21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 14, 2018 – Mark 10:17-31 – Christ Church, Alto, TN
We often hear today’s gospel passage cited as “the rich young ruler,” but that portrayal is the result of a mash up of all three different gospel accounts of this story. Matthew’s version calls the man both rich and young. Luke’s account calls him rich and identifies him as a ruler. Mark’s account, which we read today, really does neither. It does say he has a lot of possessions, and Jesus goes on to discuss wealth, so we take the point, but technically speaking, we make a lot out of this passage that is not actually there.
Reading the passage as Mark has laid it out for us, I find nothing inherently entitled or snobby about the man who approaches Jesus. Some people identify him as pretentious; they think he’s trying to prove something. Those are largely editorial comments which we lay over the text instead of letting it speak to us as it is.
Let’s review what we get from today’s text. Jesus is about to leave town and a man runs up and kneels before him. The man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“You know the commandments,” says Jesus, “Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud. Honor your father and mother.” “I have kept all of these,” says the man.
Jesus looks at him lovingly and says, “You still lack one thing: sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.”
The man goes away grieving because he has many possessions. Well, wouldn’t you? If after trying to live the best life you could someone told you that you still needed to get rid of all your material goods, wouldn’t that make you a little sad?
It’s a lot to ask of someone, even if you’re not wealthy. Perhaps especially if they’re not wealthy. Material goods aren’t all frivolous; they provide us comfort and make living life possible (at least the way we are accustomed to living it). There’s nothing wrong with grieving the loss of the material things in your life. Right now there are thousands of people in the Florida panhandle doing just that in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
My spouse constantly urges me to go through my closet. “You have too many clothes,” he says, “You don’t even wear them all.” He’s right. So a few weeks ago I went through them and donated a huge trash sack full. It did, I hate to admit, involve some grief. All change does, even if it’s just donating old clothes.
What if we don’t think of the man in our story as a spoiled rich kid? Instead, what if we think of him as a man who comes to Jesus to ask a legitimate question? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In response, Jesus is honest with him.
I think that’s a question we all struggle with. I do, even as a priest of the Church. What must I do? What must we do? (As if it’s in our control.)
When the man asks this question Jesus says, “You know the commandments.” “Yes, and I keep them all,” the man replies.
We all know the Ten Commandments. Even if we can’t name them in order, we can probably get somewhere close. We learned as kids that these are rules to follow in order to follow God. We do our best to keep them.
But there’s more, Jesus tells us. The commandments are only a part of the deal. You still lack one thing: “Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.”
If you ask me, that sounds like three things. Sell, give, follow. But I think Jesus is really getting at the “follow me” part. It’s just that those first two things—selling your possessions and giving the money to the poor—are prerequisites to doing the third thing well.
In order to follow Jesus we have to give up the things that tie us to this earthly realm. We have to get rid of the things that distract us from the capital-T Truth. It’s ironic. The one thing we lack is getting rid of all the things we have. What we lack is what we have.
People have been following this teaching for centuries. St. Francis, whose feast day we celebrated with a blessing of the animals last Sunday, is well known for casting aside his great wealth in order to follow Jesus. He famously removed all his clothes upon his conversion as a way of renouncing his reliance on material goods. To this day monks and nuns take vows of poverty in order to focus more singularly on a vocation of service to Christ. By unshackling themselves from the goods that bind them to realities of this world, they find a freedom to follow their God with everything that are, by giving up everything that they have.
Their example is one for all of us. In order to follow Jesus we have to completely reorient our lives. If you really want to inherit eternal life, then go free yourself of all of the stuff that weighs you down—whatever it is—and then come back and follow Him.
We’ve seen this before in the Gospel. Remember when Jesus called his disciples? He said, “Leave your boats, leave your nets, leave your parents, and come follow me.”
Your material possessions are just things, but Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. What you lack is what you’re hanging on to.
Peter heard it, Andrew heard it, James and John heard it. Maybe we would know this man’s name if he had done the same. Maybe he’s the would-be thirteenth apostle who couldn’t quite comes to terms with the real cost of following Jesus.
What keeps you from realizing your freedom to follow Jesus? Is it something that you cling to? Is it something that you need to take out and put on the curb?
I imagine there is something, but I don’t say that to judge you. I think it’s true of everyone. It’s our nature. We cling to things instead of God. Those things can get in the way of our relationship with God.
It may be money. Or it might be something else. For some people in this great nation of ours it’s their approval rating. For other people it’s always being right. Being able to prove that you are right and know more than everyone else, that’s the problem. Putting too much stock in your own opinion of your knowledge of the facts will get in the way of God.
For some it’s fear, a palpable sense of dread that they face waking up every morning. Some can’t stand facing a world that they are convinced is utterly hopeless.
Is it any of those things, or is it something different? I’m not telling you literally to sell everything you own. I don’t think that would be in our best interest, but I do urge you to think about what separates you from God. What do you lack? Go to a quite place this week, and search for the answer. When you find it, take it to the curb, tie it down, or burn it with a pile of autumn leaves, and be free.