October 14, 2012
It’s hard to believe that over a year has passed since I first moved to Shawnee. I know in the time between accepting the call to come here and actually moving, I kept a running list of all the things that had to be done before I actually got in my car and drove to Oklahoma.
Because it worked out that I would come ahead of the family, I had to think about what I would need to bring, and what needed to stay in Iowa for the time being. I went back and forth on whether I should buy a hitch for my car and just put my stuff in a trailer. When I discovered that trailer hitches were so expensive they might as well be made out of gold bullion, I decided to abandon that idea. I ended up shipping my books and packing my Subaru as tightly as I could with all the other things I figured I would need until I found a house and the final moving day arrived.
Looking back on it now, it seemed that everything fell into place fairly simply. But I know that at the time I lived in a constant state of anxiety. It felt as though I spent most of my days in that interim time asking, “What must I do?” What must I do to make this move happen? What must I do to be ready to go? What must I do once I get there? What must I do? What must I do? What must I do?
With each major life change that I make, I find that I have a deeper understanding of anxiety, of dis-ease with what’s happening in my world at the time. I wonder if it was this kind of anxiety, this dis-ease that prompted the man in our passage to ask this question of Jesus.
Although he’s commonly referred to as the “rich young ruler,” we know very little about him, other than he owned many possessions. Wealth was considered a sign of blessing in that time and context, but it seemed that his wealth wasn’t adding up to a contented life for this man.
He came to Jesus and knelt before him. Usually when someone knelt before Jesus, they were seeking healing – either for themselves or someone they loved. Perhaps this man wanted healing as well. Perhaps he wanted healing from a deep, gnawing fear that nothing he could do, even following all the commandments to the absolute letter, would bring him the eternal life he desired.
Perhaps he was seeking reassurance about just that. He wanted to know that he was living a life that was good enough, that what he did to be a good person was good enough. Again, there is a sense of dis-ease about him. He kneels before Jesus and asks, “What must I do?”
If it was reassurance he was seeking, he may not have found Jesus’ answer all that satisfying.
“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.”
That isn’t an easy answer to hear. In fact, it would have seemed liked a shocking, even radical answer to receive. As I said, wealth was considered a sign of divine blessing. If you were wealthy, you must be doing something right with God. But Jesus tells this young man that the opposite is true. The way to inherit eternal life is to sell all that you own, give the profits away to the poor, than follow him.
The man can’t do it. He walks away from Jesus grieving.
What must I do?
We live in a society where the material – material possessions, material wealth – are given high value. To not own the latest, the greatest, the newest and the most improved is to somehow fall short of being the best person you can be.
None of us are completely immune to this. None of us are exempt. I can’t be overly upset with my children for wanting the things their friends have, the game systems, the computer accessories, the clothes, the toys, etc, because I want things too.
I know that I can live without a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want them. I want a nice house and I want nice furniture. Whenever my friend Ellen and I spend a girls weekend together, we like to say that we get our antique on. We go to antique stores and if we’re lucky, we find antique flea markets to walk around in. And I imagine my world filled with beautiful antique pieces. I want things. I could probably create a gigantic list of all the things I want.
When I began to search for a call, the search that led me here, one of the things I wanted most was a smart phone. All my friends had them. I knew texting was the way of the future, but we didn’t have a texting plan and even if we did, trying to text on my old phone was a nightmare. I wanted to have the ease of communication that smart phones provided. So I made the decision that when I found a call I would buy my smartphone.
So along with all the other what must I do’s rolling around in my brain as I prepared to move to Shawnee, there was also a countdown taking place. Two months and I get my smart phone. One more month till I buy my smart phone. Two weeks and that smart phone is mine.
Some of you may remember that my first night in Shawnee was interrupted by a gall bladder attack. It was 2 am. I had no idea how to get to the hospital, which I might add I would have been able to find had I had my smart phone. I called an ambulance because I was most afraid I was having a heart attack. While being checked out by the paramedics, I asked their advice about where to go looking for the particular smart phone that I wanted. So after finally getting back to the Winterringer's and sleeping for a few hours, I set out to find the Verizon store and bought my phone!
Does wanting that phone, does that buying that phone mean that I have about as much chance of getting into heaven as that camel does in going through the eye of the needle?
I don’t know.
Maybe material possessions weren’t all Jesus was referring to here. Maybe he wanted the man and all who would listen to consider what it is that impedes them in their life of discipleship. What stops them from answering the call to follow him?
Maybe Jesus was saying that it isn’t what we own, but what owns us that throws a stumbling block in our paths when we try to follow Jesus. What is it that owns us? What do we need to root out of our lives so we can follow? Is it a thing? A person? Is it a belief or an ideology or a behavior? Is there something in our lives that could literally come between us and our call to follow Jesus? Is it our fear?
What must we do?
It seems to me that there is a tension in this passage that we cannot ignore or make light of. We live in a world of both enormous wealth and equally enormous scarcity. Poverty is literally all around us. It camps out on our doorstep. The number of people who are hungry, homeless, hurting haunt me. But I still wanted my phone. I got my phone. I’ve gotten lots of other things too.
I want to be a disciple. I want to be faithful. I want to follow Jesus. But I want the comforts that are out there as well. I know how lucky I’ve been, in my opportunities, in my lifestyle, in the riches I’ve been given. But could I give everything up and follow? What owns me?
Tension. What we must do and what we want. What we are called to do and what we are capable of doing. How to be in the world and yet not of the world.
This is the tension of this passage. Jesus continues to stand there, calling us, reminding us to look first at the least of these, calling us to accountability through his words and actions. To whom much has been given, much is required.
There is no easy, all-sufficient way to resolve this tension, and I don’t have any quick answers to offer. I certainly don’t expect any of us to be able to leave here today and without a second thought, pack up the house and sell everything off so the proceeds can go to the poor. But it does seem to me that leaving this text without feeling unsettled, without feeling a sense of dis-ease, that all is not well with us, means that we have somehow missed the radical nature of Jesus’ words.
We come into this passage about a man looking for reassurance looking for our own reassurance. What must I do? At first glance, that reassurance doesn’t seem to be there. But listen again. Listen carefully. Jesus looked at the man and loved him. His love for him didn’t end even when the man turned and walked away. Jesus loved him. When the disciples, who are just as shocked by Jesus’ words as the man, ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus gives us a far greater reassurance than any we could imagine. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
For God all things are possible.
I know I can be a better steward of God’s gifts. I know I can be a better disciple. I know I can do more. But I also know, and this is not an attempt to let myself or any of us off the hook, that sometimes I can only the best I can within my limited realm of possibility. There will always be more need than I can meet, and those needs will always have to be held in tension with what I want. My realm of possibility is limited. But God’s realm isn’t. That’s the good news. That’s the good news of Jesus’ words. For God all things are possible. The world and all that is in it, including us with our conflicting wants and desires, belongs to God. For God all things are possible. Our hope lies within the realm of God’s endless possibility. Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”