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.”
Once again it’s hard not to be struck by the oddness of Jesus’ kingdom, as he states that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” This isn’t the first time Jesus’ has made such statements. Earlier, Jesus said that those who want to save their life will lose it while those who lose their lives for the gospel will save it (8:35). Throughout Mark’s account, in fact, Jesus announces that the kingdom of God upends most of our normal conventions and introduces a great reversal of cultural norms.
And maybe that’s the point. God’s kingdom – which we’ve at points called the “anti-kingdom” – is so totally different that we have a hard time fitting it into our usual categories.
So maybe it’s not that money is bad, but rather that, influenced by the culture and kingdom we live in, we’re just prone to attach way too much importance to it. Again, I’m not trying to romanticize poverty. Christians should, I believe, be working to eliminate poverty and to help those in need at every turn. Rather, we live in a culture that values the accumulation of wealth over just about anything.
The situation in Jesus’ day was similar. Wealth was considered a sign of God’s blessing, poverty of God’s disfavor. But what if wealth is morally neutral, neither good nor bad on its own. What if it’s what we do with wealth (or the lack of it) that really matters? Then perhaps the issue Jesus is addressing isn’t primarily wealth per se, but rather our disposition toward it. Perhaps he is warning – not just the rich man or his disciples, but also us – that while wealth can be used for good or ill, it is nevertheless a powerful entity in our world and culture.
Wealth can provide us with everything we need…and it can insulate us from the needs of others.
Wealth can secure for us a safe home…and delude us into thinking that it is the source of our security.
Wealth can ensure that we never go hungry…but it cannot prevent us from being lonely or leading lives devoid of meaning or purpose.
Wealth is, well, just wealth, essentially morally neutral…but also dangerous. The challenge is living in a culture – whether of the first or twenty-first century – that focuses on all wealth’s potential without heeding its perils. Wealth, in short, can provide us with all our material needs – and this really matters! – but the danger is believing that it can also tend our spiritual and eternal needs.
And so many, Jesus suggests, who are first in terms of the categories of the world – power, prestige, wealth – may be surprised to discover that these things count for little in the kingdom of God and, in fact, make entrance into the kingdom more difficult simply because of how wealth can make us blind to our deepest spiritual needs as well as to the very real material needs of others.
There is a warning here, to be sure, but also a promise. For the promise is that God loves us apart from our wealth and accomplishments, that God makes room – indeed, I would argue makes special provision – for those who are considered of little account by the world. Hence, many who are considered last, at the bottom, and of no importance will find themselves first.
Here is God’s promise made manifest – there is room for all in the kingdom – but entrance isn’t conditional on one’s accomplishments or even one’s character but rather solely on one’s need.
Prayer: Dear God, keep us mindful of our need, so that we may receive your grace and mercy, and the need of others, that we may care for them as we have been cared for and discover in such fellowship a taste of your kingdom come among us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.