Proper 23, B
Most commonly, this passage is seen as a stewardship story – if you’re going to get salvation, divest yourself of all that pesky money and help the church in her mission; or as a justice story – in order to be saved, give everything you have to the poor. Redistribute the wealth a little bit. Both approaches have merit and are quite legitimate. I see this today’s gospel offering as a story of healing.
In the gospel of Mark, every single person who kneels before Jesus on his journey is asking for healing in some form. For self or for others, but asking for healing. I don’t think that the rich young man is any exception.
We’d be hard pressed to name the disease, as would he, but he must surely be experiencing some sort of dis-ease. He was wealthy. In the reality of his first century world, that likely means he had status and a certain amount of power in addition to his wealth (I guess it’s not exactly unheard of for wealth, power and status to go together in any century, who am I kidding?). Yet this young man (in the gospel of Luke he’s described as a ruler) ran out of his comfortable, orthodox, proscribed existence into the path of a wayward stranger and fell to his knees at his feet, asking him for answers. He did not act in the manner of the Pharisees, trying to trip Jesus up. Kneeling at Jesus’s feet is too vulnerable a position for that sort of trickery. He must have experienced a profound sense of something wrong, something missing, something incomplete to do this dramatic, socially unheard of thing.
“Good teacher, what must I do?”
First hint that you are just not getting it at a really basic level – Jesus answers your question with a question. Jesus’s answer sounds a bit nit-picky – almost as if he is correcting the man’s grammar, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus is not being nit-picky, though. What he’s really doing is pointing back to God. God, in all God’s goodness, is the really important thing to concentrate on, not the afterlife, not your wealth, not even a charismatic stranger who seems to exude love and truth (even if he does turn out to BE part and parcel of God): concentrate on God. Or as rock star and social activist Bono (of U2) said, “Stop asking God to bless what you’re doing. Find out what God’s doing. It’s already blessed.”
Jesus goes on to suggest that one might live for God by living within the Commandments. I paraphrase the rich young man, “Yeah, I’ve done that. I’ve always done that. But something is still missing. Some powerful need deep within has propelled me into the street, away from the places I usually look for answers. Propelled me….to you.”
Jesus looked at him, loving him…..Loving him. I’ve never been so forcefully struck by this phrase as I was reading this passage this week. The image that came to mind is the heart wrenching, all consuming love that flows unchecked when I look into the faces of my children. Jesus was not giving this man set, pat answers, or simply trying to pass on truths to the disciples through his answers. He wanted this young child of God to find what he needed. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The young man, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions”.
Traditional interpretation of this passage contends that the man was sad because he wasn’t going to give up his possessions, and feared he would not get eternal life. But the scripture doesn’t really say what happened to the young man, whose name we never learn. “Go” said Jesus. And the wealthy man went. We truly don’t know if he went to find solace among his possessions, or if he went to sell them and return.
Consider this alternative. Perhaps the man was sad exactly because he decided to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus. The grief he shows us is the grief of ending his life as he knows it, as he heads for a new life in Jesus. That life may be spiritually rich and rewarding, beyond anything he has known, as Jesus later explains to the disciples, but that is later. Right now, he is giving up not just money, but all that it has come to mean for him: friends, independence, family, social standing, home, livelihood, religious standing, even the ability to follow the complicated purity rules. Taking the first step to a new life – not such an easy thing.
Jesus has told the rich young man to give up his possessions, to give to his neighbors. The man has, to this point, been defined by his wealth. Wealth allows him to live a life seemingly independent from God. Jesus asks him to redefine his life, in relationship with God and neighbor.
Each of us needs to prayerfully ask the question, “What separates me from God?” Wealth? Anger? Alcohol? Dysfunctional relationship? Social status? What things do I use to fill the empty places inside? Hard to identify those things in your own life? Fr. Richard Rohr offers this simple advice, “Beware of anything that you cannot not do.” Those things, whatever they may be, disrupt our relationship with God. They replace God for us. Giving them up sounds so simple, and is so extraordinarily difficult. It is the first step in healing. It comes with a cost.
As one commentary notes, “taking a first step is often very difficult and sometimes painful: attending the first AA meeting, calling the marriage counselor, talking with the son or daughter about the marijuana in the jeans pocket, coming ‘out of the closet,’ …hearing a call to ministry” (David Howell, Feasting on the Word), or maybe radically simplifying, reducing and redistributing the “stuff” in your life.
Don’t know how to take that first step? That camel in your life looking pretty immense relative to the needle? Marvelous advice from bible study this week – If you’re going to try to fit the camel through the eye of the needle, start with the tail (Carroll Thureen, personal communication). If your hump gets caught in the eye, let God take care of that. Start. It’s God’s job to worry about the impossible. For God, all things are possible. Take the first excruciating, grief filled, frightening step. Then take another. And another. Let the healing begin. The kingdom of God is unfolding, and Jesus invites us to join him in it. We cannot earn the kingdom, but we can embrace the invitation. Let us seek the Lord and live.
Fill us with your love, O Lord, and we will sing for joy….