The Problem with Rich

The problem with “rich” is that I know, instinctively, that it doesn’t apply to me.

My dad would sometimes pull the sly smile as he claimed wealth: the love of the family, the rewarding life, you know, the revisionist definition of rich. But I knew all to well that the financial pressures that had our family on a cycle of spending less and less as payday approached, the debt of a mortgage we couldn’t afford, and the disparity between a Navy income and the cost of living in the D.C. area all added up to one thing: we were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we always had electricity and a warm house and food on the table, that we had a clunker that the kids could drive in addition to a nicer car for the grown ups. We were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we know in our minds, or sometimes see with our eyes, what real poverty looks like. It doesn’t matter that we know that we have more than 95% of the people in the world. We just know that we are not rich.

And this is why “rich” is a problem.

It is a word that I have learned, deep down, experientially, does not apply to me.

We have all been taught how to look up, to see the people with more, to identify them as rich.

While we are not.

And so, when we come across “the rich,” the warnings to “the rich,” or “the rich man” on the pages of scripture, we dissociate. “Wow, if I were rich, that would be a pretty convicting story.” Or, “Wow, I wonder, if I were rich, would I be able to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus?” “Wow, it will be hard for those folks to get into the Kingdom of God. I should pray for them.”

That’s why, in my judgment, the Gospel of Mark does us a great favor.

In Mark 10:17, a man runs up to Jesus. We’re not told anything about him, except that he bows and asks about what must be done to inherit life.

Jesus feels for this man. Loves him. And so, Jesus ends up inviting him into the life-giving way: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! follow me!”

But the man becomes gloomy, and goes way sad. Because he was…

Because he was what?

“Because he was someone who had a lot of stuff.”

Uh oh.

“Has a lot of stuff” (ἔχων κτήματα πολλά).

Now that sounds familiar. Mark’s warning is not here embodied in “the rich” (ὁ πλούσιος) but in “one who has a lot of stuff.”

Now that hits home.

It hits home in garages cluttered with too many bicycles. It hits home in bookshelves with too many books. It hits home in houses loaded up with phones and retired phones and iPads and computers and televisions and multiple sets of serving dishes and overflowing closets and basketfulls of toys.

It is not to “the rich” that Jesus goes on to issue his warning–those ethereal others!–but to us:

“Oh, with how much difficulty with those who have a ton of crap (ok, more literally, “a lot of stuff”) enter the kingdom of God!”

This is not for some mysterious “them.” It is for us.

Jesus will use the word for “rich” a little later, but let’s live with him in the delay. Let’s recognize that none of us is willing to bear that label rich. And let’s recognize that this is perhaps the most important story we could hear and respond to. We are the “stuff havers.”

Let’s leave behind the word “rich.” It is too full of problems for us. Let’s dwell on the challenge for those non-rich who still have too much.

How difficult it will be for those… for us… for me… who have a ton of crap to enter the kingdom of God.

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