20 Pentecost, Proper 23 – October 10, 2021
So, in our gospel today, “a man” ran up and knelt before Jesus. This man, perhaps thinking he has everything else—has the ultimate question for Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Like Jesus did last week when the Pharisees put him to the test with the question about divorce, Jesus reframes the question in terms of the kingdom of God (“come, follow me”) rather than the language of eternal life.
The man goes away, Mark tells us, stugnasas, a Greek word which often gets translated as “sad” or “grieving”, but it also means “shocked”, or “appalled”. So, when told that just checking off the boxes is not what God is looking for, that God’s plumb line is actually a little higher than memorizing scripture verses, saying the right things and not murdering people or stealing from them, he is shocked. And when Jesus confronts him with the unwelcome idea that he lacks one more thing, that repentance means actually doing things differently, that having “treasure in heaven” will cost you something here, he is appalled. It seems to be a crisis of character.
You see in Jesus’ time, being wealthy was viewed as being specially blessed by God. So when Jesus says it will be hard for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, the disciples were naturally confused. So then, who can enter, if those that are specially blessed will have a difficult time?
This is where we notice that Jesus didn’t just tell the rich man to walk away from his possessions, he suggested that he sell them and give the money to the poor. Jesus is calling for more than a change in the man’s bottom line and more than a permanent relinquishment of his possessions, he tells him to change his relationship to the poor – to identify with them. This may be what contributes to the man’s grief and apparent inability to do what Jesus asks. You see, the man resists surrendering not only wealth, but also status and power. For him, the financial, social and political costs are too great. In essence that is where the man’s faith lies, in worldly possessions and status, not in Kingdom wealth.
And yet, the great thing about this man is that he recognizes his need. He “runs” to Jesus and falls at his feet because he recognizes that something is missing in his life. His possessions and pieties notwithstanding, he is consumed with a longing for more. As if to say, “Yes, I’ve done everything I’ve been taught to do. I’ve followed the religious commands of my upbringing. I’ve honored the tradition, kept the rules, respected the laws, and practiced the rituals. And yet. And yet I’m hungry. Yet I’m unfulfilled. Yet the life I’ve cobbled together is insufficient, because something I can barely name is drawing me to you, Jesus.”
And that’s where spiritual growth begins. Spiritual grown begins with an acknowledgment of desire. What do we seek? What are we hungry for? What do we dream of?
In his wise and eloquent memoir, My Bright Abyss, poet Christian Wiman argues that change is essential to an authentic spiritual life. He writes, “Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king,” “… Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life — which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.” So, change — the willingness to wrestle, the humility to reconsider, the flexibility to evolve — is the beating heart of a vibrant relationship with God.
In walking away, the young man in Mark’s Gospel chooses a different path. Jesus answers his initial question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” with an offer of companionship. Of relationship. Of friendship. Of shared life. “Follow me,” Jesus says. But that’s not an answer the man can bear. The young man isn’t ready; he opts instead for fear, control, and independence. In this case, the one thing standing between a relationship with Jesus was the man’s possessions—what is the one thing that you can’t seem to give up? What is the one thing blocking a deeper relationship with Jesus? What is keeping us from walking the road that leads to spiritual growth and eternal life?
This isn’t a judgment story from Mark, it’s a healing story. It’s what our Jewish siblings call tikkun olam, the great healing of the world. Tikkun olam is the idea that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual and material welfare, but also for the welfare of the society at large. It’s about healing and finding our way, growing in faith and life with Jesus Christ which is the life of the world.
There’s a well-known prayer written by Thomas Merton that I love. It goes like this:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.