The Wealthy Man and Jesus

Sermon Given October 10, 2021

As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

I wonder what it is that drove this man to come to Jesus. What was it that made him run down the road toward Jesus, kneeling before him? What had this man seen? What had he heard? What did he know? 

There was something about Jesus that drove this man toward him, that cried out of him, “Good Teacher!” even though custom held that only God was to be called good. Something was missing from this man’s life, and deep inside, he knew that Jesus could tell him what that was. 

So he kneels before Jesus, he asks, “What can I do? How do I get this eternal life you’re promising?” He was seeking a relationship through the means he most commonly used, a transactional relationship. He was asking what he could give in order for Jesus to save him. He doesn’t understand the idea of salvation by grace, he knows the world as he has interacted with it. You pay for something and it happens. That’s the way of wealth. 

But Jesus pulls back. He says, “You already know what you need to do. Treat other people fairly. Don’t cheat. Follow the commandments.” Jesus is pushing against the transactional mindset, he invites the man instead into an interactional relationship, one where you don’t just pay to make things happen, you go and interact with others. This man, of course, has done that with his friends and family. He isn’t a bad person. But he has no idea how his wealth affects those who have less power. 

This guy wasn’t just well off, he was one of the very rich, maybe even what we would call today the one percent. He had land, he had houses, he had everything he could possibly need at his fingertips, and he’d most likely have grown up that way. But having all that also meant that his family likely had slaves. He would have most certainly had tenant farmers, people who worked the land for him. How did he treat them? This man perhaps didn’t understand that often what to him was an impersonal transactional relationship was something that deeply affected another person’s life. Was he really following the commandments? He thought so, but Jesus wasn’t so sure. 

But Jesus loved this man. He was trying to do good. He knew there was something lacking in his life. He loved God and wanted to serve God. He just didn’t know how to go about doing that. So he went to find out. Jesus lovingly examined him, and said, “You are so close. Sell what you have, give it to the poor. Then follow me.” 

Selling all that he had didn’t mean another transactional relationship, going to the bank and electronically transferring funds to wherever he wanted them to go. It meant going and standing face to face with another as he sold property to them. It meant taking those coins received from that transaction and bringing them to poor people. It meant learning how to engage in interactional relationships, not just an easy wire transfer, but many face to face encounters with people who were not like him. It was an invitation into spaces where he could hear how the wealthy treated the impoverished, spaces where he could listen to family stories and hear the hurt of generations. It was an invitation to repentance and new life. He had the power to start again.

It was never really about the money. Money is a tool that we use, something that makes trade easier. When there’s enough money to pay the bills, feed the household, and occasionally do something fun, that’s enough. There’s been studies that show that there’s a certain point where money does buy happiness, that’s the point of not having to constantly stress about it, but there’s also a point where money becomes kind of meaningless, when you have more than you know what to do with. At that point, it doesn’t actually make you happy. In fact, many with great wealth suffer from depression and isolation. But wealth gives you power. If they aren’t careful, it’s easy for the wealthy to slip into entitlement and feelings of superiority. The more wealth, the more power. The more power, the more ability to slip into entitled thinking. Jesus isn’t talking about the tool, the money. He’s talking about these issues that go hand in hand with wealth.

It’s the power, the ability to greatly impact other people’s lives, that makes it hard for wealthy people. Will they do things that greatly benefit others, or will they engage in practices that continue cycles of harm? 

Thik of those wealthy people who consistently give back. I know a business owner who purposely keeps his plant in rural east Kentucky to help combat poverty and gives good benefits and wages. Dolly Parton helps kids learn how to read and created Dollywood to provide employment opportunities in her region.

But for every such business owner and Dolly, there are seemingly more who amass great wealth at the expense of others. We all know people who work amassing great wealth for major corporations while they struggle to pay their bills. It’s much easier to engage in those harmful practices, because the idea of more power, more control, is intoxicating. The pull of power can be so addicting that Jesus says it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s Kingdom. Even someone standing before Jesus, who knelt at his feet, begging Jesus to help him, couldn’t release himself from the pull of power and entitlement. He was too wealthy. His brain couldn’t comprehend life without everything he owned and controlled. 

But we know that with God all things are possible. And while we sometimes leave this man here in this one moment, separated from Jesus, I’m not sure he stayed there. I like to think that God continued to work in and through him. That he was eventually able to sell and give back, that he changed his practices to help those who were impoverished rather than profiting from their poverty. I’d like to believe that because I see this as his call story, and I know many call stories. Oftentimes, the first response is, “No.” It was for me. But God never gives up on us. In the end, Jesus tells us that we receive back far more than we could ever give, not so much in stuff, but in community and relationship. 

We’re starting our stewardship campaign today, and I’ve joked around that I’ll just ask you to give everything, like Jesus asked this wealthy man to do. But St. John doesn’t want everything. We want you to be able to use your money as a tool to provide for your households. What I ask is that we all pool our resources together, each giving as able, to provide for this place. We want a thriving community space, to pay our employees, care for our buildings, and give to our neighbors. We each know our own household’s financial situations. The wealthy here are no more powerful than the poor. I don’t even look at the amounts pledged, I just pray that we receive what we need. I simply ask that we consider how we might use the tool of money for good, how we might work as a congregation to make the world around us a little better. And I think giving to St. John’s actually does make an impact. I think this place helps us live better, engaging in more life giving relationships that truly do respect the dignity of all. 

I pray that we may all learn to lean into not transactional relationships, a tit for tat way of  living, but interactional relationships, where we share together and care for the welfare of all. Amen.