("The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful," by James Tissot, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Mark 10:17 - 31:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, 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. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “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, and 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.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
It's a heavy Gospel this week, and I suspect a lot of people who are expected to be in the pulpit Sunday are wondering, "What am I supposed to do with this one?"
I can't even imagine what it must be like to preach this one to a well-heeled congregation...or a dirt poor one...especially during "stewardship season." (I can just envision all the folks in the pews thinking, "Yeah, and he/she is gonna tell me, "Pledge it to the church! Pffft.")
We really struggled with it in our Tuesday Text Study and Eucharist. Worse yet, we hold our text study in the dining room of one of the local nursing homes. The irony was not lost on me that we were discussing this whole "sell all that you have and give it to the poor" paradox in a place where many of the folks there ARE selling all that they have, so they'll be down to their last $999.99 to be eligible for Medicaid to pick up the tab on their nursing home. They are spending all that they have so they will BE one of the poor, so they can get the care they need.
Actually, the text is a double paradox. In that way Mark likes to string things together in pairs, we first experience the rich young man's sorrow at Jesus' reply to his question. In his mind, eternal life seems nigh onto impossible. In the second half of the text, we see Jesus once again having to put the slapdown on Peter:
Peter: "But Jesus, we DID do that, we dropped everything and followed you. You did notice that, right?"
Jesus: "Yep, Peter, I did. And you will be paid a hundredfold for that--in crap. Trust me on this one.
I thought about that in the context of my year-and-a-half long house remodeling. I am now at the phase where I joke that I'm repatriating my house now. I'm starting to move things back in, out of what I didn't toss or give away during the "gutting the house" phase that preceded this present phase. As many of you know, I tossed and gave away quite a bit. But as I'm starting to put things in the proper storage spots in the closet and in the house, I am opening the packed boxes and throwing out the things I couldn't seem to do in the first round. Every box I've opened, I've looked at at least one thing in each box where I went, "I can't keep all this, I've got to throw even more of this stuff out." Lots of things that made the first cut are not making the second cut.
This activity has reminded me that we are NEVER finished when it comes to the process of "throwing out our crap." There's always something more we can give up. Just when we think we've done it right, we look around and go, "Well, really, that there thing can go, too." Not only that, when we do get around to throwing those things out, and feeling good about it, someone always comes along and tells you what a dumb idea it was for you to throw it out. "But you might NEED that! You'll be sorry when you find that out."
What's intriguing about this story, I think, is that in some ways, what Jesus is saying is not meant to be taken literally (otherwise, we'd all be running around naked a la St. Francis renouncing his fine clothing in the middle of town)--yet, in some ways we are ABSOLUTELY supposed to take this story literally. It's about choosing our relationship with God over our relationship with "stuff."
What Jesus is telling the rich young man, I believe, is, "If eternal life is all about checking off all the correct actions and good works, well, then, it's impossible for people to do it on their own. Eternal life is not a scavenger hunt. Eternal life is about being in relationship with God and community in such a loving way that we would even give up the things that matter to us the most in order to sit in that state of love. Are you ready to be open to the possibility you are asking to love God THAT much?"
Yet at the same time, he tells Peter and the disciples that someone who does choose to follow him are not going to be understood--AT ALL--by those closest to us.
To truly live the Gospel is a dangerous and scandalous business, and comes with no guarantee other than being aware of the power of the love of God to the point you will always find something new to give away. It means you'll want that love not just for yourself, but for others. It means that for that deep a love, you'll agree to live in a world where the scrawny person gets to sit at the head of the table, the last one to the party gets to come home with the best participation gifts, and the kid whose last name starts with the letter Z gets to graduate first. It means money and possessions will always get in the way when you least expect it, because money and possessions are the gold standard of our delusion of control. The world continually tells us, "If you have enough of that stuff, you will be okay. You will be safe. You will be content."
Of course, then we discover what any addict knows. There's never enough. We will always want more, and getting it is never as good as the first time we had it. To live the Gospel is to accept we already have more than enough, no matter what, and it's enough to share with others.
What is lurking around the corner in each of our lives that puts us one step closer to living the scandalous Gospel lifestyle?