by Robert Brow
Mark 10:17 As Jesus 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?"
To picture the scene I am going to make a guess. This young man (Matthew 19:22) was Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Martha and Mary (John 11:2, 5, 12:2). Jesus was often in their home (Luke 10:38-42), and that was where Jesus went out to sleep at night between Palm Sunday and his arrest (Matthew 21:17, 26:6, Mark 11:11).
The family was obviously wealthy since Mary had a flask of very expensive perfume ready for her wedding, which she broke and poured out on Jesus (John 12:3). Luke's Gospel tells us that he was a ruler and so probably a member the Sanhedrin, the Jewish parliament (Luke 18:18). The family were also well connected with important religious leaders in Jerusalem (John 11:19, 45-46) which is perhaps why the synoptic Gospels carefully avoid mentioning Lazarus' name. There was something mysterious, something we don't know about Lazarus of Bethany.
Why am I guessing that the rich young man was Lazarus? John's Gospel tells us twice that Jesus loved Lazarus (John 11:3, 36), and we have the same words in our Gospel today : "Jesus, looking at him, loved him"(Mark 10:21). Putting these details together is very indirect circumstantial evidence, but nothing hangs on whether the rich young man who came running to Jesus was Lazarus or some other person.
By picturing the rich young man as Lazarus of Bethany I can assume Jesus knew him well. In our account he came running because Jesus was on his way out of the house and setting out on a preaching tour with his disciples (Mark 10:17). This suggests that he hated to see Jesus leave and he would have loved to follow Jesus' invitation to "come, follow me" (Mark 10:21). He asked about eternal life, but Jesus knew that was not the real question. As a minister I find that often the question people ask is not really the reason for asking. Lazarus already had eternal life as a disciple of Jesus, he calls him "Good Teacher" and when he ran up he knelt before him (Mark 10:17), which for a rich member of the Sanhedrin is very great respect indeed.
His question was not about eternal life, but what he should do with his life. Should he continue his business interests and successful political career? Or should he engage with Jesus in the work of the Kingdom?
When Jesus said "sell what you own, and give your money to the poor" (Mark 10:21) the Messiah was not giving us a condition for eternal life. Nowhere does the Bible say we have to sell everything to be saved for heaven. We should not imagine that Joseph of Arimathea, who gave his own tomb for Jesus to be buried in, was excluded from heaven because he was rich. In the Old Testament Abraham, who is the example of faith for all believers, is described as "very rich" (Genesis 13:2). Paul wrote that the rich should be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share" (1 Timothy 6:18). There are certainly dangers in trusting our riches (James 5:4-6), but giving away everything is never commanded as necessary for Christian faith.
What Jesus was telling this young man who had "many possessions" (Mark 10:22) was that he could not continue his business and political interests and at the same time follow the Messiah in the work of the kingdom. Jesus was leaving on a tough preaching tour making known the good news of the Gospel. It is as if a week-end mountain climber wanted to climb Mount Everest but also wanted to play that season for a team in the National Hockey League. The choice of one direction inevitably closes the door to other possibilities. Which can make deciding very tough. "Yes, I long to study in Germany to go on with my music career, but I have a boy friend and I don't want to lose him."
When Mollie and lived in Toronto we had a neighbor who was a very well paid engineer with Bell Telephone. He loved his wife and daughter, their beautiful home was paid for, and to me he seemed to have everything. We had four kids in school, lived on a very tight budget, and owned about the area under our front door mat. One day he walked over to me and said "Bob, I envy you. I can see you are doing what you really enjoy doing." So I asked him what he would really enjoy doing, and he said immediately "I would love to be a high school teacher."
So I said, "That's easy, sign up for Toronto Teacher's College this fall, take a mortgage on your house, and in two years' time you could be doing what you want to do." In those days there were plenty of vacancies for teachers. A minute or two later he looked at me very sadly and said "Bob, you don't realize how much I would lose in my Bell Telephone pension plan."
That was the kind of choice the rich young man had to make. Did he want to satisfy his longing to be part of Jesus' preaching team, or did he prefer the excitement of managing his vast investments and being a member of the Jewish parliament? And, like him, we too have to choose between pursuing our own vision and holding on to our possessions. And of course possessions (or what we possess) can take many forms.
The problem is many people try to avoid having to make a choice by saying "I am not sure what the Lord wants me to do?" That is a cop out. When I was here at St. James Church for eleven years I had dozens of students come to me when they were struggling wondering what the Lord's will was for their life. I always used to ask them my two million dollar question - it is now $5 million as a result of inflation!. "If a wealthy uncle suddenly left you five million dollars invested at 8%, and so yielding $400,000 a year, what would you do with your life?" The question forces us to answer the question God is asking each one of us: "What would you really want to do if you were free of any financial constraints?"
With five million dollars to work with you might think "I could make more and become the next Bill Gates." Or if you wanted to go into politics, five million dollars would help you get elected and go for becoming the prime minister of Canada. What is your deepest heart longing?
When I ask people my $5 million question often they try to wriggle out of a decision by saying they would go and study some more. But I don't let them get off the hook. "Why would you need more degrees if you never have to earn a living again? You have the money to do whatever you want." Others say they would wait on the Lord for guidance, which would take them right back to their present paralysis of doubt.
Often people find my question very difficult. But some discovered to their astonishment that they had deep beautiful longings which gave them a meaning for their life. And as they began taking steps in that direction, they discover God the Father really cares about their freedom. Once they have clarified what they would love to do, he begins to open the doors they need for the next move forward.
"But surely the Lord has a plan for my life?" Don't I have to find out his agenda for my future and obey it exactly?" There is only one plan for Christians. And it is very simple. God says "Accept my love for you, and then invest that love in any way you choose. There are hundreds of ways you can invest your love for others." And if every one of us chose one or two directions in which we begin to invest our loving the world would soon be turned upside down. But every kind of loving in the Kingdom of God will turn out to be costly. Whether you love your partner, or your children, or your church, or your community, serve in your country, or in some needy part of the third world, you are going to get hurt. And in the choice of what you long to do, many other things (many other possessions) inevitably have to be set aside.
That was the choice the rich young man had to make. He loved Jesus and wanted to go with the Messiah in the work of the Kingdom, but his business and political interests held him back. So "he was shocked, and went away grieving, for he had many possessions" (Mark 10:22).
A few weeks or months later he became seriously sick, and died. By the time Jesus came, he had already been in the tomb three full days. But when Jesus called him out he heard the words "Lazarus, come forth" (John 11:38-39, 43). Having been brought back from death, I wonder what Lazarus then did with his life? We are not told, and I suppose none of us know what we would do if that happened to us.
Finally let me remind you that "God loves you much more than the most loving of human parents. And truly loving parents want their children to be free to do what they long to do, and will help them in that direction. Don't remain paralyzed wondering what plan God has for your life. Just tell him what you would do if you were really free to invest your loving in any way you choose. And then take the first little step in that direction.
So here's a prayer you could use this morning. "Heavenly Father, I know
you love me very much. And I have deep longings I hardly dare put into
words. I know that as a loving Parent, you care about my freedom. But I
find my freedom is shackled by all the others things that crowd in on my
life. Help me to put first things first."