I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother to us all. Amen+
The Rich Young Ruler. That’s what we call him, that’s how he’s come to be known over the years.
He shows up in the three synoptic gospels. In Matthew he’s young, in Luke he’s a ruler, here in Mark he’s rich, over the years we’ve smushed
all three stories together, calling him the Rich Young Ruler; but in each of the Gospel’s he asks the same essential question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Then we hear the crushing answer: sell everything, give it to the poor, then come follow me. When the young man, who has many possessions, goes away, shocked and grieving, Jesus turns to the disciples and teaches how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. How, it is easier for a camel to go through they eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom.
Given that he shows up so often and that Jesus answers the same way
in each Gospel, we’ve got to take this story seriously, but, man, does it give us agita! For however large or small our income, no matter what we’ve got or don’t in our 401(k), whether we are hoarders or minimalists, who wants to hear they’ve got to give up all they have?
Which is why preachers get weaselly when interpreting this passage
Some soften what Jesus is saying by explaining that the “eye of the needle” was the name of a gate in Jerusalem that camels could get through. If they offloaded all their stuff and sort of scrunched down, going through humbly. That was made up in the Middle Ages by the way; there is no gate in Jerusalem like that. Others tell you that the word for “camel” in Greek is nearly identical to the one for rope, which might have some hope of being pushed through a needle’s eye. Also hogwash. Still others argue that Jesus doesn’t mean you literally have to sell everything, only that you should remain spiritually detached from wealth. I’d love it if ANY of that were true, but it’s not. Rather, I think we’ve got to take this story as it is. And, yet, what are we to do with it!?!
After all, I doubt anyone here, including me, is going to sell all we have and give the proceeds away. Even if we did, I think we’d find it doesn’t work out so neatly. A friend of mine tried this: an earnest 20 something trying to follow Jesus, she sold all her possessions and went to live and work among the homelessness. After a few years, she found she’d managed to re-accumulate the same amount of stuff as she’d had before. So much for that.
So, what are we to do if we can’t explain away Jesus’ words, soften them?
We can’t even make this command particular to this rich man, suggesting that there is something particularly wrong with HIM.
For he comes to Jesus sincere and faithful. He calls Jesus “Good Teacher,” kneels before him to ask the question. Jesus tells him that he knows what to do: follow the commandments, which Jesus ticks off, at least the ones that are about how we are to treat one another—don’t cheat or steal, don’t harm others, don’t lie, honor your parents.
The man assures Jesus that he has kept these commands his whole life, and we have no reason to doubt him. All in all, he seems like a good person. Like you, like me. Not perfect but trying; not perfect but basically alright.
And yet, and yet, he’s longing for something more. He’s done all that his religion has taught but he senses there is something else. What must he do to inherit eternal life? Here that doesn’t mean heaven but participating in the new age to come, the Kingdom of God, what some call the “kin-dom” of God, that Jesus has promised is breaking in, that will usher in a community, a family, of equity, love, and justice.
The rich man’s desire is sincere, as is his question, and then he receives the impossible news that he lacks just ONE thing, though it turns out to be three: sell all, give it away, follow me. And he walks away, shocked, grieving, for he had many possessions.
And we’re left wondering what it all means—for him. For us.
Now’s the time in the sermon that I, as the preacher, should tell you what it all means and how it applies to your life, but I’ve got to be honest: This teaching is hard; it’s even a bit self-contradictory. There’s a harsh command for a sincere man who has kept the commandments. There’s harsh judgment of all of us with possessions, we camels with big humps and lumps of all the things we’ve accrued, things we love that we don’t want shorn off as we shove through a needle. Then, finally, a promise: For mortals, this is impossible; for God, all things are possible. How does all of THAT go together!?
Out of this complexity, here’s what I’ve got to offer: I think this is a story not to be figured out but felt.
I think we’ve got to kneel ourselves, imagine ourselves before Jesus asking for what we truly long for.
Most of us have tried to live good lives: coming to church, caring for others, saying our prayers or trying to, giving money to good causes, yet perhaps we long for something . . . more.
Would it help if I told you that kneeling before Jesus, as the rich man does, is almost always only done by those who seek healing? Earlier in Mark’s Gospel a leper, then men tormented by evil spirits, later Jairus, then an unnamed woman, both with gravely ill daughters, all kneel down before Jesus to beg for healing, longing to be made whole.
Where do you need healing?
Where are you seeking to be made whole?
What emptiness longs to be filled?
Now—and you might even want to close your eyes for this—Imagine, now, kneeling, kneeling before Jesus, open hearted, asking for his guidance, asking for healing.
And, now, imagine Jesus looking at you, as he looked at the man, looking at you and loving you. . . .
He continues this loving gaze as he begins to diagnose what’s keeping you from this fuller life, the healing, the wholeness, the more in God that you long for . . . .
When he looks at the rich man, loves him, and begins his diagnosis, I think Jesus saw a man who had lived well but whose question—what must I DO to inherit eternal life?—revealed what was ailing him. After all, inheritances are gifts; we don’t do something to force someone to give us a gift. I think Jesus saw a good man who thought he was in control, having to do it all, earn it all.
The diagnosis is terminal self-reliance and chronic self-importance.The diagnosis is isolation from others, from God, caused by the insulation of wealth. And, so, Jesus prescribes helplessness, littleness, so that the man could feel what it is to receive a gift. The gift is life with others, those who depend most on God, the poor, and life with God who longs to hold this man up if he’ll let himself free fall into God’s grace.
Now, us. Our turn.You and me. Jesus, the word of God, sharp and active as Hebrews says, is looking, deeply, into our hearts, dividing what is true from what is false, seeing us as we are, but loving, loving us, as he tells the truth, makes the prescription . . .
What is keeping you from wholeness, health, fullness of life?
It is no small thing to kneel before him, to be known and loved, seen in all our longing, but the Good News is that whatever he prescribes for us—giving up whatever is holding us back—whatever he prescribes is given as gift. We need not earn eternal life, the kingdom of God, our own salvation.
After all, we can’t push ourselves through the eye of the needle, no matter how big it is.
This is a hard Gospel, and I don’t have definitive answers about much of it, but I do know that God is looking at us, loving us, willing our healing and wholeness. I do know we can’t do a thing to earn the good gifts God has for us.
But with God, ALL things ARE possible.