When I was chaplain at Northwestern Hospital, one of the big events of the year was Nurses’ Day, a celebration and recognition of the work of nursing. We chaplains had a table where we offered a blessing of hands. We would usually ask the nurses which unit they worked on, and then offer some blessing appropriate to that unit. The last nurse who came to me that day was a little different: She had been a nurse in direct care on a unit, and later had gotten a MBA and become a nursing administrator, specifically working with budgets and cost control. As we prayed about her work, I remember praying something about her care for and shepherding of money. Afterward she noted that she had never heard a prayer that specifically mentioned money before, or had asked blessing on her particular work, as if working with money were somehow unworthy of prayer.
I was thinking of her as I was reading the story of the rich man, because one of the standard interpretations of it might explain why that nurse had never received a blessing about her work with money, and maybe reflects a common Christian presumption about wealth, one that might be getting in the way of hearing what the story of the rich man might be saying to us.
In my head, that interpretation goes something like this: If you want to really follow Jesus, and I mean really follow Jesus, you have to sell what you have or give your possessions away, and be a wandering beggar for the sake of the reign of God, living totally on faith and trusting that God will provide. That’s what the serious Christians do anyway: they become medical missionaries, or join a volunteer corps at home or abroad, or enter a monastery or convent, or an intentional community of social workers— all worthy vocations by the way. What you don’t do is save too much money, or have investment accounts, or shop at the mall, or heaven forbid, spend all your time working with money—as if Jesus said it would be really hard for an accountant or a mutual fund manager or a banker to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Of course, like today’s rich man, not everyone can really do that, so the rest of us try to make up for it by trying not be too materialistic, sharing the money we have, maybe making a nice pledge to the church or to charity. Maybe we try to find ways to support those “serious Christians,” while still feeling more or less guilty about not being super hardcore followers of Jesus.
Now I am probably just working out my own salvation there, revealing my own insecurities and assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus. But I think it’s not uncommon to boil this story down to the basic “moral” that wealth and possessions are more or less corrupting, and serious followers of Jesus do their best to limit contact with material things, which is one reason why my nursing friend had never heard a prayer blessing her work with money.
Now I’ve found that when I think I know what some passage from the Bible “means,” it’s a good idea to go read it again because I am probably missing something important. For example, even though Jesus highlights how hard it is for a rich person to enter the reign of God, he goes on to promise Peter and the disciples a “hundredfold” of all that same stuff now and in the future. Who needs a hundred houses? Much less “brothers and sisters”? Maybe this teaching is a bit more complicated.
When I reread this story this week, what struck me was the basic response to Jesus’ teaching: The rich man was “shocked.” Jesus’ disciples were “perplexed,” then “astounded.” “Who can be saved?” they start asking. After all, the rich man in Mark is not like those wicked wealthy and powerful people the prophet Amos is denouncing in the first reading. He’s not defrauding the poor, or taking their land, or cheating them of a fair measure of grain, as the rich were doing in ancient Israel.
On the contrary, Mark’s rich man is a paragon of Israelite virtue: He is keeping the covenant perfectly, and like any righteous Jew was probably giving some of his wealth as alms for the poor—just like the Torah says he should. In fact, if he got rid of his wealth, he wouldn’t be able to do that anymore; he would actually be less righteous than before.
Mark’s rich man hasn’t done anything wrong— in fact, it seems he has done everything right, and everyone there would see his wealth as a sign of God’s blessing on his righteousness. Even Jesus is moved by his example: “He loved him,” says the gospel, or “Jesus’ heart warmed toward him.” And then Jesus bursts his bubble: “You lack one thing: go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” In other words, what you think is a sign of your righteousness actually has nothing to do with it. Your wealth is not a blessing for you; in fact it is holding you back from the life you seek. And everyone is shocked, perplexed, astounded, because Jesus is questioning their basic belief: If you do good, God will make sure you also do well.
Now before I go looking for a spiritual lesson here, I don’t want to let us off the hook: Jesus is talking about wealth and possessions, about the danger of having too many (or even any at all), and about the obstacles to full living and a just society that too much wealth in the wrong places can bring. Jesus was familiar with the prophet Amos, whose words to my ear ring as true now as they did then. It can’t hurt us to let the sting of Amos’ denunciations and Jesus’ warnings unsettle and disturb the common American wisdom about wealth: that more is always better, that money is the key to security and happiness, or even a sign of God’s favor or of the virtue of the person with the money.
But to let this story be just about the rich man and his wealth would also leave those of us who aren’t rich off the hook. Perhaps Jesus’ advice to the rich man was specific to him, and I wonder if Jesus might have advice for each of us about what it means to follow him. What might Jesus say to each of us if we came asking what we must do to follow him more closely? Is there anything about ourselves we cling so tightly about what makes us worthy or righteous or good that we would be shocked, perplexed, astounded, if Jesus told us it was getting in the way of to following him? What is it that I hang my hat of virtue on? What would it be like to let it go or give it away?
After all Jesus has called all of us to be “serious Christians,” whether we are bankers or teachers or stockbrokers, or health care workers or priests or full-time parents. And rather than wanting us to feel guilty about not measuring up, Jesus is inviting each of us instead to enter more deeply into the gospel path of life and freedom. So what would Jesus ask you to do or to let go of, so that you could have life and have it to the full?