Have you ever looked at a flower?
This week we went down to Bernheim Forest, and we saw this Quiet Garden full of Peonies. Have you ever thought about how delicate, transient, gratiuitous, and useless flowers are? God has lavished his creativity, resources, energy, mental ingenuity, and power on these things that serve no other purpose than to be beautiful.
Now think about the fact that there are deserts in the world where no flowers grow.
God has made some parts of the world gardens and other parts of the world deserts.
My point is not that those who enjoy gardens shouldn’t think about ways to irrigate deserts. We should.
My point is that those who live in gardens don’t need to feel guilty about the flowers.
We can apply this to God’s spiritual blessings just as well as we can to material ones: Some parts of the world have the word of God (incidentally, those also tend to be the parts of the world where it is possible to have clean water, good medicine, and funds that are safe from thugs and dictators who seize assets). Other parts of the world lack the Bible. Those who live in a land where the Bible is shouldn’t feel guilty about the mercy God has shown us. We should try to get the Bible and the gospel to other lands, but we shouldn’t feel guilty about the goodness God has given to us.
Why am I talking about flowers and deserts? Yesterday it was my privilege to preach the first part of Mark 10. I was going to do the whole chapter, but time ran out so I had to do a crash landing in the middle. Anyway, we were right there in that passage where Jesus tells the rich young ruler that he has to sell everything and give to the poor.
You can listen to the sermon here.
I bring up this thing about flowers because I think Jesus telling the rich young ruler to sell all and give to the poor has caused a lot of Christians to feel false guilt about about having possessions and putting money in savings. The point about flowers is picking up on what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6, where he tells rich people not to hope in wealth but in God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy – that is what 1 Timothy 6:17 says – go read it.
If God has given you something, he wants you to enjoy it, not feel guilty about it. Don’t reject God’s goodness and mercy to you by refusing to enjoy his gifts. Be generous to others. Preach the gospel. Lay your life down for them like Christ did for you (i.e., live the gospel). And enjoy God’s kindness.
But doesn’t the passage about the rich young ruler teach that we shouldn’t enjoy things (not even as God’s gifts) and that we shouldn’t save money?
No! A resounding NO!
Let me summarize a few points hermeneutical and observational:
1) This rich guy is not a believer, so Mark isn’t giving this episode to show Jesus teaching his disciples. Mark is showing Jesus doing evangelism in this instance, not discipleship.
2) Jesus isn’t giving this guy a ladder he can climb to get into heaven. The guy could do what Jesus tells him to and still go to hell–if he continued to trust in his ability to make more money and if he continued to worship Mammon. Jesus is exposing this guy’s idolatry, not giving a recipe to unbelievers. So if you’re not a believer, Jesus is calling you to trust in him, not your money. And he’s trying to help you recognize that you can’t redirect your trust on your own power. It’s a miracle that you need God to do for you. You need God to cause you to be born again. So if there’s something in your life that you don’t know how to overcome—maybe it has to do with the fact that you do love and trust money more than you love God and trust Jesus. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re living in adultery and you can’t overcome it. Jesus wants you to recognize your inability, and he wants you to cry out to him to help your unbelief.
3) Mark 10:30 shows that the issue here is not having possessions, because Jesus says that those who follow him are going to get everything they give up back in this life (with persecutions). So Jesus doesn’t have something against possessions. He’s not advocating poverty or communism or socialism or homelessness. He is advocating the worship of God by faith in him.
So I submit that if you read this passage and come away thinking that you need to do something for Jesus in order to enter the kingdom of heaven or be his disciple, you’re missing the point.
Do I think Mark is teaching that followers of Jesus are called to sell all they have and give to the poor?
Are we called to trust Jesus not Mammon?
Are we called to steward what God has given us for the glory of God?
Are we called to leverage all we have for the gospel?
But divesting yourself of all possessions and of all means is not necessarily good stewardship, nor does it necessarily give you leverage.
Bring all the Bible to bear on your thinking about money. Two passages:
 Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.  Without having any chief, officer, or ruler,  she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.
1 Timothy 6:17–19,
 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,  thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
If you’d like to hear the sermon, it’s here: Mark 10:1–31, “Are We Commanded to Sell Everything and Give to the Poor?”
Look at those beautiful flowers. Smell their fragrant aromas. And worship God who causes such beauty to continue in this world made ugly by sin.
Excellent points. This concept is quickly disappearing in evangelical circles, as radical monkhood (minimalism) is becoming popular again. Unfortunately to understand the point of the rich young ruler requires reading and thinking about the text (and maybe getting help from others who’ve studied it in detail), which is not being encouraged in most churches.
Sweet. I’ve crashed landed my share of sermons. Main point is to be done by noon as we must beat the Methodists to Burger King.
Great post, as usual—I’ve shared it among my small circle of friends and readers. I’ve been lurking for a few weeks and thought I’d say so, as I know from the other side of the fence that it’s nice to know about your lurkers. I find your writing encouraging and excellent, not only spiritually but prosaically.
Completely unrelated, but equally important from my point of view: I bought your God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment—the Kindle version, in case you care—and I’m really enjoying it and being both challenged and blessed by it. It’s really sharpening my thinking, and it’s helping to focus some of the thoughts I’ve had over the last four years but which have remained somewhat blurry despite my best attempts. I particularly appreciate the orientation of the book toward churches and their Christians—that the text is academically compelling but accessible is extremely valuable from my view. (I finished N.T. Wright’s mammoth The Resurrection of the Son of God a few months ago and thought the book was incredibly important, but it’s unfortunately too academic for most working pastors to get through it, I suspect.)
My only complaint at this point is that I’ve noticed a few issues with the text of the Kindle edition—which I would be happy to forward to you or your publisher if you’d like.
Good word, here.
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