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Clear Words – Is wealth a sin? (Mark 10:21)

Today’s Reading: Mark 10-11

Today’s Reflection: Mark 10:21

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler is one of the most famous stories of the Gospels, probably because it seems to prophesy doom for a class of people most of us would like to be a part of:  rich people.

In the story the rich young ruler asks Jesus what he must do to be saved.  Jesus outlines the commandments governing relationships between people (except for one—more on this later).  The ruler says he has kept all of these laws since his youth (Mark 10:17-20).  Then Jesus answers his question in today’s text.

Jesus answer is wonderful news.  He gives the young man the path to salvation…  Or it was horrible news, depending on your point of view.  For the rich young ruler this was truly terrible news.  As the word says he went away ‘sorrowful, for he had great possessions’ (Mark 10:22).

For the disciples this was terrible too.  When Jesus described how difficult it would be for the rich to be saved they asked Him ‘then who can be saved?’ (Mark 10:23-26).  This may seem odd to us as many of us may equate wealth with greed and corruption, but in their culture and tradition it was believed that wealth was a sign of God’s favour.  So in essence, the wealthy were considered to be more righteous than poorer people (sort of an ancient version of what we today call the ‘prosperity gospel’).  But now Jesus was contradicting this.  To the disciples it seemed that Jesus was saying the ‘most righteous’ among them would have difficulty receiving salvation.  If it would be hard for the rich how much harder would it be for poor people like the disciples?

But was wealth really the issue?  Certainly Jesus is making a comment about the influence of riches on people, but He certainly is not saying rich people can’t ever be saved—He offers the disciples encouragement by saying what is impossible for man is possible with God (Mark 10:27), meaning that even the difficult task of the rich being saved is something that can be accomplished through God.  In addition the Bible tells us of many patriarchs and kings who were wealthy yet who walked faithfully with God—Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon among them.

So wealth in and of itself wasn’t the issue, but it was the rich young ruler’s issue.  The missing commandment that Jesus had not mentioned?  Coveting.  This sin of wanting what others had was standing between the young man and salvation, and that sin was manifest in his great wealth.

Another important point: the instruction to sell his possessions was not a punishment, nor was it a condemnation of wealth.  Rather it was out of loving concern that Jesus gave this instruction to the rich young ruler.  And it was the very same love that prompted Jesus to comment that wealth could prevent people from being saved.  Rather than trying to condemn His followers to poverty, Jesus wants to spare them from anything that might come between them and His kingdom.

He wants to do this for us as well, something that we should bear in mind when we don’t receive something or lose something we think we should have.  In reality God may be saving us from something we don’t yet understand could destroy us.

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