October 14, 2018
The story of the Rich Young Man and Jesus contains some profoundly important wisdom for us—but it is not wisdom that is on the surface. We must dig a little to get to it.
On the surface, this story has been used over the centuries to proclaim the “righteousness of poverty” in the service of God. St. Francis of Assisi and his female counterpart, St. Clare, we both wealthy young people who took this passage to heart and lived out their short lives in the most abject of poverty, owning nothing, trusting in God for everything. Christian monasticism took root in the “vow of poverty”. Both Buddhism and Hinduism have similar traditions involving monks, nuns and wandering holy men who survive by begging for their food each day.
Jesus’ advice to “sell all that you have” and follow him is a powerful message. It is a call and vocation for a select few. But that is not the message of this passage for the vast majority of those who seek to follow Jesus. If we stop engaging this story on the surface, it can only serve to make us feel as though we are unable to obey Jesus’ command.
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
The first thing to realize is that the journey Jesus is beginning isn’t just any journey. In the previous chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has predicted his crucifixion. He has set his face toward Jerusalem and his death. So, in a real way, the ante has been upped. Time is growing short.
Also, we need to notice that the young man knelt before Jesus—and good Jews did not kneel to anyone but God. Also, the word we translate as “good” is an adjective usually reserved by the devout to refer to God. Even though he’s on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus is not ready to be identified with God. That helps explain his rather odd response to the young man.
Jesus said, “You know the commandments”…and the young man replied, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
What I think is most important in this exchange is to notice that, for Jesus, “keeping the law” is not enough. Mark tells us that Jesus “loved” the young man. He must have admired his earnestness, his sincerity and his faithfulness to the commandments. When he heard Jesus’ question about the commandments, the young man’s heart must have leaped up. He must have imagined that “keeping the commandments” was enough to earn eternal life.
We Christians haven’t escaped that pitfall. We are obsessed with “being right” and “looking good”. There is a great danger in Christianity of becoming “legalistic”—of thinking God is no more than a moral accountant keeping a ledger of our lives. We reduce God to a schoolmarm who gives us good marks and bad marks in deportment and behavior. We turn the Great God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our “refuge from one generation to another,” for whom a thousand years are like yesterday in his sight—we turn that God into nothing more than an omnipotent Santa Claus from the Christmas song: “He’s making a list and checking it twice, going to find out whose naughty or nice.”
But for Jesus, “keeping the commandments” simply isn’t enough. Jesus isn’t interested in “naughty or nice”. Jesus wants to invite us into a relationship with him…a relationship with the God who loves us best of all.
What is required is that the young man rid himself of what ties him to this world and enter into a relationship with Jesus.
“Then, come, follow me….” That is the invitation Jesus gives. The young man is too attached to his riches to leave his life behind and journey to Jerusalem with Jesus. It is his “attachment”, not his “riches” that is the problem. He is invited to the adventure of a life time; he is offered a relationship with God that is worth more than all the riches of the earth. But he goes away sorrowing, grieving for what he has rejected.
Each of us has some “attachment” that we cannot escape. Each of us has something that keeps us from fully embracing the invitation of Jesus into full communion with him. We can—like the rich young man—“keep the law”…we can be “good people”…but each of us has something that ties us to this world.
And I really believe that what God wants from us is that we simply recognize and acknowledge our attachments. All that is required is that we “notice” what keeps us from embracing God fully and completely. If we could let them go—if we were capable of “detachment”—we wouldn’t need Jesus.
That’s the key to what he has to say to his disciples. They object to Jesus’ assertion about how hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom. They are “perplexed” by his words, Mark tells us.
So Jesus makes an even harder statement: “Children,” he tells them, “how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Then he tells them the well-known and oft repeated metaphor of a camel passing through an eye of a needle being easier than entering the Kingdom.
“Then who can be saved?” the disciples cry. And Jesus tells us the hardest truth, the most difficult and confounding wisdom of this passage: “For mortals it is impossible,” he says, “but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
Ironically, this is the best news we could hear—this is the great “good news” of God. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
We mortals, we human beings, are “attached” to this world. Nothing that we can “do” or accomplish or believe is enough to open the Kingdom to us. The best we can do—the very best—is to become “aware” of our attachments and walk away grieving, knowing God loves us anyway.
The Hindus have a saying worth repeating and remembering. The Hindus call what we call “reality” sleep. Our “reality”, our “attachments” are like being asleep to the Hindus. And the Hindus say: “Lucky is the person who “wakes up” before they die.
Jesus calls us to “wake up” and notice our attachments, acknowledge what is that prevents us from living fully into the invitation of Christ to “come, follow me….”
I heard a story once about a Bible thumping Evangelical coming up to a monk in his habit and saying, “Brother, have you been saved?”
The monk answered, “Yes, my friend, I think I have been saved.”
The Evangelical, not believing him, said, “When were you saved?”
The monk took and moment and then said, “at three o’clock in the afternoon on the first Good Friday.”
Jesus did not need to go to Jerusalem if I could save myself.
I AM the rich young man. And, I suspect, so are you. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot. It is not possible. And Jesus loves us as we walk away.
And with God—with God, all things are possible….