Riches and Relationships, part 2 (4th Sunday in Lent)

As we continue our pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Holy Week, we have just left Jesus and his unsatisfying encounter with a young man who loved his riches more than the opportunity to follow Jesus.

If we are unfamiliar with this story, we would be surprised when we first read it. Turning away a rich person? What church or pastor would engage in such foolishness! We need such folks and their wealth to finance our operations, don’t we?

This week, we find a similar reaction from Jesus’ disciples:

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:24-31)

Bear with me as I make three Lenten observations from this text:

  1. First, there is a stream in evangelical Christianity that wants us to believe that faithful Christians should be materially blessed. Christians who live in poverty, we are told, do so because of a lack of faith. We call this the “prosperity gospel” (See this link for John Piper’s take on this teaching). This text is sometimes used in presenting the prosperity gospel. We are told that if we “leave everything” (give a large gift to a church or ministry) we will receive back “a hundred times as much.” This misses the figurative import of Jesus’ words and the historical reality of Peter’s life. Peter did not become rich. He died in Rome about 35 years later on a Roman cross, having lived a vagabond life of ministry for three decades. There is nothing in Peter’s letters to indicate riches as a reward for faithfulness.
  2. Second, Jesus reveals the “Great Reversal” here, that the “first will be last and the last will be first.” How can this be? Specifically, how will the poor become rich? Jesus deals with true riches here (see Luke 16:11), our relationship with God and others. Wealth does not cause or cure an impoverished soul. Only a relationship with the Lord can do this. Wealth is neither a sign of God’s blessing nor is poverty a sign of God’s curse.
  3. Third, there is no teaching here that rich people are excluded from “entering the kingdom of God.” To do so is difficult, like a camel entering the eye of a needle. From ancient times, the “eye of the needle” was understood to be a small, after-hours entry door into the wall or gate of a city. For a camel to enter this door meant that it had to be unloaded and get on its knees. If we understand Jesus’ words this way, a rich person must humble himself and detach himself from his love for wealth. This is not impossible, but possible for God who can change a person’s heart.

The drive to be wealthy is strong in our society today. As we live the Lenten season of sacrifice and devotion, let us take time to rethink our attitudes toward wealth. Let us be thankful for the blessings we receive. Let us be generous with the wealth we possess. Let us serve the Lord rather than riches. And let us love Jesus more than anything in this world.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.