I was in a local store last week, and I just couldn’t keep from smiling to myself, though I was probably the only one around doing that. NOT smiling were the parents of a toddler, a little boy who was absolutely, heartbreakingly, and very noisily expressing his displeasure as his parents explained to him that no, he would not be getting anything from the store today. They were there for another reason. No, no toy; no Power Ranger; no ball, and certainly no candy.
I smiled because I knew that struggle - I could remember enduring similar scenes, especially with the youngest of our three children. While our other two children saw him as the spoiled and indulged baby of the family, the “one who gets everything,” the one “who got to do the things we never got to do,” or at least got to do them sooner, he saw himself as the disadvantaged youngest. He was the one who got the leftovers. He was the one who got left behind when the other two got to do the really cool stuff. He got the hand-me-downs. He never got what they got.
Maybe it was this sense of relative depravation that caused this child, more than either of our other two, to have melt-downs like the one that I witnessed in the store. Could that child wail! He just couldn’t help himself.
His distress was so keen, his disappointment so deep, his grief so profound that it just poured out of him. I remember once he actually blurted out between sobs, “but I have to get something! I just have to!” He didn’t even care what it was. He just had to have. Some. Thing. Fortunately, that particular stage of development passed, and both our son and his parents survived it.
Having been so recently reminded of those days, however, I thought of the children’s honest struggle and the stress and grief “needing to have things” caused them (and us) when I read the gospel lesson for today. Because, for the man in our story, his attachment to what he thought he needed was a real stumbling block for him, wasn’t it?
So much so, that for the first and only time in the Gospel of Mark, the person offered healing and relief by Jesus rejects it. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” In love, Jesus offered this man healing.
What kind of healing does the man need? Perhaps he needs to be freed from the possession of his possessions – the power they hold over him. He needs to be freed from his idea of what is important in life, and what it means to be faithful.
Jesus offers to free him of what possesses him, to cure him of what binds him. “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But the man walked away, grieving. He just doesn’t get it.
Jesus brings a reorientation of understanding of what is essential to life. The first few commandments on the tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai had to do with our relationship with God. What followed, the ones Jesus lists now for this eager, seemingly sincere young man have to do with our relationships with others. It is what Jesus has been telling us all along. “Do not keep the little children from me.” Relationships matter. “Go, sell what you have. Give the money to the poor.” Relationships matter. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Relationships in the kingdom of God matter – and they won’t look like what we cling to so tenaciously as what we “need” or “want.”
Our notice and engagement with others in our community and in our world matter. Care of the poor is essential for those who follow Jesus.
But the man in our story doesn’t understand. He goes away grieving, because he can’t imagine giving up the life he is currently clinging to – even for the true life that Jesus offers. His “stuff” got in the way of life.
I can relate to this man. I get the thing about how attachment to things and to my own ideas of what is important can get in the way.
My husband and I are getting ready to move to a new house soon. So, I’ve been spending a lot of hours going through the house and the garage doing the hard work of purging.
While I am not a hoarder – I do have clutter. Our adult study group talked about clutter during one of our conversations this summer; about how it enters our lives and how hard it is to get it to leave. Of course, part of the problem is in most cases it doesn’t leave on its own. Which means we have to be intentional about getting it out, and keeping it out.
We discussed the ways clutter affects us physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually; about how it can hold us back and impede our well-being in every one of those areas.
After that conversation, I decided I was going to go through our house and purge us of all our clutter. I was going to free our lives for other, better, more important things, more godly things. Oh, the ambitious goals we have….
The thing is, it’s not easy. I may not be screaming and crying and hollering like those children in the stores did about letting go of the stuff we have accumulated, but I am finding this hard, exhausting work.
Am I possessed by my possessions too? Probably. Am I clinging more tightly to this “stuff” than to the relationships Jesus is inviting me into having with him? With others? Most certainly.
Am I refusing to be healed by Jesus? What can I do to inherit eternal life?
Here’s the rub. That’s the wrong question. The answer to that question is, “nothing”. We know that on our own there is nothing we can do or say to earn eternal life and forgiveness of our sin. We know that the camel has nothing over us in level-of-difficulty for earning eternal life. It is impossible.
For human beings earning eternal life is indeed impossible. But it is not impossible for God. With God all things are possible. Neither wealth nor the divestment of wealth saves us. Only God can do that. Knowing our weakness, God has done in Jesus Christ the only thing God could do to raise us up to new life.
In Jesus is the eternal life we seek. But that is not all. The eternal life we neither earn nor deserve is freely given to us by Jesus on the cross. It is assured through our baptism. We are reminded of it powerfully each time we gather around the table and hear the words, “….given for you……shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”
Perhaps the question we should be asking, then, is “how can I live a life more reflective of the love and values of Jesus?”
In calling us his own through Jesus, God reorients us to the life to which God calls us. The grateful response to the gift of that life requires putting our hearts, our minds, our behaviors, our choices, and our relationships before our ideas or possessions.”
Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with the rest of God’s children is at the top of what concerns disciples of Christ. To follow Jesus means to love what Jesus loves. Jesus loves and calls us to love the least, last, lost, little and lifeless - those who lack the economic opportunities we have; those who live in poverty; those who are the cast aways of society – Jesus calls us to joyfully love and share our bounty with these.
Our possessions blind us to the needs of our brother and sister. Jesus invites us to take off the blinders – “go…sell”. Sometimes they make us want to erect barriers between ourselves and others to keep out those who might compete with our ability to amass even more wealth. Jesus responds, “…sell what you have…give to the poor.” Dependence on our stuff keeps us from realizing our true dependence on God. Jesus invites us, “Come, follow me.”
In our gospel text, the man thinks he is ready to commit, to do whatever Jesus tells him to – perhaps he thinks there is a simple exercise to complete, or some parchment that needs to be signed, or some final steps to be checked off a list. Because if he can just do something, then he is home free. “…tell me what to do, I’ll do anything you want, just give me this thing I want or need.”
Like many Jews of Jesus’ time, the man probably thought of his wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. Not only a sign for him but also a sign to those around him. “Here I am. Blessed by God.” We are not all that different.
What do you love so much that you might put it above relationship with God and all that God is offering you?
Rather than blessing, Jesus sees this thing as the impediment it truly is.
At the heart of this gospel, we remember that Jesus looked at this man, and loved him. Love is a way of seeing, and in loving the young man, Jesus sees him as he truly is, but in a way that the man is not yet capable of seeing for himself. Jesus loves him AS HE IS, while this man seems to think there is more he must do.
Jesus wants him to have life, but lets him know that it is his own attachments that prevent him from finding fullness of life.
What is it in your life to which you might be clinging? What is the sword upon which you would fall, the thing you just can’t imagine giving up? What might you be tempted to turn away and pursue, rather than accepting Jesus’ invitation? Is it material? Intellectual? Relational?
Jesus is inviting us, too, to let go. Whether we do or we don’t Jesus is still loving us, still caring for us, always desiring the best for us, and continuing to call us to follow. Jesus looks lovingly at the young man, at us, and awaits for us, waiting for us to know the joy and full life of discipleship.