The Whisper of Wealth
It’s so good to see you all. A couple quick announcements that I want to keep emphasizing June 27, in two weeks, we start Wisdomfest — so, we’ll take a short break for five weeks from our study of Mark — called “Jesus and Politics.” To prepare, as you’re hopefully praying about that series, I’m going to be sending out a survey in a couple of days. If you could be looking for that through email or the church app, whatever you use. And if you would please take five minutes to take that survey, I promise all the results will be anonymous. No, we’re not going to be searching to see where individuals are. What we want to do is just for the fun of it — and I think it’s very interesting — where is our church on some of these issues that we will be talking about during this “Jesus & Politics” series. So, look for that survey.
Also in two weeks, the new service times begin — 8:30, 10:30, 5:00 — and there will be no more registration. Yay! And 8:30 and 10:30 services will have World View (which is our summer kids’ program) and nursery. And the 5:00 will just have nursery. In order for these three services to work, we really need a couple hundred of you who would be willing to pray about moving to that 5:00 service to make room for visitors as well as families and individuals that don’t have an option of moving. So, think about that over the next couple of weeks. There will be no mask required in the 5:00 service, but we may retain a section for those who need to worship with others with masks, a section reserved for that.
Also, I want to thank many of you who have sent emails sharing what God is doing through our Mark series. I just want to say thank you, because that’s a huge blessing to me personally. And I was going to share some of those next week, but I divided the passage that was supposed to be preached this week into two parts last week and this week, which bumped everything a week. So, I will share some of those praises, Lord willing, the week after Wisdomfest rather than the week before.
So, Mark 10. Let’s pray. God, thank you for the privilege of opening up your Word together. We humble our hearts. We pray that you would put us in a posture of receptivity. We don’t come as those who claim to know or have it all down. We recognize, Lord, we need you. We pray that you would increase that awareness through our time in your Word. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Trying to figure out if you’re wealthy is like trying to figure out if you’re tall. It sort of depends on who you’re around, right? If you teach K5, you probably think of yourself as a giant. For several years, I ran a slam dunk contest in Chicago. I ran it. And being around these remarkably gifted, massive athletes makes you feel like a gnat. Tiny, no matter how big you think you might be. Because tall is relative.
Well, so is wealth. If you happen to live in the U.S., you live in a country that controls 30% of the world’s financial resources. Look at this graphic from Howmuch.net. This is the total wealth by country in 2019. The top five countries, the United States, China, Japan, Germany and the U.K. 41% of all millionaires live in the United States. Americans earn ten times what an average person around the world earns, even after adjusting for cost of living differences. To get an idea what that means, if your family makes an average household income (total household income) of around $67,000, you are richer than 93% of the people in the world. In other words, you occupy the top 7% of the world’s richest people. Yet in America, you’re an average household. If you make minimum wage, $7.25/hour, you’ll earn around $14,000 a year, which is in our country close to the poverty threshold. Yet, you will be richer than 85% of the global population. Some of you are going, “This can’t be true,” because you will not feel richer for two reasons. One is cost of living, but the other is social expectations. It’s like visiting the Milwaukee Bucks locker room. You’re going to feel short because you live in America.
So, the passage we’ve come to today on wealth is relevant for all of us. Jesus is connecting the call he made in Mark 8:34, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” He’s specifically applying it to money, just like last week he specifically applied it to relationships, like marriage and family. Jesus is teaching us two things through a conversation he had with a really successful person.
Number 1, you can have everything but the one thing and end up with nothing. You can have everything but the one thing and end up with nothing. Mark 10:17, a man came running up to Jesus as Jesus was preparing to continue his journey to Jerusalem, and the man has everything. He’s the kind of guy you hate to have to buy a Christmas gift for. He’s the kind of guy you probably want to hire on your team. He’s the kind of guy you might even want your daughter to marry. Look at the characteristics we’ll piece together.
Matthew 19:22, which is a parallel passage, describes him as a young man.
Luke 18:18, describes him as a leader, a ruler.
Verse 17, he runs up. So, let’s assume he’s athletic. Maybe that’s a push. He’s eager at least. He’s mobile.
Verse 17, he’s respectful. He “knelt” and called Jesus “good teacher.”
Verse 17, he’s also spiritual. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What a great question.
And when Jesus said, “You know the commandments,” he reveals that he’s also moral. In verse 20, “all these I have kept from my youth.” And when he says, “my youth,” what he means is from my bar mitzvah. Bar mitzvah, son of commandment. From the time I was 13 and was declared a son of the commandment, I have sought to keep these commandments. So, he doesn’t murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud the poor, disrespect his parents. He’s not making his money on the backs of other people. He’s generally moral.
Verse 21, he’s loved. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” That word, “looking at him” is intensive. Jesus, penetrating through his friend-winning smile, his aura of success. Jesus pierced through all of that — maybe the hypocrisy, everything else — saw him and loved him. Isn’t that beautiful? Jesus can love even a filthy rich American. He loved him.
Verse 22, he was wealthy. “He had great possessions.” Luke 18:23 describes him as extremely rich.
So, this is the kind of man that most men would want to be. Yet despite this remarkable resume, Jesus pushes back on him in two ways.
First, Jesus questions the man’s goodness. Verse 18,
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
The man threw out this description of Jesus that was not common in that day. They didn’t call rabbis (generally) “good teacher.” Why? Because, as Jesus said, no one except God is truly, absolutely good. Or as Romans 3:12 says, “No one does good, no not one.” No one does good in any kind of absolute sense. And so, the man may have used this description to flatter Jesus. But either way, Jesus turns it back to the man and says basically, “Either I am the Son of God, as Mark 1:1 said, or why are you calling me good? There’s no such thing as just a good teacher. He’s either who he claims to be as the Son of God, or he’s not good. Also implied in that is, if there’s no one good but God, how can you think you’re going to inherit eternal life as if you’re good or good enough?
So, he questions the man’s goodness but then secondly, he exposes the man’s weakness. Verse 21, “You lack one thing.” One thing, you’ve got so much. It seems like you’ve got everything going for you, but
“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.”
Now, the next verse is, perhaps, in my view, one of the saddest verses in the Bible, because the man,
“Disheartened by the saying, [he] went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Why is this one of the saddest verses? I think one of the reasons is because most of us assume that if we could have a one-on-one with Jesus, if we could look into his eyes, and he looked into ours, and he communicated his love, maybe did a miracle, explained the way life really is, we would never doubt again. We wouldn’t cling to anything. We would give it all to him and follow him. Yet this man had that and walked away, walked away sorrowful.
There is a kind of blindness that I think many of us are blind to. It’s a level of bondage that goes beyond anything we can imagine. And Jesus is linking it in some ways to wealth, success. You can have everything but the one thing and end up with nothing. So, why does Jesus tell him to sell everything and give to the poor? Is Jesus setting up some kind of policy? If you’re truly going to be a follower of mine, you can’t own anything, drive anything, live in anything.
I remember when I was in college, a couple of us took a Greyhound bus. If you ever want an interesting experience, travel state to state in a bus. You meet a different kind of people than you’ll meet in a plane. It’ll be a different experience. And so, as we’re driving up, we got to know the people around us, because these busses stop in every city, and you just sit there. We got to know all the people around us, and some of them were disciples of Jesus. I forget the exact name they went by, but they basically made it clear they are the followers of Jesus. We are the “fake” followers of Jesus. They don’t have bank accounts, they don’t own cars, they don’t buy homes, they don’t keep jobs. They travel around the country. They’ll work, just helping someone out to get some food, and then they’ll move on. And that’s what they believe is what it means to be a true follower of Jesus. And the rest are all materialistic.
Is that what Jesus is teaching here? It seems like he’s saying to this man, “You can’t really be my follower and own what you own.” The difficulty with this is (and I raised this in the bus many years ago in these long night conversations), what do you do with all the other stories Jesus tells and people he came in contact with? In chapter 14 we’re going to meet a woman who pours out a very expensive flask of contents on Jesus. Jesus doesn’t tell her, “Hey, go get everything else you own and make sure you sell that and give to the poor.” He doesn’t tell Joseph of Arimathea whom we’re going to meet in chapter 15, a very wealthy man, to sell everything. What about Zacchaeus in Luke 19, a very rich tax collector who experienced salvation and then gave half of what he owned away. Was he only half a Christian? I could go on. What about the women in Luke 8:3, wealthy women who supported Jesus’ ministry? Doesn’t seem like they gave everything away, like he’s asking this man. So, what is Jesus doing here with this man? Look at verse 23.
“Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were amazed at [these] words. [You’re going to see a lot of shock and awe in this passage. The disciples are stunned by this.] But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children.’ [Now he’s not trashing on them. Remember, he just taught a few verses earlier that we have to become as a child to enter this kingdom.] “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
Now, let me just make something clear here. There is no fabled Jerusalem gate that camels had to crawl under at the time of Jesus. What Jesus is saying here is very clear. It’s impossible. Take, for example, the biggest animal you know. In that day, most people would have been familiar with the biggest animal they would know would be a camel. Take the smallest object you know — the eye of a needle. Now, squish this camel through that object, and that is easier than trying to get a wealthy person into the kingdom of God. And you know this is the point because in verse 26, look at their response.
“They were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, [He doesn’t back off at all. I was just kidding about the camel part. No, he said, actually] ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.’”
So, why? Why is it so difficult for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of God, become Christians, follow Jesus? Here’s one reason: wealth whispers everything is going to be okay. You’re not like those needy people over there. You’re not like those ungrateful people over there who haven’t done anything with the opportunities they’ve been given. You’ve made a success of yourself. You’ve done something significant. You’ve taken the opportunities and made it happen. And wealth is whispering in our ears, we are somebody. We’ve achieved something. And you can hear the hiss in those lies as if we are not needy.
Now, to flip it to the other side, this doesn’t mean that being poor makes one spiritual. I was thinking about this on Tuesday. I’m just outside of downtown Greenville, under an overpass at a homeless encampment with our summer college interns. And Ryan Duerk, CEO of Miracle Hill, former heroin addict, is talking with us about homelessness. And as you’re looking around, you realize Jesus is not glamorizing poverty. You don’t go to heaven because you’re homeless. It doesn’t actually even make you more spiritual to be homeless. If you’ve ever ministered to the homeless … I’ve been cussed out by homeless people, lied to, mistreated by homeless people. That doesn’t automatically make you a more spiritual, heavenly-minded person. Jesus is not idolizing poverty and he’s not eulogizing the poor.
But wealth whispers that everything is going to be okay, and poverty screams everything is not going to be okay. When you live under an overpass, and every time the train goes by, tracks are right there, your bones shake. Every time you go the bathroom in a bush, every time you wake up in the middle of the night, and you’re just shaking because you didn’t know the temperature was going to drop, every time the bag that contains everything you own was stolen again, poverty is screaming everything is not going to be okay.
So, what Jesus is saying is for someone in a desperately poor place to recognize, “I need something, something is wrong, something’s wrong with me, something’s wrong with the world we live in.” It is a shorter journey than for a wealthy person who is listening to the whisper day in and day out — You are someone. You’ve achieved something. You’re not like those people who can’t get their act together.
Look at this guy. This guy had everything. And his wealth became a sign that he was somebody. And in that day — it’s even deeper than that — his wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. God looked at you and blessed you with this wealth because you are someone. And when you walk down the street, everyone’s head turns, and they see your aura of success. And so, you have this sense that, yes, even when you feel the doubt within yourself, yes, I am someone. Yes, God is happy with me.
And so, for Jesus to look at this man and say, “Give it all away. Sell everything and give away what you think makes you you.” Give away everything that makes you feel different from, distinct from the people who are needy, the people who can’t get their act together, the people “over there” give away everything. So, suddenly you’re no different from them. Can you imagine how hard that was for him? How hard that is for us? You’d just as soon get a camel squished through a tiny hole.
He just taught a few verses earlier, verse 15, that you can’t enter the kingdom of God without becoming like a little child. What is a little child? A little child doesn’t have a resume. A little child doesn’t have stuff in his hands saying, “I’ve achieved this.” A child comes, in Edwards’ words we saw last week, “sheer neediness.” Your infant is not bragging about how he has provided for himself or pulled himself up or accomplished. Or when your infant is carried into a room, he or she is not thinking about what other people think about them. And Jesus is saying, “you’ve got to come into my kingdom that way.” And for wealthy people, that’s impossible. It’s impossible. You can have everything but the one thing and yet end up with nothing.
And the second thing Jesus teaches us here is you can leave everything but the one thing and actually end up with everything. You can leave everything but the one thing and end up with everything.
“Peter [verse 28] began to say to him, ‘See, we [in contrast to that man] we have left everything and followed you.” In verse 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, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, [and you got to throw that in there, don’t you, Jesus?] with persecutions.’”
He’s reminding us again, we’re going to go down with him, and we’re going to come up with him. We’re with him. So, we take the hard things, and we take the beautiful things. He says there’s no such thing as a sacrifice when you follow me. Ultimately, everything you give up, you will get way more back “and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and last will be first.”
The guy who has everything will end up with nothing. The guy has nothing will end up with everything. No sacrifice will ultimately be a sacrifice with Jesus. So, what is Jesus saying to us rich Americans? I think the simplest way to say it is, don’t let anything blind you to the one thing. Don’t let anything blind you to the one thing. Don’t let anything blind you from the one thing.
This week, I was talking to a friend of mine who had just had a conversation with one of his neighbors. And for the sake of being anonymous, we’ll call my friend Henry and his neighbor, John. And so, they’re talking, their wives were there as well, and the conversation got onto religion. And John’s wife, the neighbor’s wife, shared that she’s Catholic, and that one day she hopes to be able to see her relatives in heaven. So, she believes in God and believes there’s a heaven. She’s also really into science. She loves science. So, that led off into a fascinating conversation about quantum physics and the existence of God.
But during that conversation, my friend noticed that his neighbor, John, was not really saying much about that. And so, he asked him, “Do you believe in God?” John said, “No, I’m an atheist.” Henry asked him, “How did you come to that conclusion?” And he said, “Well, I haven’t really thought about it a lot. But since I don’t believe in magic, I really don’t believe in God.” And so, Henry explained that he also doesn’t believe in magic, and therefore that is one of the reasons he does believe in God. Because believing that everything exists from nothing by no one seems very much like a magic trick, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Everyone knows, if you know that magic really doesn’t exist, that a good magic trick is actually done by someone with intentionality.
So, this led to a very interesting conversation about the existence of God, our need of a Savior, how we’re not getting any younger. And during that conversation, my friend asked them if they wanted to read a very short, accessible paper he had recently published on the existence of God, and would they want to explore further? John’s wife immediately said, “Yes, I’d love to read that.” And then Henry turned to John, and John said, “No, not really interested in that.” And I forget the exact words, but basically, “I kind of want to spend the rest of my life playing golf.”
Now, let that sink in. Both of these men are extremely successful, obviously thoughtful. The conversation was very amiable, not caustic, nobody’s yelling, very friendly, warm. But here’s a man, John, who has achieved remarkable success like this rich young ruler, is extremely wealthy, doesn’t need to work. He can do anything with his time. And here he has a neighbor, a friend who’s offering to explore questions like: maybe I’m on this earth, maybe I’ve actually been made for more than hitting a ball in a hole. And for someone to say, “Nah, I’m not really interested in that. I think I’ll just hit the ball in the hole till I die.
That is a level of blindness that is hard to get your head around. That is a lack of neediness. I’m eating all the good food I could want, I can buy new cars whenever I want, live in beautiful homes. Why would I want to explore these questions? And brothers and sisters, that is the greatest danger Jesus is warning us with living in a wealthy country and thinking you don’t have any need. No, I’m good. Trying to get my golf score down. Breaks your heart.
You can have everything but the one thing you’d end up with nothing. Or, you can leave everything but the one thing and end up with everything.
A couple of questions for us: What is keeping you from the one thing? David Powlison wrestled with this question, a former professor of mine who is now with the Lord. He asked this question from so many different angles. He calls this the most basic question for the human heart. Let me give you a couple angles we can ask this question, because I think some of us have prepared ourselves to defend ourselves against this question from one angle. We need to ask it from more than one. Powlison writes:
“Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title [that is ownership/authority] to your heart’s functional trust [not just a nebulous trust, but the trust that you actually operate in], preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear, and delight?”
What Jesus is saying is, rich people have a harder time answering this question. It’s a little more complicated. Do you feel it? Because as Americans, we have so many different things we can put our trust in. If you’re living under a bridge trying to get food for the next day, you still have to wrestle with that question, but it’s a little less complicated. Another way of asking the same question in Powlison’s words:
“To whom or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security, and acceptance?”
Or another way: “What do you really want [out of life]? What would make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success? These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors.”
I sometimes wonder if this rich young man really believed he was clinging to his wealth as a sign that God had accepted him. We can even morph our false saviors into our religion, a religion. How can I sell everything and give it away to the poor, because that’s how I know God is happy with me, is because he’s blessed me so much.
The next question we’ve got to ask, which is crucial, is what does leaving everything but the one thing look like? If Jesus is calling us to leave everything but the one thing so that we can ultimately have everything, what does “leave everything” mean? Well, I really believe Jesus may be calling some of us to do what the rich young ruler was called to do. For some of us, the tentacles of money and success are so tightly wrapped around us, the only way to break them is actually do what Jesus is saying. Hey, let’s just do it all cold turkey. Sell it all. And for some of us, it may be a means of a freedom and service. I want to send you to the other side of the world so you can tell people about me. You talk about freedom? That’s his call on some of us today.
But just like in the Gospels, he’s calling all of us to give everything, but he’s calling us to do it in different ways. If you remember Abraham, he called Abraham to offer up Isaac. Isaac and Abraham were on the top of the mountain, and he’s preparing to offer up the son of the promise — his whole life had revolved around Isaac — and God says no, here’s Isaac back. And as Abraham and Isaac were walking arm and arm off that mountain, Abraham still had Isaac, but he had him in a different way.
This first occurred to me many decades ago. I think it’s the first Christian book I ever read in high school, A.W. Tozer’s, “The Pursuit of God.” There’s a chapter entitled, “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing.” It’s amazing. But look at the way Tozer describes Abraham and Isaac after Abraham offered everything on the altar. God says keep Isaac. But then Tozer describes this as Abraham “had everything, but he possessed nothing.” You see the difference? He still had Isaac.
God is still going to entrust wealth to many of his followers and say, “I’m going to bless you with millions and millions of dollars, but I don’t want you to possess any of it. And I don’t want it possessing you.” That’s freedom. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to give you lots of friends. I’m going to give you lots of opportunities. I’m going to allow you to actually live in a house and drive a vehicle. I’m going to give you a business. But you’re not going to possess it. And it’s not going to possess you. I am the one thing.” The one thing.
You can have everything but the one thing and end up with nothing, or you can leave everything but the one thing and end up with everything. There is a freedom to that. I’m so blessed in our church; there are many people with vast resources, but they’re free. There are some of us today who may not be free. So, Paul has some counsel to us in 1 Timothy 6:17. He says,
“As for the rich in this present age [as for the people who live in Greenville, South Carolina], charge them not to be haughty [You could have been born in a different place at a different time, and with all your efforts, you would still be dirt poor. Don’t be proud about what God has given you], nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches [by the way, they come and go], but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”
He’s not wanting any of us to walk out and just live with this cloud of guilt. “I’m an American, I’m wealthy, I hate myself.” That’s not helping anyone, certainly not helping the poor, and it’s not helping you, and the people who are near you are getting tired of it. That’s not what he’s calling.
He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy. [But] They are to do good, to be [filthy] rich in good works [God doesn’t need your money, as Luther says, but your neighbor might. So, be rich in good works.], to be generous and ready to share”
What he’s saying is the same thing Jesus said. You want to know how to release the stranglehold of money? Share it, give it. Verse 19]
“Thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”
You want to really live? That’s the one thing, knowing real life in Jesus. And then you’ll be able to say with Paul, “It really doesn’t matter to me if I abound and have tons or if he calls me to be abased and have little. I’ve got the one thing. I can go up with Jesus, or I can go down with Jesus, but as long as I’m with Jesus, I’ve got the one thing.
Now, let me bring this one more level down real quick as we pray now. For some of you who may be frustrated, so what do I do this week? Let me suggest to start with one of three things. These are three ways to release the stranglehold: 1. Giving, 2. Fasting, 3. Offering. Try one of these.
One is giving. If you’re not regularly, sacrificially giving away, you might be living under the deception that it’s all yours to keep. You earned it for yourself. Why would I share it? Why would I give it? Why would I sacrifice? Release that stranglehold.
Second, fasting. Fasting is a way to remind ourselves what it feels like to be needy. It was really weird. We’re under the bridge on Tuesday, and I hadn’t really eaten lunch, and my stomach was growling, and I was feeling bad for myself, talking about homelessness. “What a jerk! What a selfish …” So, expand that, and fast intentionally to remind ourselves of our need for a period of time.
The third, offering up, is just a helpful way to continually remind ourselves that what we have is not ours. So, if God gives you a new car, you get on your knees, you lay hands on that car, and you say, “God, this is your car. This is your television.” If I can’t glorify you with this, it’s going to go. This is your house, every room. My schedule, my business, my relationships — it’s all yours. Offer it up like Abraham on the on the mountain offering up Isaac and you’ll be free. Go for the one thing.
Let’s pray. God, thank you for speaking to us this morning through this conversation, Jesus, you had with this very successful man. I just love to imagine that one day he realized the foolishness of his choice, and he trusted you. I pray that for John, Henry’s neighbor, that you would soften his heart and his wife’s heart and draw them to you. Thank you, Lord, that you have put people like Henry and his wife and people in our church all over this community to live and love and point people to a better way, what is truly life, better than new cars and new houses and new jobs and new assets. Lord, what is truly freedom. Lord, now as we respond to your Word, we pray that each of us would say yes, yes, Lord. Please open our eyes to what we can’t see. Humble our hearts. Show us the one thing. In Jesus’ name, amen.