The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached January 31st, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Wealth (Mark 10:23-31)
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” – Mark 10:23-31
The disciples have just watched Jesus blow a serious opportunity. Approached by a wealthy, pious, seemingly humble man—who had good connections—Jesus totally botches it. He tells this rich young man that he must first sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then follow Him. This is a bridge too far for the man so he walks away. Why would Jesus do such a thing?
The Danger of Wealth
“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:23-27).
What is wealth?
Would you consider yourself a “rich person”? I have never met anyone who would describe themselves as “wealthy,” just like I have never met anyone who would confess to the sin of greed. What’s so hard about trying to determine whether or not we are wealthy or rich is that we always can point to people who are wealthier than us. “Wealth” in some sense is a relative
category depending on your context. And in our context we can always find someone wealthier than us.
I recently read that Elon Musk could spend 80,000 dollars a day for the next six thousand years before he ran out of money. That is a wealthy person, we think. But, of course, if we simply broaden our context than most of us in this room have more wealth than the overwhelming majority of individuals in the world. In fact, most of us in this room have more wealth than most kings and emperors have had throughout history. For example, if you were to simply rewind the clock one hundred years ago and try to explain to someone the capabilities of a smart phone—that with it you would have access to more information than any library could hold, could have more immediate entertainment available to you than the wealthiest of the wealthy of their day, could speak with other people on the other end of the globe (often with video)—they would probably assume that this magical device would be so opulent that only a rare few could afford such a trinket. But nearly everyone can afford a smart phone now. And this is the difficulty we find ourselves in. We are all in a society that has, as a whole, grown extravagantly more wealthy than the society that Jesus was in.
The closest we get to the Bible giving us a definition of “wealth” might be in the book of Proverbs: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God,” Prov 30:8-9. What is poverty? Lacking what you need to survive, to the degree that you are tempted to steal. What is wealth? Having far more than you need to survive, to the degree that you are tempted to think that you do not need God. Who needs God when you have a big stack of money? Poor people need God, of course. They don’t have savings accounts or insurance or credit cards, so they are far more open to turning to God for help. But if you have nice paycheck every month? Who needs prayer when you can just write a check? So “wealth” is having enough resources that you can live so comfortably that you are (foolishly) confident that is your own finances—not the Lord—that provides what you need.
What is the danger of wealth?
Jesus here does not go spend a great deal of time explaining what the particular danger of wealth is; He simply states it as a fact: it will prevent you from entering the kingdom of God. It will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle—as in, it is impossible. It would be easier for a locomotive to fit inside your mailbox or cruise liner to pass through a hool-a-hoop than for a rich person to be saved.
Earlier in Mark’s gospel, in the parable of the four soils, Jesus explained that the pseudo-disciples (non-Christians) of the “thorny soil” have God’s word choked out by, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things,” (Mark 4:19). The two attendant problems of the thorny soil (cares of the world, desires for other things) help color in the danger of wealth. What problems live in the same cul de sac of wealth? You start to care about what the rest of the world cares about, and your heart becomes glutted with desires for other things. When you don’t have the abundance of wealth life becomes simpler in some ways. But when you have money then there are huge temptations for your heart and mind to be consumed with the same things that non-Christians are consumed with: being on the “inner circle” of trendiness, getting the cushiest retirement possible, getting the next gadget, guarding yourself from all potential problems, etc.
But we are also told that one of the dangers of wealth is that it is “deceitful.” It lies to you. It promises security, comfort, pleasure, approval, and sundry other offers. But it can’t actually give you those things. It is hiding a terrible danger. Hear what Paul warns, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs,” (1 Tim 6:9-10). The desire for riches are described as a kind of booby-trap; a pit with spikes at the bottom that has a paper-mâché covering.
Jesus summarizes all of this danger plainly: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money,” Matt 6:24. This is the basic root of all of the warnings around money: it wants to replace God. It becomes a form of idolatry. In fact, in the Old Testament it is often when Israel becomes wealthy and comfortable that they are most prone to abandoning Yahweh (cf. Deut 8:11-14). Like our passage from Proverbs earlier, Jesus points that wealth can intoxicate us to the point that we are confident that we no longer need God. And friends, because we live in a very wealthy society as a whole this means that we are in danger. We have set up camp in a pit of hungry tigers, yawning and unaware that at any moment we might be ripped apart. We should think about money the way we think about nuclear reactors. A nuclear reactor can be used to create a great deal of good for a society—if the profound danger of radioactivity is respected. Treat a spent fuel rod from a reactor carelessly, however, and it will kill you.
How can you tell if money has begun to replace God in your life? In Dante’s Inferno, when Dante is brought to the fourth circle of Hell (Avarice) there he finds two different depictions of greed: those who were reckless in their spending and those who hoarded their money. That is a helpful warning to us: idolatry of money can look like maxing out credit cards and blowing money on things you don’t need, or it can look like a tight-fisted miserliness that is trying to save as much as possible. And it is certainly possible for each end of the extremes to look at the other and say, “Ah, there is greed! There is the danger!” and thus be comforted that they, in fact, are not greedy.
Are you generous with what you have? Do you tell yourself “no” so you can tell other people “yes” with your money? To be generous you have to be both wise with saving money and free to let money leave your hand.
Why are the disciples amazed at what Jesus says?
Given the teachings we just reflected on, why would the disciples be so amazed at Jesus’ pronouncement of the danger of wealth? Shouldn’t this be obvious to them? Well, while the Old Testament is filled with warnings about trusting in riches, it is also filled with many promises of riches. The book of Proverbs lays out repeatedly how living according to God’s wisdom will generally result in financial gain, “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich,” Prov 10:4. Also, as part of the covenant that God makes with Israel He promises them: “And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. 13 And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them,” Deut 28:11-13.
Here, abundance, prosperity, and wealth are given as rewards for obeying God’s commandments. So the disciples likely would have understood that if an individual is wealthy—and they have not gained their wealth through ill-gotten means—then this must mean that this individual was favored by God, someone who was diligent to keep the commandments. And that certainly seemed to describe the rich young ruler; he explained that he had kept all of the commandments of the Torah since he was a young child. If anyone should be poised to be ushered into God’s Kingdom, it should have been this man! And yet, Jesus explains that it is actually the very hallmark that so many have interpreted as a sign of God’s blessing—his wealth—that is actually prohibiting him from being saved. This is why when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples are, “exceedingly astonished,” and say to Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”
How are we to make sense of this? The program of the Old Testament for God’s desire to bless the nations relied on a “come and see” mission. God chose a solitary nation, gave them a defined land mass, and wanted the nations to see the kingdom of God displayed materially in the nation of Israel. This is typified by the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon, seeing the riches and wisdom God had bestowed on him and confessing that Yahweh is indeed God (1 Kings 10). God’s program in the New Testament, however, is a “go and tell” mission. God’s kingdom is no longer localized in one geographic location with one people group. It is now an international and multiethnic reality and the kingdom is now a spiritual reality that is now made present on earth wherever God’s people are. We do not have an ornate temple in Jerusalem where God dwells—we are the temple now! And this kingdom is not marked by material wealth but by sacrifice. Thus, there is no teaching anywhere in the New Testament that hints that God will bless anyone with riches if they are faithful to Him. In fact, almost the universal teaching of the New Testament is that riches and wealth are more of a burden than they are a blessing—the book of James speaks of riches in a strictly negative sense, almost as if it is curse. Disciples of Jesus, rather than swelling in riches, are to be recognized by their willingness to forsake comfort, homes, lands, even family for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.
The Promise of Wealth
Peter quickly points out that the disciples have not chosen this path of opulence: “Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you,” Mark 10:28.
When Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mark 1:18-20) they were in the middle of cleaning their fishing nets and immediately abandoned them to follow Jesus. Now, Peter is exaggerating some; he still has a home and a boat that they have been using (Mark 1:29; 3:9; 4:1). But, the disciples have abandoned everything, in a sense, to follow Jesus on His itinerant ministry around Judea. And Jesus is going to use the idea of abandoning everything we have for His sake as a basic paradigm of discipleship: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:33. So, we should expect that the normal pattern of following Jesus is the willingness to renounce anything and everything for Jesus’ sake if need be. But here, paradoxically, Jesus makes a promise of return; a promise of wealth, if you will. Jesus explains that everyone who has had to pay the cost of leaving things behind to follow Him will be compensated richly.
29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first,” Mark 10:29-31.
What are to make of this? There are three basic interpretations of this:
1. The prosperity gospel interpretation. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, the grandparents of the prosperity gospel movement today, look at this passage and believe that this is an ironclad promise that you will have an extraordinary return on investment for whatever you spend on gospel ministry. In their book, “God’s Will is Prosperity,” they write, “You give $1 for the Gospel’s sake and $100 belongs to you; give $10 and receive $1,000; give $1,000 and receive $100,000.” And, lucky for them, they just so happen to be the benefactors of this system, conning millions of dollars out of the pockets of desperate people, often from the poorest of places, promising them untold wealth (one hundred fold!) if they will simply give to their ministry. Aside from being utterly despicable, this interpretation only can make sense if you don’t read the context of the story.
How odd would it be for Jesus to explain in such stark terms the utter peril of riches, only to then make a “get-rich-quick” promise to His disciples. This interpretation neglects the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament on wealth, riches, and the very nature of the Christian life, which is to be marked by suffering, sacrifice, and generosity. Further, it is interesting that proponents of the health and wealth gospel often neglect Jesus’ promise that the blessings promised here also come “with persecutions.”
2. The heavenly rewards view. Another option, trying to stay clear away from sounding like a prosperity preacher, is to view all of the rewards Jesus lays out here to be heavenly rewards. So, we ought. Not to expect that God is going to be operating like a cosmic ATM, but we should expect that this life should be marked by sacrifice. Our rewards come when the Lord brings home—it is in heaven that we walk on streets of gold, not here. While I find this interpretation personally appealing and more accurate to the rest of the Biblical witness, I don’t think that is what Jesus is referring to. Jesus explains that the blessing we receive will happen “now in this time” and then promises that “in the age to come” we will receive “eternal life.” Further, it wouldn’t make much sense to understand how “persecutions” would be occurring while we are in heaven.
3. The gift of the new covenant community: the church. What appears to be the most persuasive interpretation is to see these “hundred-fold blessings” to be granted here and now through the new family of God, the church. The Bible describes the relationships among Christians like that of a family: brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers (cf. 1 Tim 5:1-2; Rom 16:13; 1 Cor 4:15). The Bible also explains that Christians are to bear one another’s burdens and to use whatever financial resources the Lord has given us to help each other. This is why during our membership vows our congregation pledges to the new members that we will “care for them, open our lives, our homes, our dinner tables, our resources, and our hearts to” these new members.
I know a missionary in Northern Iraq who works within a very traditional Muslim community. When he shares the gospel with young men and women, he knows that if they convert they will most likely be shut out from their entire family for the rest of their life—in some cases, they even have their lives threatened. He explains that this is one of the most common verses he goes to: following Jesus may mean that you will lose your family and it will mean persecution, but it will also come with a new family. When my wife and I moved away from home years ago so I could work at a church and then attend seminary it was extremely painful to leave our family and friends behind. But, lo and behold, we found that in the church we found another family. These are the blessings, the true wealth we have available to us in Christ.
Marvel at the work of God to do what it is impossible. Friend, for you to be a wealthy person (which we all are) and to know Christ was humanly impossible. If I left you with a camel and a needle and said, “Figure out how to make it happen,” you would be left thinking: this cannot happen, this is impossible. And that is exactly the point. Jesus has done what you cannot do.
This is the gospel.
This is conversion.
This is the Christian life.
God, time and time again overcomes what is impossible. We could not atone for our sins; we could not turn in faith; we could not keep walking the Christian life. But God has done it! He has provided a spotless lamb to pay for our sins, die in our place, and be resurrected to provide newness of life. He has given us the gift of faith, made our dead hearts come alive, and turn in repentance to Him. He sustains us on the path of obedience, guiding us home. He is doing what we cannot do! He is not teaching horses how to jump better, He is giving them wings and making them fly. So be not discouraged at what seems humanly impossible to you. Marvel at the power of God as He displays His ability to do what you and I cannot do ourselves.
Be more generous than you think you should be. Tell yourself “no” so that you can tell other people “yes.”
Enjoy and be the wealth that the church is. If the church is meant to be a “hundredfold” compensation for losing your family, home, and land, then what weighty glory should we find in the community of faith? Within the church we are to find a staggering escalation in love, care, hospitality, unity, and affection that we find naturally in our biological family. So, dear church, be that for one another! Give yourselves wholly and fully to one another while you enjoy this blessing together.