Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
In the Name of the God of abundance and generosity: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
“You’re asking way too much of me.” Have you ever thought or said that to an employer, a teacher, a friend, a partner or spouse? Maybe even God? The demand you felt being made on you was just too unreasonable, the expectation totally unrealistic.
I suspect that the man in Mark’s story had a similar reaction to what Jesus asked of him. Sell it all, give it all away? Seriously? Now, unlike the first twelve disciples, Jesus did not go looking for this young man; the rich young ruler came to Jesus.
It’s interesting that he poses his question around the concept of inheritance, which implies receiving some kind of wealth, usually because of someone’s death. He thinks that he can "inherit" eternal life because Jewish tradition taught that eternal life was often seen as a given, as something one got by being born right. For the Jews, belonging to the people of God was a matter of race. For Jesus, belonging to the people of God was a matter of grace.
Here is someone who had money and success and yet his life was still empty. Even his pride over his obedience to the law leaves life meaningless. He is still searching, so he comes to Jesus looking for answers and for real meaning in life—not unlike any of us probably do. Yet he has come to the end of what he can do for himself, to the end of what money can do for him, and to the end of what the law can do for him.
That's when Mark gives us a touching picture of Jesus who really understood this man. He says something that is not included in any other Gospel’s account of this encounter: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” While Jesus states that the man lacks "one thing," he actually gives him two commands: to go, sell what he has and give it all to the poor and then to come and follow Jesus.
In Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, she says: "It is a rich prescription for a rich man, designed to melt the lump in his throat and the knot in his stomach by dissolving the burden on his back, the hump that keeps banging into the lintel on the doorway to God.
“It is an invitation to become smaller and more agile by closing his accounts on earth and opening one in heaven so that his treasure is drawing interest inside that tiny gate instead of keeping him outside of it.
“It is a dare to him to become a new creature, defined in a new way, to trade in all the words that have described him up to now - wealthy, committed, cultured, responsible, educated, powerful, obedient - to trade them all in on one radically different word, which is free"
Could it be that the opposite of rich is not poor—but free? Being "rich" may have less to do with how much money we have and more to do with our attitude about the money we have and our sense of gratitude for it and our use of it to in some small way build the Kingdom of God in this broken, chaotic world.
The rich young ruler in not just rich, he is also good. He is spiritually ambitious as well as materially well off. But he lacked one thing according to Jesus. Was it, perhaps, enough trust in either Jesus or himself to follow his heart? Jesus did not invite him to philanthropy, though the poor would have profited from his divestment. Jesus invited him to discipleship, and it was that invitation that he was afraid to accept. It would have been far easier to give away his possessions than to give away himself. In freedom,
This is one of the most haunting passages in the New Treatment. I don’t think that Jesus is telling us that we must go and sell all we have and give it to the poor. He is saying that if God is to be the fundamental reality in our lives, then there can’t be any big competition. Money in the New Testament is neutral, not intrinsically good or bad. It’s how we make and use it that can cause either health and justice or illness and greed.
For some, the ultimate reality in life may be money, for others it may be something else. Jesus is asking the rich young man—and us—to come to terms with that. All those who accepted the invitation from Jesus to discipleship walked away from something, not because it was a prerequisite but a consequence. They followed and left stuff behind, not because it was bad stuff, but because it was in the way.
At the heart of this encounter between Jesus and the rich young man is the truth that there is nothing we can do on our own to inherit eternal life or earn our way to heaven. Whether we are rich or not, it’s only through God’s grace and mercy that we get there.
Some time ago, I read a story about a woman who experienced a dramatic life transformation well after midlife. She ended up changing some of her social habits and even some of her friends. “God’s grace is free,” she was fond of saying, “but it can also be very expensive.” She wasn’t a man, and she wasn’t rich, but I think she got the message of this morning’s Gospel.
This rich young man. When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.
As Mark Twain once said, “It’s not what I don’t understand in the Bible that bothers me; it’s what I understand too well.”