Throughout His ministry Jesus often used metaphors and parables to convey eternal truths. This was especially true when discussing topics His disciples would not fully understand until after His death (e.g. His reference to raising the Temple three days after it was destroyed). More often than not, though, He spoke in plain terms, particularly when sharing a truth His listeners might easily misinterpret.
One Bible passage, however, consistently confuses most Christians despite Jesus’ clear and unambiguous language. Even church leaders often fail to grasp the simple idea communicated and instead teach an interpretation that, at best, weakens Jesus’ message and, at worst, undermines it altogether. It is the passage immediately following Jesus’ dialogue with a rich young ruler about eternal life.
In that discourse Jesus directs the young man to the law in his quest for eternity and reminds him of six commands in particular. The young man assures Jesus he has kept the commandments, at which point Jesus tells him to go, sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him. Upon hearing this, Scripture tells us, the man “went away grieved, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22, NKJV). His response to Jesus revealed that his love for the world exceeded his love for God.
As the man walks away, Jesus turns to His disciples and says something remarkable: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23, NKJV). It is such a surprising statement that Scripture says, “The disciples were astonished at His words.”
I suspect many of us are astonished by His words as well and share the disciples’ view that Jesus can’t possibly mean what He said. We tell ourselves that His plain words must have a subtler, more nuanced meaning than what appears on the surface. Sensing the disciples’ incredulity (and ours), Jesus reiterates His point.
“Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24b-25, NKJV).
It is these verses (and the corresponding passages in Luke 18 and Matthew 19) that many misinterpret and which often lead to an unbiblical perspective on wealth and worldly possessions. The trouble begins when we go to great lengths to explain why Jesus’ plain words are not what they appear. Instead of focusing on what He is saying and gleaning insights from those words, we concentrate on what He is not saying:
1] Jesus is not saying it’s wrong to be rich.
2] Jesus is not telling us to sell our possessions to follow Him.
3] Jesus is not issuing a specific warning to the rich.
The problem with directing our attention to what is not being said is that it tends to undermine what Jesus did say. We turn Jesus’ powerful warning about the dangers of accumulating wealth and possessions into a toothless remark with plenty of caveats. We need not examine our lives through the lens of Jesus’ admonition because He does not mean what He says.
Even worse, many pastors adopt a similar approach when preaching from this text. But by ignoring Jesus’ penetrating counsel to the rich young ruler and instead preaching on what Jesus did not say, pastors proclaim their congregations free from the sin that plagued the young man. Parishioners need not examine their hearts for the presence of an idolatrous relationship with riches or the practice of poor stewardship. By focusing on what was not said, preachers reinforce the misperception many Christians have that the pursuit of wealth and accumulation of possessions align nicely with the call of Christ.
Another common misinterpretation insists that Jesus’ advice is not directed at the wealthy, per se, but instead represents a broader commentary for everyone. This view suggests that Jesus’ was articulating three big ideas:
1] Don’t allow anything in this world to become your god.
2] Don’t place your trust in material riches.
3] Nothing is impossible for God.
While all three of these points are biblically sound, they miss the most crucial point: that it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. In fact, that point is so critical Jesus mentioned it twice. He knew people would assume they had misheard Him or that He had misspoken. So to remove any ambiguity, He repeated Himself. And then, to prevent any misunderstanding of what ‘difficult’ means, He equated a rich man entering heaven with a camel walking through the eye of a needle.
Jesus directs His message squarely at those who possess the things of this world and almost certainly targets most of us living in this country. The difficulty lies not in the path required of the wealthy (for salvation is a gift of God, not of works) but rather in the fact that this world so easily distracts us from worshipping, loving, and serving God. And when we are entrenched in the things of this world they quickly supplant Jesus as the object of our worship, love, and service. Of course, even the poor can make material things a god and they, too, must exercise caution to avoid committing spiritual idolatry, but the danger is especially acute for those with financial means.
I wonder how many of us unknowingly mirror the rich young ruler. Like him, how many of us are confident in our eternal destination? He assumed (wrongly) that he had kept the law and therefore would spend eternity with God. How many of us (wrongly?) assume we have genuinely embraced Jesus as Lord and committed our lives to Him? How many of us, like the rich young ruler, have deceived ourselves so thoroughly that we are completely unaware of our spiritual blind spots?
In contrast with his spiritual self-assessment, the rich young ruler was far removed from God. Instead of being a spiritual giant, he was spiritually dead. His condition evidenced by his violation of the most important commandment, the one that forms a foundation for all others: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, NKJV).
With one challenge Jesus revealed the dramatic disconnect between the rich young ruler’s perception of his spiritual condition and reality. With one challenge Jesus exposed the truth that he didn’t love the Lord at all despite his assertion to the contrary. With one challenge Jesus showed that someone could embrace a false god and not know it. I wonder how many of us would walk away and refuse to give our possessions to the poor if Christ presented us with the same challenge?
While it is true that all things are possible with God, that we ought not place our trust in riches, and we should never idolize anything in this world, none of those represent the underlying truth Jesus was communicating. This passage is first and foremost a warning about how wealth, possessions, and the lures of this world can quickly and easily corrupt our hearts and replace Jesus as Lord of our lives.
It is a message particularly pertinent for our nation, both within and without the church. It is a message courageous pastors must deliver to their congregations without diluting Jesus’ clear and unambiguous message. It is a message we must ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us. And it is a message that, when embraced, will produce an outpouring of repentance, a reexamination of resource allocation, a significant shift in stewardship, and a revitalized relationship with God.