Your Money or Your Life!

February 6, 2000 / Mark 10:17-31

Money is dangerous, according to Jesus. Itís easier for a camel to pass through the tiny eye of a sewing needle than for someone obsessed with money to live under the sovereignty of God. Or, to use more modern imagery, it is easier for a stretch limo to slide through the night depository slot at your bank without getting scratched than for pretty women, people with Ph.D.s, business executives, country-music stars, professional athletes, and people with platinum cards to live like Jesus.

It isnít just money that is dangerous. It is whatever gift, skill, or possession one has that makes her special. It is whatever gives a man status and power. It is the thing you most want others to know about you ó your education, the kind of car you drive, your generosity to the Red Cross, your role or office at church, even your reputation for humility as demonstrated by the old, beat-up car you drive or the out-of-style clothes you wear.

You name your most valued earthly possession for me, and I will tell you the greatest threat to your spiritual life. And we will have named the same thing. Likely for most people, it is money and the influence, power, and things it can buy.

Donít get me wrong. And letís not put words into Jesusí mouth. As Paul would later say, money itself can provide not only legitimate "enjoyment" to Christians but the opportunity "to be rich in good works" (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Money isnít evil, but "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10).

In a word, Jesus taught that money can be toxic to the soul. It tends to inhibit spiritual life and stunt spiritual growth. Anyone whose life is ruled by money can never be ruled by God. Buying things for the sake of pride and display is sinful. The best thing to do with money is to house the homeless, feed the poor, and take the gospel to the lost. Hoarding it for ourselves is both wicked and foolish. It is as if Jesus stands before each one of us and says, "Your money or your life!" And the implicit understanding is that no one can keep both. Whichever one you choose to keep, you must hand over the other. Jesus said as much to a rich man with whom he talked one day.

A Question-and-Answer Session


The Jews of Jesusí time were looking for "the present (evil) age" to give way to "the new age" of the Messiah. They were inclined to ask our question about how to be saved in terms of receiving eternal life in the age to come. Thus a wealthy young man rushed up to Jesus one day, fell on his knees, and asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Eventually, Jesusí answer to him would be the same one he had been giving to everyone in Markís Gospel: Follow me (cf. 8:34). Interestingly, however, this is the only follow-me story in Mark that ends with the invited person turning away from Jesus. Between the question and the answer come two critical qualifications that are worth our time to explore.

First, anyone who wants to experience the kingdom of God (i.e., the sovereign reign of God over his or her life) must have a submissive and obedient heart. That is why Jesus began his response to the man by reminding him of the Ten Commandments. "Teacher," he replied, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Some people hear this young manís reply as an arrogant claim to sinlessness. But I think thatís an unfair reading of the story. He surely meant that he had been taught the Law of Moses since childhood, had been scrupulous in his conformity to its demands, and followed through with penitence and the appropriate sacrifice ó just as the Law of Moses required ó whenever he violated one. Thatís what Paul would later claim as his experience with the Law (Phil. 3:6; cf. Acts 23:1). If he had claimed to be sinlessly perfect, I think Jesus would have responded very differently than he did that day.

How did Jesus react to the manís claim to good-faith conformity with the Law of Moses as interpreted for him by the teachers of his day? How would he have reacted to Saul of Tarsus at a similar point in his spiritual life? Mark writes: "Jesus looked at him and loved him."

The Son of Man knew that many conscientious rule-keepers under the Jewish system of his time were nevertheless unsure about their salvation. They were "spiritually neurotic" and lacked peace of mind about their relationship to Yahweh. Oh, like this young man and Saul, they had done their best to keep the commandments. But they still felt insecure about their prospects. They feared missing something in the fine print of the Law that might trip them up and bar them from the Messiahís kingdom.

Men and women living under either the Law of Moses or the gospel may be dutifully obedient about sabbath or baptism, animal sacrifices or marital fidelity without being saved or feeling good about their spiritual state. So Jesus moved to the second qualification for participating in the kingdom of God. And it would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to the young man with whom he was talking. His money had come between him and God. Apparently, it had come to be his god. And he would not be able to give up god Mammon.

Second, anyone who really wants God to be in control of his or her life must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. God is no respecter of persons, and this is the requirement of discipleship for everyone. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me," Jesus said. "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mark 8:34-36).

Because he loved this sincere, conscience-driven, and duty-bound young man, Jesus leveled with him. He interpreted the demand of self-denial and cross-bearing for his particular life situation very bluntly and without pulling any punches. Wrapped up as he was in a lifestyle of wealth and prestige, he was commanded, "Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor."

Dodging This Bullet!


At this point in the story, we are inclined to do some tricky things in order to avoid the force of this text for ourselves. We need to tone down the radical nature of the demand or find a way to make it apply to someone other than ourselves. It was this spirit that caused someone to come up with the idea that the needleís eye of this text was a low gate in the wall of Jerusalem that a camel could negotiate only on its knees. Thus the point of the story becomes that rich people need to pray and be humble. There is no evidence that such a gate ever existed and no record of such an interpretation of this text prior to the eleventh century. In Lukeís account of this story, he uses a different Greek word for "needle" than Mark. Luke, who was a physician, uses a word (belones) attested to us in non-biblical literature of a surgeonís suturing needles.

This story doesnít need "toning down." It needs to be taken seriously. It needs to be heard and heeded. No, Jesus doesnít require all his disciples to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor (cf. Acts 5:4). But for us to think we can follow Jesus without sacrificing something is wrong ó sadly, tragically, fatally wrong.

Whatever is dearest and most precious to any one of us is precisely what we must be able to give up for his sake. "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters ó yes, even his own life ó he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

Even though one cannot be saved without an obedient heart, obedience to laws and commandments is not enough to save. Salvation is the work of God, not ours. We receive it as a free gift of his grace, not as the reward for our obedience. We obey because we are grateful, not because we are trying to bargain for something. While all is of grace, however, there is no such thing as "cheap grace" in the Christian faith. It must mean more to you than money, fame, family, or life itself.

What are you proudest of in your life? Is it your respected family name? Your dream house? Your face, figure, or firm abs? Your diplomas or plaques on the office wall? Success in your work? Your grandchildren? The money youíve been diligent enough to make, prudent enough to save, and wise enough to invest well? Whatever there is about you that holds the potential for making you feel superior, self-righteous, or smug is the greatest threat to your spiritual life. It has far greater possibilities for costing you your soul than any item on a traditional list of vices. It is likely the thing for which you could be persuaded to sacrifice truth, principle, integrity, or Jesus.

Only those who heed Christís call "Follow me!" can be saved. But to follow him is more than going to church or getting baptized, more than being an honest person and having people think well of you. In order to follow Christ, you must give up anything and everything for him. If you cannot honestly say that your most prized possession, life situation, or relationship means less to you than Jesus, your prospect of salvation is this great and no greater: A two-humped camel will glide through the eye of a sewing needle before you will experience the joy of Godís kingdom.

Todayís rich people must renounce opulence and simplify their lives in order to help the poor, protect the weak, and fund the teaching of the gospel. The brightest and best-educated must reject arrogance for the sake of humble service. A beautiful and sophisticated woman must repudiate vanity and serve others without patronizing them. Whatever advantage you have must be used for Godís glory in the world, or it will corrupt and destroy you. Thatís why it really does reduce to this so often: Your money or your life!

Conclusion


Practically all of us understand as much about discipleship as the rich young ruler did. We must study the Word of God and have a submissive heart, obey Godís will and be penitent when we fail. So why do so many still feel frustrated, insecure, and unsure of eternal life? They know something is lacking, but theyíve never had a teacher as bold as Jesus to tell them about self-denial for the sake of the gospel. That uneasy feeling will not go away until they heed the challenge of taking up the cross and dying to self.

What a warning this text is to the pervasive materialism of our culture. It makes us realize anew, to borrow the words of David Hansen, that the essence of life today is not "having" but "having to have." It warns us against the spiritual encumbrance of living above our means and weighing ourselves down with debt. It underscores these words from a later section of the New Testament: "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have" (Heb. 13:5a).

What is more, it challenges each of us to identify his or her cardinal loyalty. It is ultimately this simple: If Jesus doesnít mean everything, he means nothing.

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