Extra resources for Church Action on Poverty Sunday: thoughts on the rich young man

Voices from the Margins logo no straplineWe usually read Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel as being addressed to one person with wealth. Sue Richardson from Christian Aid suggests it could be interpreted as an invitation to the whole church, following Pope Francis’ appeal for “a poor church, of the poor”. This reflection includes questions for groups to explore the idea – why not use it on Church Action on Poverty Sunday?

The rich young man (Mark 10:17-27)

17 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?’ 18 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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; Honour your father and mother.”’ 20 He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21 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.’ 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 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!’ 24 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! 25 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.’ 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27 Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
(New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised)
Sell what you own
Give the money to the poor
Come follow me
You will have treasure in heaven.
What have we here?  A departure interrupted by a question. An itinerant preacher and healer is surrounded by a motley group of ex-fishermen, suspect financial officials, dreamers under fig-trees and possibly a few ex-beggars and prostitutes. They see a rich young man kneel to Jesus and ask him for spiritual guidance.
Having been called by Jesus away from their own lives to live on the road and from the hospitality of others, the disciples may have viewed this encounter as a patronage possibility. The rich man seems to pass the catechism test, even though he may have missed Jesus’ insertion of the word ‘defraud’ in the place of ‘covet’ as he recites the second group of the ten commandments.
This is a man with some confidence, even a sense of entitlement; he asks Jesus how he can ‘inherit’ eternal life, which may be how he came to be rich in the first place; although the rather provoking ‘defraud’ implies Jesus is fully aware of how people get to be rich in first-century Palestine, often through the indebtedness, the dispossession and the exploitation of others.
Despite his assurance there is something about this young man that compels Mark to tell us that on a very brief acquaintance Jesus loves him.  Why then does he launch this stomach-punch of a challenge?
Sell what you own
Give the money to the poor
Come follow me
You will have treasure in heaven.
Jesus has not seemed unduly bothered by possessions.  He doesn’t have many, but he is quite happy to eat with, stay with and presumably be supported by people who at least have houses and tables and resources.  So, is this encounter basically about riches, or is it about the fundamental understanding of where salvation and the kingdom of heaven ultimately lie?
This is a man used to and desirous of security.  He is protected by his social position and what he owns, he is secure in his religious understanding and performance; now he desires the ultimate security of eternal life.
What did he really expect Jesus to say to him?  Perhaps a request to be more assiduous in his support of the temple, more generous to his tenants and workers?  He could not have anticipated an invitation to shed all that made him secure and take up a new life on the road with people from all walks of society.
So he has to walk away, ‘grieving’ we’re told because ‘he had many possessions’.
He isn’t the only one who is shocked; the disciples are presumably muttering to each other because Jesus addresses them directly (twice) to say how hard it is for someone with riches to enter the kingdom of heaven.  He doesn’t say it’s impossible, but that’s how they hear it.  If this religious paragon cannot be saved, this beautifully dressed, perfectly polite, well-instructed and God-fearing Jew cannot see heaven, what hope is there for anyone?  They are still seeing material wealth as evidence of God’s favour.  Peter asserts later that they have given up everything to follow Jesus, but you can tell he regards it rather like a wager that will eventually pay off.
What the young rich man has failed to hear and presumably Peter has failed to notice is that Jesus’ invitation is not to swap a life of luxury for one of destitution, but is to embark on a radical reorientation of two things.  The first is to know where God can be found and served and the second is to realise where your security ultimately lies.  The answer is with the poor.  God loves the poor, abides with the poor, is revealed in the poor, not because they are more deserving, or holy or nicer than people with money and status but because the poor know that they need, and their need gives God the space to be God in a way that the security generated by wealth and power cannot do.
Jesus is not asking his questioner to merely re-evaluate his relationship with his wealth.  He is showing him that there is no room for difference based on these worldly distinctions in the kingdom of God. To follow Jesus would mean this young man placing his resources at the disposal of others.  He would have taken a concrete step towards life in a society that did not accept as just or as the will of God, the separation of people based on money and power.  His security would come from the experience of being one with others, ‘receiving from’ God’s promised abundance what was necessary for life not ‘inheriting’ by right those things that shut him off from others and that could also shut him off from the mercy and providence of God.
The Church has a long history of service to the poor; poor people, powerless people have been churchgoers for two millennia, but the Church (with the capital C) has been located most often where power and resources seem to be available.  Pope Francis calls not just for a church of the poor, but ‘a poor church’, an appeal as shocking to most of us today as Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man.  If we can respond at all it must come from a conviction that there lies the Kingdom and from that perspective comes the Good News we all need to hear as we seek eternal life.

Questions for reflection

  • What sense of entitlement does belonging to a church bring with it in your tradition?
  • Spend a little time reflecting on what you know of church history.  Are there times you can recall when the Church has taken positions of power, amassing wealth and has exploited people to do so?
  • Mark tells us that on a very brief acquaintance Jesus loves this young man.  What does it mean to experience the love of Jesus within our church community?
  • What do we do as community to challenge and encourage each other to share and gift resources and to know that we will be supported by others for our essential needs?
  • How do we react to the invitation to become ‘a poor church’?  What might it look like in our context?
  • Where is our church situated?  Who worships alongside us? How are we ‘poor’ or might we become ‘poor’?
  • What other understandings of ‘being poor’ might we have to develop?

As liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says:

51kcptiygjl-_sx335_bo1204203200_“Beyond any possible doubt, the life of the poor is one of hunger and exploitation, inadequate healthcare and lack of suitable housing, difficulty in obtaining an education, inadequate wages and employment, struggles for rights and repression.  But this is not all.  Being poor is also a way of feeling, knowing, reasoning, making friends, loving, believing, suffering, celebrating and praying.  The poor constitute a world of their own.  Commitment to the poor means entering, and in some cases remaining in, that universe with a much clearer awareness; it means being one of its inhabitants, looking upon it as a place of residence and not simply of work.  It does not mean going into that world by the hour to bear witness to the gospel, but rather emerging from it every morning in order to proclaim the good news to every human being.”
From We Drink From Our Own Wells (SCM Press, 2005, p.125)

A Nicaraguan poet (Giocanda Belli) has said that community solidarity “is the tenderness of the peoples”.
Let us pray for tenderness between people, in communities:
Where economic activity is based on greed,
Where only the wealthy and the ambitious are respected,
Where the poorest and the weakest go unseen,
And each one feels alone.
And let us give thanks for communities:
Where the silent have found their voice,
Where the unseen work of many is affirmed with pride,
Where those who were treated as nothing
Have discovered that they matter,
And they are not alone.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom
And the weakness of God is stronger than our strength.
Let us pray for tenderness within the law, in communities:
Where the poorest have no share in the land,
Where conditions of work are degrading and divisive,
Where a few determine the lives of many,
And the voice of the poorest is silenced.
And let us give thanks for communities:
Where the poor have pooled resources to support each other,
Where those with knowledge have used it to help others learn,
Where the interests of the strongest have been challenged
With anger and courage and love.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom
And the weakness of God is stronger than our strength
(From Christian Aid Week 1990 Order of Service: ‘The World is Our Community’)

Sue first presented this reflection at the Church Action on Poverty National Poverty Consultation in Manchester (2-3 November 2017).