Sex. There, I said it. Most people would rather talk about just about anything in their private lives more than talk about money. But we’re heading into the season when churches ask us to think about our relationship to money. But this week we hear about someone else, one of the better known nameless stars of the gospels, known only as “The Rich Young Man.”
In Mark’s gospel the young man approaches Jesus with some urgency: As Jesus 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?” What must I do to gain this life lived to the fullest that you keep talking about? How do I live life on God’s terms rather than on my terms? This is one of “life’s persistent questions,” right? We might phrase it differently. We might ask: How do I live a good life? How can I make a difference in the world? What must I do? The young man in today’s gospel has this question burning inside him, and he thinks Jesus has the answer. Instead of answering, Jesus takes issue with the guy’s form of address: Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
From the very start of Jesus’ relationship with the rich young man, he wants to be clear that he is about pointing beyond himself, and that this is what we are to be about, as well.
We tend to pick and choose from among Jesus’ sayings what to believe, and what to set aside. Think about it. Knock and the door shall be opened. We like that one. Love your neighbor. That’s good, most of the time. Love your enemies. Well, to a point, we might say. Sell all that you own and give the money to the poor. Really? Literally? Jesus is so concrete about this that it’s hard to get around what he’s saying.
Concrete is what the young man asks Jesus for. What must I do? Not, how will I experience God’s grace? Not, help me to feel the love. He asks a concrete question and so Jesus gives a concrete answer. What Jesus offers, through this concrete answer about selling all of one’s possessions, is a pathway to what the young man really wants. Through challenging our young man’s attachment to his possessions, Jesus offers an awareness of grace, a sense of purpose that aligns with God’s will and with his own deep hope in the power of God’s love. Isn’t that what we all want?
Until we look at what binds us, whether it’s the power of money, or the power of anxiety, or the power of the seduction of comfort, we cannot be free to bind ourselves to Jesus.
If we are to take this passage literally, or, if not literally, at least very seriously, we are all headed toward the same sorrow as the young man because we, like him, have many possessions. If we don’t take it seriously, we are in danger of soft-pedaling ourselves away from Jesus and his call to join God’s mission and participate in the full life that comes when we share in God’s mission. So what do we do with this passage?
What if we always put too much focus on the wrong part of this hard saying? Let’s listen to the words just before the part about selling all of our possessions? Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said “You lack one thing; go.” Jesus loves us (this we know; the bible tells us so). You lack one thing; go. What is the one thing you or I lack? If we think we are being good and faithful in our discipleship, where can we still grow? No one wants to be told that they lack one thing. Someone once told a story about an organ teacher who would listen to his student labor over and over on a particularly tricky Bach fugue. The student, finished with his latest and best offering, exhausted and anxious from following all that the teacher had told him to do, would look up for approval and the teacher would say: You’re getting close.
This is sort of what Jesus says to the rich young man and what he says to us. We’re getting close. Where can we give more for the building up of God’s kingdom? Where are we called to open our hearts or our wallets or our calendars in order to help make God’s dream come true? St. Irenaeus said “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” What do we need to go and do in order to have this full life the rich young man longs for? What do we need to let go of?
Lately I’ve been trying to work out at the gym. I’m not very good at it but I like to think that I’m getting better. My unofficial trainer is fond of saying, do as many of those repetitions as you can, and then do one more. Do one more hard thing. You keep the commandments, you are a good person, I love you. Now go. Now I realize that most of us don’t need to do something more in order to live life on God’s terms, we need to do something less. God says to us: Go and simplify your life. Go and focus on the kingdom instead of the busy distractions that claim us, many of which distractions are actually in the church. Remember that: Many of the things that distract us from the work of the kingdom are in the church. God is ever calling us outside and beyond what is familiar and comfortable, even if that familiarity masks itself as a holy calling.
I’d like to close a famous story from the tradition of the desert fathers.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him:
‘Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’
Then Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven and he asked him, ‘Why not become as one on fire?’
Like much of what we do on Sunday mornings, if the heart of this story is mystery, it is meant to be.
You lack one thing. Go. Become as one on fire.