As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?”Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
This story from the Gospels has been showing up in more places than one, for me, and, conveniently, it’s the focus of the third chapter of TCOD, “Single-Minded Obedience.” It’s one of those portions of Jesus’ message that really rattles cages and freaks people out; it’s definitely not used in sermons often (though this awesome blogger named Jason Micheli did a pretty good job preaching on it). When Christians read it, they either skip right over it and judge their pastor for having too nice a car, or rush to say, either to themselves or their study group, “Oh, he just said that to that one guy; that’s not for all of us!” (Perhaps “and” is a more appropriate conjunction there). We’re really good at not only missing the point on this story, but it also reveals much about our character as Christians, and what we hold dear as American Christians.
To ask “Is that command for me?” is to ask the wrong question when reading this section of Mark’s gospel. Like I said, in the American church, this is one of Jesus’ most hated commands, because we’ve all got a lot of stuff. A lot of it. I don’t consider myself rich, but as soon as Christy and I pay off our final student loan at the end of next month (!), our net worth will skyrocket in comparison to much of the American public, and we’ll actually be fully financially stable for the first time since graduating college. Dave Ramsey would have us believe that we’re unique, but truth be told, there’s no greater consumer culture than the United States, and, despite my anti-debt leanings, I’m as big a consumer as anyone else in the USA, and I love my stuff.
So, when Jesus says to the rich guy, with all the love that a guy like Jesus can, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” people get freaked out. Because we love our stuff. Jesus knew that the rich guy loved his stuff, and the rich guy knew Jesus knew he loved his stuff. This is why he walks away weeping. Jesus didn’t say, “Keep your stuff, but just develop an inward detachment to it and you’ll be OK. Come on, bro.” No, this was no-holds barred, straight up “Sell your crap, then you can follow me.” He’s not even doing it just to get rid of the guy; he really loves him and wants him to come along, but rich guy can’t do it. He just goes away and weeps.
Without trying to downplay the command itself, what we misunderstand here is what Jesus is trying to draw out of the rich guy: single-minded obedience. With men like Peter and Matthew, who left their nets and tax booth to follow Christ without question, there was no greater calling than to follow this man from Nazareth who was preaching the coming of the kingdom of God. The rich guy knew this too, but the utter and complete sacrifice of leaving his whole life behind to follow Christ was too much for him. Costly grace literally cost him too much (in his mind).
To steal from Jason Micheli’s post, however, Jesus would not have asked the guy to do this if he didn’t think he could. Remember, Jesus LOVES this guy, and wants him to come along. He even remarks with sadness when the guy walks away about how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God (verse 23). Does this mean God hates the rich or something? Of course not! For the umpteenth time, Jesus LOVED this guy, but the ultimate sacrifice required of everyone who answers the call of Christ is steep to begin with, and requires that we relinquish all that we hold dear, whether it’s our fishing nets, our tax booth, or everything we own.
So, to answer the wrong question, do we really have to sell everything we have? Yes, we do, and Jesus loves us enough to tell us to do it, and believes that we CAN. Costly grace can cost us our very lives, but the kingdom of God is worth far, far more than all the stuff, all the idols, all the ideologies we’ve held up to this point. Would I be able to sell all my stuff if Jesus commanded it of me? I don’t know, but I know that Jesus has asked things of me that I have not given him, and I pray for the strength to let them go, so I can follow him.