.

And none of this is meant to shame us. Our wealth is not, necessarily, something we should be ashamed of. The point is this: Jesus talking to this man about his money and his stuff. And Jesus is talking to you and me about our money and our stuff, telling us it’s an obstacle to our following Jesus well. As Jesus says, “It’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom.”

Now notice that when Jesus says this, his disciples are shocked and astonished. Why do you think they were shocked? To state the obvious, they’re shocked because that’s not what they thought about wealth. They grew up reading Proverbs 10:22- “It is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and he adds no sorrow to it.” And they grew up reading Job 42:10- “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends, and the Lord increased all that Job had twofold.” And they grew up reading 1 Kings 3 about great King Solomon, and how God blessed him with more riches than the ancient world had ever seen.

The scriptures that the disciples grew up reading had a complex perspective on wealth, but they tended to view it as a very positive thing, a gift that God tends to bestow on those who are faithful. If you’re faithful then God tends to bless you with wealth and while you certainly need to be generous with your wealth, your wealth isn’t a problem so much as a blessing.

That sounds good to me. Sounds good to Solomon. Sounds good to the disciples. But apparently, that doesn’t sound good to Jesus. Jesus has something different to say about wealth, and if what he says doesn’t shock us a bit, then that probably means we haven’t heard it.

Jesus talks about wealth a lot and he doesn’t have a single good thing to say about it.

As one NT scholar says it, “Jesus has a negative attitude toward wealth and has nothing good to say about money…Wealth is not something neutral but toxic to the soul.”[3] Similarly, Ben Witherington suggests that “What Jesus says amounts to a rejection of conventional Jewish piety that said it was all right to be wealthy so long as one was also generous.”[4]

In other words, whereas we tend to see wealth as a positive thing that can go negative under certain, rare circumstances, Jesus and the rest of the NT see wealth as a negative thing that can be positive only when given away with absurd generosity to the needy.

Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend in my office about this, and our conversation eventually came around to the question this conversation always comes around to: so does Jesus just want all of us to be poor?

And the simple answer to that is: of course not. Poverty is not a good thing. It’s a terrible thing. As Dallas Willard says it, “The idealization of poverty is one of the most dangerous illusions of Christians in the contemporary world.” It is not good to be poor—to have no roof over your head or food in your belly. We give to help the poor because it’s not good to be poor.

But if we’re not supposed to walk away from Jesus’ run-in with the rich young ruler thinking Jesus is calling all of us to poverty, what are we supposed to walk away thinking? Let’s read the very end of the story now: 10:28-31.

So if the rich young ruler had accepted Jesus’ invitation, sold his possessions, and gone to follow Jesus, would he have lived a life of poverty?

Sure doesn’t sound like it. In fact, Jesus says that those who give away their possessions extravagantly will receive a hundred times over as many things in this present age—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms. What is Jesus talking about?

Not that if you sell your house to help out the poor, Jesus will give you a hundred houses in return. No—it’s that when you give and sacrifice your stuff extravagantly in pursuit of Jesus, you step into a community of others who also follow Jesus and will give to you extravagantly whenever you need it…that community being the church.

For example, if I felt that Jesus was calling me to sell my house in order to help somebody else out, and my family agreed, and our elders agreed, and I did it, do you know what I think would happen? I think that as soon as most of you heard about it, you’d invite my family to come and stay at your house as long as we needed. I don’t think you’d let us sleep out in the cold. I think many of you would be willing to take us in and make your house our house. I think I’d discover I have a hundred more houses to call home than I realized.

Jesus isn’t calling us to a life of poverty but to a life of community and simplicity wherein we make a habit of giving well past the point of reason for others when they need it, and others will do the same for us. It is everywhere taught and assumed in the NT that the first thing we do with our surplus is meet the needs of those in front of us (2 Corinthians 8 is particularly instructive on this point). That if you have more than you need, and there is a need in front of you, you meet the need. 

Why would we do such a crazy thing? Open up our homes and give and share our stuff so generously? Because we know something the world doesn’t; namely, that all our stuff isn’t really our stuff. It’s God’s stuff, so we gladly share it on God’s behalf because that’s what God would do. It’s what God did. As Paul says it in 2 Corinthians 8:9- “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich.”

Clearly all of this strikes us as odd and difficult and so it’s easy to walk away feeling that Jesus is just being cruel and harsh and trying to ruin your life and wants you to live in a constant state of guilt and shame and neurosis—Am I poor enough? Is it wrong to save for my kid’s college? Is it wrong to eat 3 meals a day? Is Jesus mad at me for drinking Starbucks instead of Folgers?

On and on and on it goes. And yet this sort of neurosis, well-intended as it may be, is not what Jesus wants and misses the real crux of the issue. As is often the case, Jesus invites us to take him seriously more than literally.

Do you remember what we learned about this rich man right before Jesus told him to sell everything? We learned that Jesus loved him—that Jesus puts his arm around this man and tells him to sell everything because he loves him. So here’s what I think is happening here; the bigger picture being painted.

The story of Jesus’ run-in with the rich young ruler occurs in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and right before it, all 3 times, there’s another story in which Jesus gathers up little children in his arms, blesses them, and says, “You have to become like a child if you want to enter the kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean—we have to become like a child if we want to enter the kingdom?

This is my son—Wyatt.


He’s 4 months old now. And he is, quite simply, the happiest little creature in the entire universe right now. When he smiles and laughs and looks at you with those eyes filled with wonder, you realize his little bitty heart is, at any single moment, filled with more love and joy and peace than your “grown up” heart could ever possibly hope to contain. That your “grown up” heart is a shriveled prune compared to what beats inside his chest.

And yet as he gets older, he’ll lose lots of that joy and wonder, because he’ll start to climb the ladder. Eventually, Wyatt will come to believe that he needs more—more money, more clothes, more status, more security, more stuff. Like all of us, he’ll come to believe that MORE is the answer to his problems. And in his pursuit of more, he’ll start trying to climb the ladder.

And one day, I’m going to look at him with a heart full of a father’s love, and I’m going to put my arm around him, and I’m going to say, “Son, I remember a time when you were the happiest little creature in the entire universe. And you weren’t concerned with getting more or climbing ladders because you knew that you were loved and that love alone was so precious and so beautiful and so wondrous that you didn’t need more. So from a father to the son I love so much, quit trying to climb imaginary ladders to more and come back down where you belong—where generosity and simplicity and community will give you a love and joy and peace that climbing ladders will never, ever deliver.”

As Henri Nouwen says it, “The great paradox which Scripture reveals to us is that real and total freedom is only found through downward mobility. The Word of God came down to us and lived among us as a peasant. The divine way is indeed the downward way…And so the downward road is not the road to hell, but the road to heaven.”

Jesus invites us, all of us, to quit climbing ladders, quit telling ourselves that more will fix things, quit our pathetically misguided journey up…because he loves us.

Because he loves us with a love more fierce and true and relentless than anything we’ve ever known. And he invites us on a journey down, to a way of life centered on downward mobility-on generosity and simplicity and community. And on the way down, we’ll find that he’s not dragging our lives into a living hell, but a living heaven.




[1] Though Mark Twain was certainly making a different point with this observation.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, 400.

[3] David Garland, Mark, 398.

[4] Ben Witherington, Mark, 283.