If you are a prosperous sort of person (and, if you are an inhabitant of a First World country, you are prosperous compared with most people in the world today), then you probably feel some sympathy for the rich man in today’s gospel. Which one of us wouldn’t balk at Jesus telling us to sell what we own and give it to the poor. Really, Jesus? Seriously? Isn’t there something a little less extreme that we could do?

Because we tend to sympathise with the rich man, it’s easy to miss the fact that Jesus asks him to do two things. First is the request to sell his goods and give them to the poort. That’s phase one of his tasking. The second phase, once he has completed phase one, is to “come, follow me”. When Jesus says “follow me” in the gospels, it’s important. The people he says it to, and the people who follow him, are called disciples.

So today’s gospel isn’t just about the use of money, or “stewardship” in church terms. It’s also about following Jesus, or “discipleship”, as the church calls it. And it’s important to note that stewardship, like everything else in our faith, starts with discipleship.

The preacher Will Willimon notes that this may be the only person in the gospels who declines Jesus’ words “follow me”. He’s the only one who can’t accept the demands that go with discipleship.

What are these demands? While Jesus says some pretty severe things in Mark, like today’s sell all you have and give the cash to the poor, or pluck out your eye if it offends you, as he does in last week’s gospel reading, actually the things he asks of his disciples aren’t so extreme, and usually the disciples fail even these tasks. Be humble, he asks of them, and they quarrel over who is the most important. Stay up and pray with me, he asks at Gethsemane, and they fall asleep. And Jesus still loves them, just as he loves the young rich man (Mk 10.21).

It’s because Jesus loves his disciples that he is going where he’s going. Mark tells us that this story happens “As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey” (10.17). That’s a significant detail, because Jesus is going to Jerusalem, and to his death on a cross. As he often tells the disciples, only he can do this thing. Where I am going, he says elsewhere, you cannot follow me. The disciples can choose to follow, but they cannot go where Jesus must go, or do what he must do. They, we, can only follow.

When the disciples are shocked by what Jesus says to the rich man, they think that salvation, or approval in the eyes of God, is impossible. “Then who can be saved?” they ask, and Peter takes it one step further, saying to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mk 10:26,28). To paraphrase Peter’s words, “You owe us. We’ve been good. We’ve left our boats and our ways of life behind. We’ve kept our end of the bargain. Now it’s your turn”. But God’s grace doesn’t work that way.

Jesus says this about salvation: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mk 10.27). Or, as Luther and the Reformers came to understand, it’s all about God’s grace, feely given, and not what we do, because what we do can never be enough to earn our salvation. Only God’s son, freely giving himself on the cross, can do this. The irony of the story is that, had the rich young man thrown himself on Jesus’ mercy, he would have what he wanted.

Answering the call to discipleship means answering the call of a generous God who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Our lives as disciples, our Christian lives and caracters, is subsequently formed by our relationship with that generous God, so that what we do with our money, what we do for and with others, how we love, will acquire its full share of grace. But it is never what we do by ourselves. Whatever we do as Christians, it can only begin out of gratitude.

The preached Will Willimon notes that the Rich Man in today’s gospel,