Here he comes again… the man who asks questions that none of us want to hear…
No, I’m not talking about Jesus. We see him all the time, and we’ve gotten used to him. We know what he’s going to say, and like an old friend or a husband or wife we’ve been married to for umpteen years, sometimes we no longer even hear what he is saying.
I’m talking about the man in the reading from Mark’s gospel who asks Jesus what he has to do to “inherit eternal life.” We don’t see him every Sunday, and when the lectionary gives him his turn in the spotlight, he makes us uncomfortable.
We call him the “rich young man” or “rich young ruler” although Mark simply refers to him as a man. We know that he was rich because Mark says that he had “great possessions.” But Matthew adds the fact that he was young and Luke tells us he was a ruler.
But I wonder if he was like those figures in cartoons who are seeking the meaning of life and climb to the tops of mountains to consult holy men and women.
A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a man gasping for breath as he finally pulls himself to the top of a high mountain where a wise man sits in the lotus position. “What is the meaning of life?” the man asks. “What’s it all about?” The wise man looks at him and says, “You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!”
It’s not as common in the deep South as in some other parts of the country, but there are people who seem to find a new cause or new spiritual guru every other week or so in their quest to find “the meaning of life.” Perhaps you know someone like that.
I don’t want to dismiss such people. They may be motivated by a profound spiritual hunger. They may be trying to fill a deep place of spiritual emptiness.
I’m certain that the man in the reading from Mark’s gospel was sincere. Not only does the reading tell us that Jesus loved him but it tells us that when Jesus told him to sell all that he owns and give it to the poor, he goes away “shocked and grieving”. He may have decided not to follow Jesus, but at least he really understood what it would cost to be a disciple. He knew he couldn’t do it “on the cheap.”
But I wonder what he was really asking for. Mark tells us that he asks Jesus what he must do “to inherit eternal life.” But “eternal life” is not a Jewish concept. At least, it is not something that human beings possess. In the Old Testament the only idea of life after death was a kind of shadowy half-life. God possesses eternal life; human beings do not.
If we were to read all of today’s psalm – Psalm 90- then we would read the marvelous phrase that says that a thousand years in God’s sight are “like yesterday… like a watch in the night.” In other words, to God a thousand years are just like the blink of an eye or the snap of a finger. On the other hand, we humans, “fade like the grass”. We live perhaps 70 or 80 years, but that’s it.
Perhaps the man in today’s reading from Mark was asking something else. Maybe he was asking Jesus, “What is the meaning or secret of life?”
But perhaps there’s another possibility.
Keep in mind that Mark tells us that he had “many possessions.” There are people of great wealth who seem to think that they can buy anything. They collect old cars. They may own several houses. They may be interested in French Impressionism and have a wonderful collection of paintings. As the saying goes, they may know the price of everything, but they know the value of nothing.
Did this man think he could add “eternal life” to his collection? Did he think it was just something else he could purchase?
Please don’t think of this as a criticism of wealthy people. It is not only the wealthy who have this attitude. The wealthy are not the only ones who collect things.
There are other people, people of great accomplishment, who master languages, who accumulate degrees, who run marathons, who travel to foreign countries, and who think they can do anything to which they set their minds.
Is that what this man was thinking? Was he thinking, “Well, I know Greek and Latin and Hebrew… I’ve traveled to Rome and Gaul and Persia… I’ve studied at the feet of the rabbis and even learned Greek philosophy… maybe I’ll see what this Jesus has to offer…”
Did he think that “eternal life” was something he could add to his store of intellectual treasures?
Again, I don’t want to be dismissive of this man. Regardless of his motivation, Jesus seems to have regarded him as sincere because Mark tells us that Jesus loved him.
But Jesus also seems to have realized that the man did not understand what he was asking for. The man seems to have believed that “eternal life” was something he could have in addition to everything else.
Notice exactly what Jesus says to this man: “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."
“You lack one thing…” But Jesus tells him to do three things: sell what you own… give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.”
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reminds us that “if I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” And Jesus tells this man that it is not enough to sell that he has and give it to the poor; in addition to that, he must follow Jesus.
Now, we are moving into stewardship season. And it would be easy for me to tell you that this story from Mark’s gospel presents us with a stark choice: that we can either have treasure on earth or treasure in heaven and that stewardship gives you an opportunity to build up a little credit in the First Bank of Heavenly Rest.
But that would be crude and you are theologically and biblically literate enough to know that that is not true anyway. We don’t know whether or not the man in this story from Mark thought that eternal life was something he could purchase, but you and I know better.
Eternal life is a gift. It is not something we can purchase or achieve. It is not an accomplishment.
The lesson I’d like you take away from today’s gospel reading is this: Jesus extends an invitation to us. He invites us to follow him. But he tells us that there are things in our life that get in the way and keep us from following him and we need to get rid of them.
We sometimes hear that invitation as a threat, because every single one of us (including me) is like the man in Mark’s gospel. We have many possessions and we don’t want to get rid of them.
But I’d like you to hear Jesus’ statement as a blessing rather than a curse, as an invitation not a threat.
Think about the things that you really want to get rid of, the things that you need to get rid of.
Many of us need to get rid of anger. Sometimes I’m one of them. Sometimes I get so angry at someone that it almost seems to consume me. I’d love to get rid of that.
Maybe there is a profound sadness that seems to swallow us up. But it can be difficult to get rid of sadness. Sometimes sadness almost defines us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to let go of it?
And maybe if we begin to get rid of our anger and pride and sadness, then maybe we can start to give away other things. Because don’t we accumulate things to fill up the spiritual emptiness in our lives? I know I do.
Mark’s gospel presents us with a paradox. Jesus offers to fill up the spiritual emptiness in our heart, but we have filled that emptiness with all kinds of stuff – with anger and sadness and pride and maybe even money and cars and houses and all kinds of possessions.
If we let go of the anger and pride and sadness in our hearts, then it might be easier to loosen our hold on our money and possessions.
Treasure on earth is no less a gift than treasure in heaven. I don’t mean to dismiss the hard work that anyone has done to make a living. But we can only work hard because God has given us life and health. Being born in this country is an incredible gift, and it is a huge advantage to be born in one of the wealthiest countries in the world rather than in one of the poorest countries.
Our riches, whether they are financial riches or intellectual riches or some other kind of wealth are God’s gift. We are stewards of them. We hold them in trust. And God invites us to give them away, to give them to those who have less.
He does not invite us to be irresponsible. Jesus asked only one person, the man in today’s gospel reading, to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor. But I believe that Jesus asks all of us to practice stewardship.
I say PRACTICE stewardship because it is something that none of us ever completely masters. And keep in mind something else that Jesus says in Mark’s gospel: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."