A newly married man asked his wife, “Would you have married me if my father hadn’t left me a fortune?” “Honey,” the woman replied sweetly, “I’d have married you no matter who left you a fortune.”
The effort to find happiness or security in material possessions is as old as humanity. It was a subject which Jesus addressed more than any other. But it is never addressed so movingly and with such poignancy as in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel.
We are told that a rich man ran up to Jesus and, kneeling before him, asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
There are some things worth noticing before we go on to look at Jesus’ response. Having had so many people come to him with trick questions trying to trip him up, it must have been very satisfying for Jesus to respond to a questioner who is sincere.
Notice also that the man asks, “… what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Inherit it. Not earn it or achieve it. Perhaps it was some kind of Freudian slip. The man may well have been thinking about how to achieve or earn it, but in the depths of his unconscious he knew that whatever he is lacking must be received as a gift. That’s how Freudian slips work. We say what we know even though we don’t know that we know it.
And a word about “eternal life” as used by the man. It does not necessarily refer to an after-life. In the Jewish context it can mean a meaningful life, a life lived in accord with God’s vision.
The young man is a good person, but perhaps he senses that there is something broken in his life and he doesn’t know how to fix it. He and Jesus run through the commandments and agree that the young man has kept them.
Then comes the moment that makes this passage one of my two or three favorite in the entire Bible. Mark tells us that Jesus, looking at the man, loved him. It is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus is said to have loved an individual. And with all that love hanging in the air between them, Jesus says, and I imagine him saying it with great longing in his voice, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor….”
It was a challenge framed, I’m sure, in gentleness. Jesus, remember, loves the young man.
It is tempting for us to think that when Jesus speaks of wealth, he is speaking of those who make more than we do. And so we distance ourselves from this young man. Jesus isn’t talking to me.
But I suspect this rich young man is very much like us. Each of us, no matter how faithful, has the potential to hold something back. Something we can’t let go of. It may not be wealth. It may be our time. It may be our habit of gossip. It may be our pride. Each of us has, more than once, walked sorrowfully away from Jesus, also. Each of us, like the rich young man, has in a corner of our life something we cling to that resists Jesus’ challenge to live fully, to love fully, a challenge that has to do with much more than just giving away our wealth.
We have trouble understanding that Jesus isn’t really asking for anything. In truth, he is offering something: freedom, liberation. Jesus invites us also to receive the gift of freedom, freedom from the boredom of self-sufficiency, freedom from the burden of earning God’s love, freedom from the need to cling to whatever it is we cling to.
And then the tragic ending. When the rich man hears Jesus’ words he turned and walked away grieving, for he had many possession. I am not often prone to try to correct the Gospel writers, but I think Mark makes a mistake here. It isn’t that the rich man had many possessions; it is that his many possessions had him.
Of course, have we not also walked away sorrowfully from Jesus as well on more than one occasion? Mark doesn’t tell us if the rich man ever came back to Jesus after thinking things through. I like to think that he did, because I know that to come back is my only hope. I do know this much. Jesus’ love followed that man. So maybe I made a mistake in calling the end tragic. Imagine the next time the rich man runs into someone in need. He may not have been ready to give up all that he had, but perhaps his encounter with this Jesus who loved him made him a little more ready to give something, and then still more the next time and the time after that until the spirit of giving captured his soul.
As one writer has put it, if you let go a little you will have a little peace, if you let go more you will have more peace, and if you let go completely your heart will be free.
Of course, there are no guarantees that change will take place. But I am convinced that for all our resistance, we, like the young man, are no less loved. And maybe, at the bottom of everything, that is what we need to hear, and to know at the depth of our being, before we can change. It is not that letting go of that to which you cling will get you loved. It is that being loved will get you to the place where you can let go. Amen