Giving: Duty, Privilege, or Joy?

Scripture: Mark 10:17-31

I enjoy this story. It’s one of those passages that you can go like six or seven different ways with it, when you’re preaching on it, and there’s always more to uncover and to dig out and unbury in this passage. There are so many different nuggets of things that you could go into.

Today I’m going to focus a little bit on what I think is part of the core to this passage, in terms of the relationship between Jesus and the young rich man. Let’s make some things clear about this guy first.

We some kind of romanticized version of him, in many of our minds and our hearts, and when I was growing up in Sunday School, and things. This was a young man who was ruler, probably, of the synagogue. A very important man socially. He was very wealthy. He was also very well-educated.

And he was pretty arrogant. When he first comes up to Jesus, he says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That seems like a very reasonable question. Why would Jesus kind of slap him down over a question like that?

First of all, “good teacher.” I’m not sure that he meant it. Everybody has sucked up to somebody at some point. This was pretty much what you did to rabbis, if you wanted to be on their good side, “good teacher.”

Jesus counters this by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Which, by the way, as we look at the theme of Mark, here’s another hint. Jesus is saying nobody is good except … God alone. He is at the same time, then, putting the young man in his place.

The young man asked this question almost rhetorically. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I feel pretty confident that he felt that he had done everything he needed to get to heaven. So this really wasn’t a question about how to get to eternal life.

This was more of an opportunity, a setup for him to brag, for him to point out – as the Pharisees liked to do – just how good a man he was.

So Jesus goes through the commandments. The commandments, by the way, the second half of them. I always like to note that the Ten Commandments are split, depending on which tradition you’re in, the first three and then the next seven, or the first four and the next six.

But the first part of them deals with your relationship with God. How do you deal with your relationship with God, in terms of having no graven images, worshiping only Him, not taking His name in vain, etc. The remainder have to do with relating to each other in community.

So Jesus hasn’t touched on the ones dealing with God, which I’ve always found fascinating. Instead, he talks about the ones dealing with other people, when he goes through the Ten Commandments. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony, etc.

The young man proudly declares, “Teacher, I have kept these since I was a boy,” which I find amusing. I guess now as I’ve gotten older, to hear this young, probably no more than twenty-two or twenty-three, saying “I’ve kept these since I was a boy.” Like “I’m a man now.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. He had compassion on him, is what some translations say. He says something very critical. “One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

So he looks at this young man, and he has compassion on him, and so in that compassion he gives him an answer. The true answer that he was actually seeking, that he really didn’t think he was seeking, but that underlay his question. Jesus gave the real answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“One thing you lack. Go and sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me.” It says at that, his face fell, or he kind of became distraught. He turned away, because he was a very wealthy man.

Jesus lets him walk away. Jesus lets him walk away, because he had a choice to make. You see, he may have done the other six, but he hadn’t done the first four (or three) commandments. His relationship with God was not what it should be. His placement of God in his life (“You shall have no other gods before me”) was not where it should be.

For all we know – and I’m guessing the young man was a tither. The tithe was required by Jewish law, and it sounds like he kept all the particulars of the law. But he had not truly given to God with his heart. He had not given sacrificially.

He was a wealthy man, and sometimes when you’re wealthy, it’s easy to give out of your excess. You can compare how much you’ve given to other people. You say, “Well, they only gave this much, and I gave lots.”

You see this in Luke, when Jesus is in the temple, and there’s a man that comes in with whole bags of gold, and then there’s a widow that has the two mites and she puts them in there, and he tells his disciples, “Guess who’s closer to God. She is, because he gave out of his excess, and she gave all she had.”

It’s proportional giving. It’s spiritual, the spirit of giving that is involved here. The young man may have done his duty. He may have done his duty in giving the tithe. But his wealth ruled him, not God. Not God. The kingdom of God is the rule of God in our lives, and we experience the kingdom as we experience God’s rule in our lives.

He was not experiencing God’s rule in his life, even though he kept all of those other commandments. He failed in “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Jesus makes a comment, then, how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples were amazed, because to them, to the Jews, prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. You’re in a right relationship with God, then things prosper, you do well, and you must be right with God.

Likewise, of course, if disaster fell upon you, if bad fortune came upon you, then God’s curse must be upon you if it continued, and what sin did you commit?

That could be anything from losing wealth and losing family members to, in John, there’s a story of a man born blind, and the disciples ask Jesus whose sin was it, his or his parents’, that made him be born blind. You see the curse of God extending to the fourth generation. That’s the way the Jews understood it.

So when Jesus said how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples were amazed. Because he just turned their world on its head. Then he goes it to say it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

For a long time, I believed the tradition or interpretation that talked about that being literal. There was a camel, and there was a gate in the Jerusalem wall called the Eye of the Needle, and the only way to get through it was to totally strip the camel of everything and then it had to get on its knees to go in.

There are a number of articles that I’ve read through the years a bit recently that really argue strongly against that, because to them it promotes a works righteousness. All you have to do is divest yourself of everything, and it goes right along with the story. Sell everything that you have.

That’s not the way we get to God. We get to God by faith. Also, there’s archeological data now that says there was no such thing as an Eye of the Needle in the wall of Jerusalem anywhere. Not that they can find. A man-door, as it were.

Rather, there was rabbinical tradition, an allusion, an allegory, for saying something was impossible. In the Israeli area, it was taking an actual physical camel and squeezing it through the eye of a sewing needle. Over in the east, in Persia, in Babylon, it was an elephant.

Because they had elephants out there. So it was try to squeeze an elephant through the eye of a needle. Same saying, different concepts, but in both cases it meant: it’s impossible.

It’s impossible. You can’t get to God by what you do. You get to God by His grace and His free gift to you. That’s how you get eternal life, which is the question that was originally asked by the young man.

You get to God by His grace, and then you respond to it in joy and gratitude, and that is reflected in your keeping of the commandments which He has given you. One of those is to have no other gods before Him.

So you don’t want your wealth to be a bar to your inheritance from God. You need to hold lightly enough to the things of this world that you can be giving sacrificially in order to place God first in your life.

When we give, you always should be asking yourself, is this a sacrifice, is this a duty, or is this a joy? I think we can experience all three. There are times when giving, not just of your treasure but of your time or talents, is a duty.

“Oh man, it’s my day to be greeter. I really don’t feel like being at church today, but OK, I’ll be there.” Or “We’re having another dinner or something, and I was chief cook on the last one, and everybody is expecting me to be there. I’d just as soon stay home and watch Wheel of Fortune. But I’m going to be there.”

Then there are times when it’s truly a sacrifice. You give to God’s work and God’s kingdom and to the worship of God in a sacrificial way. You give, not just out of your excess but from the first fruits. You make God a priority.

Let me say, this is not a priority over paying the mortgage or paying your electric bill. You don’t do anybody any good if your lights aren’t on and your heat won’t run. The idea is that you learn how to budget, which most of you all know very well – better than me.

You learn how to budget so that you give God first fruits and you still live within the rest of that means, so you keep your lights on and you keep your heat on and you make your mortgage payment. But you give sacrificially. You give first to God.

That includes your time and your talents as well. We Presbyterians, we love our committees. I make a lot of jokes about committees. So do a lot of other people.

During a recent ecumenical gathering, a secretary rushed into the meeting shouting, “The building is on fire!”
The Methodists immediately gathered in the corner and prayed.
The Baptists cried, “Where is the water?”
The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings that fire brings.
The Lutherans posted a notice on the door, declaring the fire was evil.
The Roman Catholics passed the plate to cover the damage.
The Jews posted symbols on the doors, hoping the fire would pass.
The Congregationalists shouted, “Every man for himself!”
The Fundamentalists proclaimed, “It’s the vengeance of God!”
The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out.
The Christian Scientists concluded there was no fire.
The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and submit a written report.
The secretary grabbed the fire extinguisher and put the fire out.

Presbyterians have their committees. But I love committees, and the reason I love committees is not because I’m Presbyterian – although it goes along. The reason I love committees is it gives you an opportunity to give sacrificially of your time and your talents.

When you participate in one of these committees, you are really worshiping God. You’re putting Him first. You’re following the first and second commandments, having no other gods before Him. It is something done to the glory of God – which as we all know, because you’ve heard me say it so many times, the chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

We get to do both. And there comes a point in your maturity in the faith-walk, as you go along, and particularly if you are given the spirit of generosity –

There is a gift of generosity by the way. That is not just a generous heart that reaches out to people, but also financially, where you actually gain joy from your giving. It’s not just a sense of satisfaction and a sense of being with God and being in a right relationship with God. There’s a sense of exaltation. Not of pride: “look at what I just did.” But more of “Thank you, God, that you have blessed me so much that I can give this back to Your work, above and beyond.”

Above and beyond. Those are the folks that I think really take the risks. The liturgists who come up here and put themselves forward every week. There are mistakes sometimes, and people have to back up, and there’s always the possibility there’ll be public embarrassment. But they put themselves out there to serve God and to serve you.

There are other times, too, when folks come in, and on a really snowy day like today, I come in, drive in, and it’s true I had a long drive, but I was amazed as I came in, there are people sweeping the walks, shoveling the walks, and getting everything all ready for folks to be here in church, and you guys all made it here. I have to admit, my son, on the way here, was joking that we’d have five people in church and we’d be three of them.

But you’re hardy folk, and you love God. So you can give sacrificially, and it becomes a joy, hopefully, to worship with each other, your family of faith here. So even though it’s a sacrifice it doesn’t feel like one, because it’s a joy. And hopefully it’s not ever a duty. Not for worship.

But all this lay behind the young man’s question. He was really thinking, I’ve done everything I need to get into heaven, and Jesus is telling him no, you don’t understand what’s required. It requires you to follow him. It requires you to be able to give sacrificially, to declare that God is the ruler of your life, and then to follow what He commands.

Frankly, we’re selfish. It’s impossible on our own, as Jesus said. But – and there’s the good news of this passage – with God, all things are possible. Even us self-centered, selfish, depraved human beings being able to reflect and model the love and grace of God, as we experience it in our own lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So I would encourage you, on this snowy, wintry day of Lent – the first Sunday of Lent – that you truly make Jesus Lord in your heart and life. Don’t just say it. Live it.

Examine your life. Examine the Scriptures. Look at where God might be calling you to be. Look at what God might be calling you to sacrifice. And then give it with joy. God will reward that. As Jesus himself notes, a hundredfold here in this present age, and then with eternal life in heaven.

Not some prosperity gospel. But in your hearts. Your peace, your comfort, your joy will be multiplied. And your hope will never be taken away from you. That is good news.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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