Do Not Pass Go — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 10:17-31.

Perhaps the rich man confronts an existential meltdown. Maybe he is meeting a crisis of meaning. Could it be he has found the purpose-driven life to be mostly just…driven? Does he live his best life now, only to find that “best” is not enough?

The rich man has won the real-life Monopoly game. He owns Park Place and Boardwalk (as well as all the orange properties which, statistically, have the highest Return on Investment). He has all the railroads and utilities for a steady cash flow. He has even won second-place in the beauty contest (twice!).

He’s got it all. Come on, buddy. You’re so close.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

In the first-century world, rich men were seen as sort of white-collar criminals. “Every rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief,” the ancient proverb says. Mark’s audience was mostly poor people. It’s unlikely they applauded when the rich man appeared on the Markan stage. Instead, this strangely anonymous character was likely greeted with boos, hisses, and the melodramatic throwing of popcorn.

We twenty-first century American listeners are a different audience. We identify with the rich man. We hope he triumphs. “We worship at the altar of plenty,” Kate Bowler writes in No Cure for Being Human. “Our heroes are corporate titans, fitness-empire builders, grinning televangelists, music legends, and decorated athletes whose gilded lifestyles and totalizing success hold out the promise of more…Despite the boom and bust of the American economy over the last fifty years, we cling to stories of more-than-enoughness, believing the future is full to the brim for all of us.”[i]

Come on, buddy. You’re so close. You won at real-life Monopoly. Maybe now you can win at Life (existence, not another board game).

The rich man draws another card. “The one who dies with the most toys still dies.” At some point you cannot pass “Go.” You will not collect another two hundred dollars. Your money goes back into the box, and your property titles back into the pile. Tokens are retrieved. The game is over.

Maybe the rich man has a “Hank Williams” epiphany. We’ll never get out of this world alive. So, he has a “come to Jesus” meeting – with Jesus!

How do I stay in the game? What’s the point if all the money is just decorated paper in the end? Beyond the dollars and cents, does my life make sense?

Jesus says what he always says. It’s not about you (as in, it’s not about me).

Jesus says it with love. Jesus says it to save the man from himself. Jesus says it to save me from myself. But Jesus says it. It’s painful to hear that it’s not about you. It’s even more painful to hear that it’s not about me.

It’s one thing to hear that about some nameless guy from two thousand years ago. It’s a whole other thing when this is about me. When it happens to someone else, it’s a sad story. When it happens to me, it’s a full-on, five-alarm, fucking tragedy.

That’s why the man runs to Jesus. In that world, powerful and positioned men never, ever ran. That’s what slaves and servants did. The only reason to run was if the world was about to come to an end. Apparently, it was.

The man runs toward Jesus. But he’s running just as fast away from…something. He’s running as fast as he can from futility and finitude. If he can just sprint fast enough toward an answer, maybe he can outrun and outgun the question. It’s surprising how fast a man can run when he’s being chased by an open grave.

He asks his question. What can I do to guarantee a life that will last? What’s Jesus’ solution? It’s not about you…er, me. The only way to manage mortality is to meet it head-on. The only way to face finitude is to, well, face it. Relinquish all those toys and props that distract from and deny the reality of death. Lean into life as a losing proposition.

Excuse me while I go spend an hour in the self-help section of a bookstore in order to cheer up a bit.

Sell all you have, Jesus says. Give it to the poor, Jesus says. Follow me on the way to the cross, Jesus says. Only then do you stand a chance of figuring out what it all means. It’s not about you…er, me.

That’s it, Jesus? That’s all you got? That’s the “Good News”? Mother Teresa of Calcutta – someone who knew a thing or two about such matters – quoted other great saints at this point. If this is how you treat your friends, Jesus, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.

As the digital philosophers of our age are wont to say: WTF?

Come on, Jesus! What can I do to guarantee the life that will last? “Why the hell are you asking me!” Jesus demands. You have the rule book. You know the boundaries. You’ve read the owner’s manual. Isn’t that enough?

Apparently not.

Now the existential crisis slows to a crawl. Jesus sees the man, really sees him as he is. It takes Jesus a bit to realize that this guy is not a pompous pretender. When Jesus sees him for what he is, Jesus still loves him…er, me. And Jesus loves his question. Don’t forget that.

Okay, Jesus says. Here’s the real deal, the straight poop for you. Stop trying to make the universe come out right. Stop trying to fix everything and everyone according to your specifications and for your benefit.

You want to know how to live a life that matters? Stop trying to be God. The position is already filled.

That’s not law. That’s love. That’s liberation. That’s real life. God is God. I am not. And that’s the Good News.

Sell all you have, Jesus says. Give it to the poor, Jesus says. Follow me on the way to the cross, Jesus says. Only then do you stand a chance of figuring out what it all means. It’s not about you…er, me.

Jesus doesn’t tell him to haul his stuff to the city dump. It’s not just about the stuff. After all, stuff ain’t enough. But it’s not bad either. All the good in this life comes from God. The thing is that the goods are for doing good, not just for doing well. So, Jesus says, use your stuff the way God intends – to give real life to others.

Relinquishing our stuff is more than a social service project – although that’s a good thing in and of itself. It’s about facing our finitude and managing our mortality. There’s nothing that gives me more of a false sense of security than some extra bucks in savings. There, I think. I can breathe for a bit. Of course, it only takes one failed water heater or broken timing belt to set me straight on that one.

Don’t remind me of my mortality, please. In fact, if you do, I might get more than a little pissed off. Kate Bowler and Luke Powery share a conversation in the current edition of the Christian Century. One of the topics is mask-wearing during the Pandemic. “In some ways, we’re all wearing a visual sign of our mortality,” Powery notes. “We’re all wearing our finitude,” Bowler agrees.[ii]

We don’t want our finitude to be quite so “in our face” (or on it, apparently). I think there’s a direct relationship with the resistance to mask wearing and our cultural obsession with the denial of death. Scared people can do some pretty scary stuff in reaction to their fears.

It’s clear that following Jesus to the cross and beyond is about letting go – of stuff and of ourselves. But, as Kate Bowler notes, Jesus is not the Marie Kondo of the first century. “It’s easy to imagine letting go when we forget that choices are luxuries, allowing us to maintain our illusion of control. But until those choices are plucked from our hands,” Bowler continues, “someone dies, someone leaves, something breaks—we are only playing at surrender.”[iii]

The rich man catches up to Jesus as Jesus is headed back out “on the way” – the way to Jerusalem, the way to the cross, the way of discipleship. Mere choice is in the past. It’s time to go. Jesus invites the rich man, and me, and you, to join him on that road of relinquishing. We who know the story can already hear the scream on Golgotha. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect two hundred dollars. Is it any wonder that the rich man finds Jesus’ loving invitation shocking? Is it any wonder he departs the stage bereaved?

We who know the story know there’s more to the story. But the “more” goes through the cross, not around it. Yes, Jesus promises “houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields” now in this age. A community gathers in the shadow of the cross, a community that does not depend on stuff or status.

Of course, those perks come “with persecutions.” Smacking people in the face with their finitude still pisses them (us) off. Reminding the world that stuff ain’t enough will never get us elected president (or anything else). But it’s the truth that frees us from the myths of immorality.

“All of our masterpieces, ridiculous,” Kate Bowler writes. “All of our striving, unnecessary. All of our work, unfinished, unfinishable. We do too much, never enough, and are done before we’ve even started,” she concludes. “It’s better this way.”[iv]

The discipleship challenge is to allow Jesus to make that real for us, in us, and through us.


[i] Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human, Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, page 44.

[ii] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/interview/living-and-leading-our-mortality?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=de16ed366e-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_EdPicks_2021_10_05_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-de16ed366e-86201003

[iii] Bowler, page 44.

[iv] Bowler, page 198.

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