As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”Mark 10:17-31
There is no doubt that this passage before us presents us with a hard saying from Jesus. It was a hard saying in first century Judea, and it remains a hard saying for us in twenty-first century Singapore. Let us be honest with ourselves: if we are confronted by Jesus today and told to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor” in order to follow him, would we not end up shocked and grieving like the pious Jewish man? An old saying (commonly ascribed to Mark Twain) goes like this, “Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.” Here, we are scandalised precisely because we understand Jesus’ words all too clearly.
Of course, that has not stopped some exegetes from trying to “understand” Jesus differently so as to remove the scandal. In my time as a Christian, I have heard preachers either divert away the cutting edge of Jesus’ words or blunt the cutting edge all together. In the former, Jesus is thought to be giving an instruction that only deals specifically with the Jewish man’s inordinate desire; it is not an absolute imperative that everyone needs to heed, just a relative imperative that addresses those who love money. This completely ignores verses 23 to 25, in which Jesus asserts without nuance that it is impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. In the latter, the “eye of the needle” mentioned in verse 25 is said to be a low gate in Jerusalem that required travellers to disembark from their camel and carry their luggage by hand to enter—the lesson here being that the rich only need to be humble to enter the Kingdom of God. As one commentator bluntly puts it, “This tradition has no historical basis and looks like the invention of a wealthy church searching for loopholes.”
Let us not divert or blunt Jesus’ words, but ask ourselves honestly: are we willing and able to give away all we have to follow Jesus? Jesus is not saying we cannot have money or own things—he and his disciples did have personal possessions. Rather, it is a question of trust: do we really trust in Jesus, that if we follow him, we will be satisfied and fulfilled even if we have little? Or have we entrusted ourselves to our wealth and found our security in it? We must note that Jesus has scarcely anything favourable to say about personal wealth in the gospels. He refers to wealth as mammon, a term that is derogatory, implying that it is ungodly and sinful. There is some kind of demonic power in wealth that ensnares those who possess it and draws them away from God. Hence, Jesus insisted that “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6.24). If we are unable or unwilling to relinquish our money and worldly possessions in an act of abnegation, then the truth is, we are not following Jesus but serving mammon.
If Jesus’ demand seems impossible to us in our materialistic culture, then ask God for grace to imitate Jesus. For it was him who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.7-8) —as an obedience of faith to the Father. May we be able to imitate Jesus in his abnegation and join him in the glory of the age to come. Let us hold on to our possessions loosely and live life simply, but obey Jesus faithfully and follow him closely to the end.