The fellow who approached Jesus in today’s gospel story is variously titled as “The Rich Man” (NRSV), “The Rich Young Ruler” (NASB) or my personal favorite, from the Hawai’i Pidgin (HWP) translation of the Bible: “Da Young Guy Dat Get Plenny Stuff.” Every time I read this passage, part of me wonders: if Jesus loved this guy so much, why couldn’t he have cut him a little slack? He seemed to have lived a pretty exemplary life up to this point: he’d worked within the system… he’d obeyed all the rules and done pretty well for himself. And now he’d reached a point where he was wondering, “What comes next?” and, “How can I make sure I’m good in the afterlife?” It’s a question we should all be concerned with, don’t you think? Some might say it’s the ultimate question. And this “pretty-good guy”… a guy who had lived at least as good a life as most of us here today… Jesus kind of dashed his hopes, didn’t he? Took the wind out of his sails! What’s up with that? Maybe… Jesus knew that this youngster, and we’re all youngsters when we dialogue with the Son of God, had some stuff he needed to figure out on his own. What do you think?
Over the past few Sundays, we have journeyed with Jesus and his disciples as they made their way towards Jerusalem and the last chapter of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Mark’s Jesus was always teaching… always trying to help his disciples understand the significance of their role as “Kingdom bringers” after he was gone. Of course, they mostly didn’t get it, and I’m not sure we really do either. Jesus tells us that we must “take up our crosses” if we want to be his followers… but we’re not always sure what those crosses look like. We learn that we must “become like little children” if we want to enter the Kingdom, but we’ve spent our entire lives trying to become responsible adults… and balk at having to regress. We’re admonished about the dire consequences of becoming “stumbling blocks” to those seeking the Kingdom, and we don’t mean to be… but all too often, the things we do—and don’t do—speak louder than any words we might use to try and explain what it means to be a Christ follower.
So, the rich young man in today’s Gospel passage knelt… surrendered himself before Jesus… and asked what he probably considered to be a relatively-simple—maybe even rhetorical—question, for which he assumed there’d be an equally easy answer. Maybe he even thought Jesus would say something like, “Naw, man, you’re good! C’mon and join my posse… and help me show folks how it’s done!” But that’s not quite the message that Jesus delivered, was it? Jesus said, “All the stuff you’ve done up to this point? Meh… it’s fine, but it’s not gonna bring you home, my friend. Beware that your temporal wealth does not put a barrier between you and God. How can you truly trust God and give yourself over to his will for your life, all the while holding on tight to this fancy golden parachute you’ve packed for yourself… just in case. That’s not trust. That’s not giving in. You’ve gotta be willing to give all of that up.
As far as I can tell, this guy truly loved Jesus… and wanted to walk in his ways. And, according to the Gospel writer, Jesus loved him right back. But I expect Jesus knew that it would be a struggle for the man to part with his earthly wealth in order to receive the wealth stored up for him in heaven. Jesus knew this, and it grieved him. Notice that Jesus never said that it was bad to be successful, or to have money. I believe that God wants the best for us, and for us to be happy. That said, nothing good happens when wealth and possessions become a barrier between us and our Creator. We often speak of the “blessings” in our lives: our health, our families and our successes… as being gifts from God. And they are! But they are gifts given to us for a purpose, and that is to equip us for ministry… so that we can do our part to help bring about the Kingdom of God. If we lose sight of the purpose of God’s largesse… we have a big problem.
You know, it probably never occurred to the disciples that money, and respectability and having nice homes and plenty of food to eat could stand between people and God. To many of them, these blessings were a sure sign of God’s favor. But Jesus came to turn that sort of thinking upside down. “The first will be last, and the last will be first,” he said. Setting aside our own plans and schemes for our lives, and trusting God to see us through, isn’t easy. In fact, it may be the hardest thing we’ll ever do, but Jesus tells us that the only way we can be saved is by trusting in the one for whom “all things are possible,” rather than in our own meager resources. The Kingdom is not something we can earn. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid . . . for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vv. 12:32-34). Trust. Someone, somewhere, once said: If all of the blessings in your life are gifts from God, it’s not really a matter of how much you give away… it’s about how much you keep. That’s the thing Jesus needed the rich young man to figure out on his own… so he could begin living into it. I don’t believe there was any condemnation in Jesus’ words. He was just reminding the youngster of God’s intention for Creation, from the time of Adam and Eve… from before the Fall.
How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God. But we want it all… don’t we? Both temporal security… and also to be secure in our hope for eternal life. Which reminds me not only of the story of the First Man and the First Woman, but also a little bit of my old uncle’s Golden Retriever, Wendy, who was eternally diligent in her attempts to hold every tennis ball within a twenty-foot radius in her mouth… all at once. Two, she could manage easily. I even saw her with three once… for a moment. But she could never hold onto all of them at the same time. But she’d always try… and she’d always come up short.
Where is your treasure? Is it in the here and now? Be honest. Do we deceive ourselves that “we can have it all?” Maybe we can have it all, but maybe having it all isn’t what we think it is. Maybe it’s more. The good news is that it’s never too late. Our God is a God of a million second chances, and it’s never too late for us to amend our lives: to let go… and let God. What will you decide? You know, when you think of it, we don’t really know how today’s Gospel story ends… whether or not “da young guy dat get plenny stuff” was eventually able to part with the things that were separating him from God, so that he could truly follow Jesus. I like to think that he was able to manage it, and of the welcome he received as he ran to catch up with Jesus and his disciples on the road shouting, “Hey, you guys… wait up!”