Jesus and our wealth: dwelling with a hard saying

Jesus and the rich young man

Jesus and the rich young man

In Chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, verses 17-27 we are told the challenging story of Jesus encounter with a rich young man, and how Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor, and how he goes away sorrowing because he can’t bring himself to do it. It’s a haunting story, full of paradox; the young man who has everything discovers from Jesus that he ‘lacks one thing’, Jesus loves him and calls him, and yet he cannot find the freedom and strength in himself to choose Jesus and return the love, for he is so encumbered by his possessions. I felt that in my new poetry sequence Parable and Paradox I must tackle this story and particularly the central saying of Jesus at its heart, ‘sell all you have’:

21Jesus, 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.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

But of course it’s very difficult for any of us to reflect freely on this saying because we are all haunted by the fact that none of us have actually done what it asks! We deal with our discomfort either by ignoring this passage altogether or by deflecting Jesus’ words away from ourselves and applying them instead to some special category of persons ‘this is only for special people like monks and nuns’ or alternatively ‘this saying about the rich only applies to people who are much richer than I am’. Somehow we all take it that he is not speaking to us! But perhaps rather than always ignoring, evading, or deflecting, we should honestly keep asking, ‘who is he speaking to? might it be to me? might it be to me at some future date? ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be’, says Jesus in another place, and this story poses the question very sharply, ‘where is our treasure’? I preached on this text in Girton last Sunday and wrestled with the many ways of approaching this teaching and you can hear the sermon from This Page.

I also wrote a sonnet in which I tried to voice some of our evasions and excuses, and perhaps some of the feelings of the rich young man, but also to keep returning to the unanswered question. To whom is Jesus speaking here? As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button

‘Sell all you have…and follow me’

To whom, exactly, are you speaking Lord?

I take it you’re not saying this to me,

But just to this rich man, or to some saint

Like Francis, or to some community,

The Benedictines maybe, their restraint

Sustains so much. But I can’t bear this word!

I bought the deal, the whole consumer thing,

Signed up and filled my life with all this stuff,

And now you come, when I’ve got everything,

And tell me everything is not enough!

But that one thing I lack, I cannot get.

Sell everything I have? That’s far too hard

I can’t just sell it all… at least not yet,

To whom exactly, are you speaking Lord?

10 Comments

Filed under christianity, Girton, Poems

10 responses to “Jesus and our wealth: dwelling with a hard saying

  1. Frank Carpenter

    Malcolm,
    Love this. I have struggled so much with this passage. In fact, in my bible part of this passage falls on the next page. I have actually scrawled a skull and cross bones in the margin next to the words, “Don’t turn this page.” Below is my take on this same passage.
    As iron sharpens iron,
    Frank Carpenter

    The Eye of the Needle
    The rich young man came to Jesus
    Asking, “Lord, what shall I do?
    I have followed the law to the letter
    And for all my life, it’s true.”
    But Jesus saw his heart and responded
    That he must do one thing more
    He needed to sell all he possessed
    And give it to the poor
    The man went away, dejected
    At the Lord’s response that day
    For he was unwilling to follow
    If he must give everything away
    What is it that binds us to this world
    That we consider too precious to lose?
    What would we be unwilling to part with
    If Jesus called upon us to choose?
    If I came to that very crossroad
    What would my answer be?
    If my savior asked for everything
    In order to follow wholeheartedly
    God has blessed us in so many ways
    And even with prosperity
    But there is a danger in possessions
    And their false sense of security
    For Jesus calls us to follow Him
    And on any given day
    He may ask that we sell everything
    And give it all away
    And what would be your answer
    If He asked the same of you?
    Asked you to give up everything
    What, then, would you do?
    Would you part with your possessions
    And follow wholeheartedly?
    Or like the rich young ruler
    Turn away dejectedly
    I fear the Savior may have spoken
    And we’ve already heard the call
    To cast aside our trappings
    And, like Jesus, give it all
    By Frank Carpenter ©

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Frank, Iron does indeed sharpen iron. I really appreciate you have filled your poem with so many questions! I think the only way we can stay faithful to this passage is to allow it to keep questioning us!

  2. When Luke tells this story it is shortly followed by Zacchaeus, a man who freely gives half of what he has – I see a difference in heart between these two folk. Something about how the rich ruler wants to ‘do’ more to evidence his awesomeness- after all he mets Jesus’ criteria. Something about spiritual pride being out to the test? An insider who can’t see what he already has? Whereas Zac is outside- he responds with heart to being included in? All weirdly topped off with a parable of investment advice?

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Tracy that’s an astute observation I certainly think the Zacheus story makes a good commentary on this passage

  3. Pat Conneen

    I appreciated your sermon so much, Malcolm. Thanks for not shying away from the challenges presented by that passage. I’m still ruminating on your question, “Do the things I have keep me from loving more freely?” And I can see I’ll be chewing on it for some time before it’s ever (if ever) digested.

  4. I love your take on this! Wonderful! Will share it 🙂

  5. Pingback: DON’T SAY THIS TO ME | Deacon

  6. Would you give us permission to print this amazing poem in our church newsletter? Of course, we will give you credit and whatever else you would like. Thanks for considering it.

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