Have you ever tried to get ready for a trip, only to be interrupted over and over? It is frustrating as a deadline approaches and some pressing need or another grabs your attention. It always seems there are about a hundred things to do when we are about to leave.
Jesus knew our pain. He was headed for the capital when a fellow stops him with a pressing question. I would not be surprised if Jesus was tempted to brush the guy off. Or maybe tell him to listen more carefully when he spoke. Jesus had other villages to get to, others folks to speak to. Maybe he was even a bit snippy when he brushed aside the guy’s flattery about being good. Did Jesus see it as a ploy to butter him up so he would listen to him? “Good teacher,” the fellow said. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Nevertheless, Jesus stopped and took the question. The guy had most likely been listening to Jesus, and like the anxious student that races to the front of the class after the lecture, he rushes Jesus. What’s the key he wants to know? What’s the take away of this gospel business?
The guy is thinking, what more do I have to do? I’m a good guy. I know the rules, the commandments and faithfully keep them. As an aside, there are 613 commandments! Did he really think he had kept them all, do you? Anyway, this guy obviously thinks he is a good guy, neighborly, helpful, thoughtful. But something is missing, something keeps him unsettled. What do I have to do? To be honest, I suspect he was looking for either a pat on the back for being a good guy, “You’re Okay, mate!” or a shortcut to a complete faith.
Given the outcome I don’t think he wanted anything else “to do.” Perhaps he just wanted to hear that he was a good, decent, law abiding guy, to hear that in keeping the commandments all he had to do was keep up the good work, that God was proud of him.
But don’t run up to Jesus and interrupt his journey if you don’t expect to be challenged. It’s one of those “be careful what you pray for moments,” ‘cause God and Jesus will give you their mind, not yours! And most likely, they’ll challenge you. This risk for us, as for the fellow in our story, well, call it sticker shock for the soul. What he thought was a job well done, was only the start of life in faith.
Here’s the thing, they guy has done nothing wrong. In fact, in Mark’s version, the writer tells us Jesus loved the man. He was keeping the law, he was a good and decent guy. So maybe Jesus saw potential in this man to join the ranks of disciples. Maybe Jesus’ sees him taking the next bold step on the faith journey.
In turning back the man’s flattering approach, Jesus wanted the man to see goodness is not something to obtain, to possess, but rather a goal to seek. He was challenging this law abiding man, that he could never be good enough; he was challenging the man’s pride. I suspect Jesus didn’t want him to repeat the same mistake he was making in approaching Jesus, thinking he had arrived.
Perhaps Jesus saw that prideful front the man had as a feeling of being invincible, that he could be in control of his life. That he did not need to entrust his life to God. You see, the real mistake here is in asking what he could do instead of asking God what God would do in and through him. For when Jesus got to the bottom line, he told him he was only one step away. But the fellow couldn’t take the step. He couldn’t trust God enough to give what he had been blessed with to those not so blessed, and then to follow Jesus.
An American tourist in Jerusalem, met a monk. The monk offered to show him around the monastery. On their tour they came upon the monk’s room; the tourist noticed no TV or radio, only a single change of clothes, a towel and a blanket. “How do you live so simply?” The monk answered, “I noticed you have only enough things to fill a suitcase; why do you live so simply?” To which the tourist replied, “But I’m just a tourist, I’m only traveling through.” To which the monk replied, “So and I, so am I.”
Those things we think we must have, those things that we think we cannot live without – do we possess them, or do they possess us? Have you ever noticed how yesterday’s luxuries tend to become today’s necessities?
Rabbi Harold Kushner notes in When All You’ve Ever Wanted is Not Enough, “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little bit different for our having passed through.”
Fortunately, I managed to avoid this faux pas last night, but have you heard the story of the minister who stepped on the bride’s foot during the service? Finally noticing his blunder, he said, “I’m sorry, I know I hurt you. Why didn’t you tell me I was hurting you?” Through her tears the bride replied, “I thought it was part of the service.”
The challenge to the man was not to cause distress in his life, but to change the focus of his life. It was not to create another thing to check off a to-do list. It was to free him for the dependency of things he could posses, to grow in his trust of God.
Our possessions, our wealth, out things, can be obstacles between us and God. Whenever I travel by air and see how much luggage folks bring, despite the fees, I always think of a travel show tip from years ago: “If you want to get away from it all, don’t take it all with you.” But it’s hard to let go of what we depend on, to let go of what we think we need to trust in God’s grace and providence.
There was a trusting abbot who was moved by the spiritual progress of a young disciple. At his request, the abbot let the disciple live in his own lean-to down by the river. Each night he would wash his one robe and put it out to dry. One morning the young monk was dismayed to find that rats had torn his robe to shreds. He begged for another from a nearby village, only to have rats destroy that robe as well.
He got a cat, but found he had to beg for milk for the cat. To get around that, he got a cow; but of course that meant he had to have hay. He got the hay from the fields around his hut. He had to get workers to help. Soon he was the wealthiest man in the region. Several years later the abbot came back to find a mansion in the place of the hut. He asked the monk what was the meaning of all this? “Oh Holy Abbot, there was no other way to keep my robes.”
The more we are wrapped up in ourselves, the further we move from God and what God wants of us. Every self-serving obligation prevents us from helping another, from being part of the transforming of the world around us.
Remember Genesis 3? Not long after creation comes the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent. Remember the fruit they are tempted to eat. It came from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The promise was they would become wise as God. Since the very beginning we have been looking for a shortcut, the easy way. It didn’t work in the Garden. It didn’t work for the law abiding guy who got the face to face with Jesus. It won’t work for us.
And the thing about the snake, well, it’s kind of like your mother warned, if it seems too good to be true, well…It is a word of caution that there is no easy, not-so-costly way to completeness in our life and faith. Yet we are still tempted to try because there is no way around being faced with sticker shock for our soul. God doesn’t want to be an afterthought in your life. God wants you to love with all your heart, your soul, and your might.
To lead us to grow in our faith, God challenges each of us at the one point we cannot give up. The man who approached Jesus couldn’t let go of what he possessed in order to be possessed by God. He might have pleaded, “Why so much Lord?”
We might phrase it: Why not simply allow us to say a kind word instead of acting in compassion by helping another? Why not simply allow each of us to simply put our name on a list saying we are for God instead of actually being involved for God? Why not simply allow us to check a Facebook box for “thoughts and prayers?” Why can’t God build God’s kingdom on good intentions?
Cannot the hungry feed themselves? Cannot the lonely care for themselves? Cannot the children and youth learn their faith from someone else? Cannot those burdened by life lift themselves up? We ask, “Why do I have to be involved? If I am already doing my part, why do I have to help do the part of another?
They guy who felt so much urgency in asking Jesus for the insight he thought would be easy, the guy who received “sticker shock” for his answer, probably walked away heartbroken, his head bowed in grief. He had come so close, but he had missed the opportunity. I imagine him looking over his shoulder as the little band walked away, through grief with envy, thinking, “I wanted so much to be with them, but I didn’t dare take the risk of giving up all I have and trusting God.”
Maybe, too, as he watched, he thought of how Peter, Andrew, John, James, dropped their nets and followed Jesus; how Matthew got up from his tax tables, but he couldn’t take that step of commitment to go. Don’t let “sticker shock” stop you from discovering the joy and peace that comes into your life by letting Jesus Christ be your Lord and Savior.
You know, it’s true, the more you have the greater the danger of being selfish, the greater the risk of letting God be in charge? When Jesus saw what was happening with this eager man, now turning away, he warned the disciples of the danger. He warned them that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. And frankly, living where we live, we are the rich in the world. But it is not that we are rich, that challenges us. It is rather when our possessions possess us. It would be as trying to thread a needle with a camel.
We don’t know what happened to the man who turned away from Jesus. We don’t even know his name. But we do know this, he is the only one who ever received a personal invitation from Jesus to follow, who declined. If he had accepted the invitation, perhaps he would have been there on Pentecost with Peter, maybe he would have written a gospel like Mark. Maybe like Pau he would have started a church is some far off village. Instead, he faded away in history because he could not take that final step.
We too, maybe taken aback by sticker shock at the cost of discipleship. But before you fade away as our rich fellow did, hear again the promise of Jesus, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for god all things are possible.” Whatever holds you back from making a total commitment to god, let us be willing to deal with it and take that final step to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.