Prayer of Invocation: HOLY GOD, we call upon your name this day. When you seem most absent, we yearn to hear your voice. When you seem most present, we long to follow your teachings. Be with us now. Strengthen and guide us, that we may trust your call and follow your lead. In doubt, in trust, but most of all in hope, we pray. Amen.
LET US PRAY: Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I read a story this past week about an expert in diamonds who was seated on an airplane beside a woman who had a very large, beautiful diamond on her finger. After eyeing it for several minutes, he introduced himself to the woman and told her that he couldn’t help but admire the ring on her finger. “I’m an expert in precious stones,” he said. “Tell me about that ring.” The woman replied: “This is a famous diamond- the Klopman diamond, one of the largest in the world. But there is a strange curse that comes with it.” Now the diamond expert was really interested. “What curse?” he asked. She replied: It’s Mr. Klopman.”
Jokes aside, there is a serious theological principle at work here. The true curse of any single possession is its capacity to steal our hearts. These are not usually the things we put in garage sales or re-gift, if we have received a present that we don’t like or can’t use. The real issue with the young man who comes to Jesus with the question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? is that he possesses things that he really likes, maybe like the Klopman diamond; and he isn’t trying to downsize.
In first century Palestine, the greeting “good teacher,” was flattering, and the young man would have been expecting Jesus to be flattering to him in return. But Jesus doesn’t play into that social game. Jesus looks him in the eye and asks him to give away the “stuff” that has a hold on his heart and to follow him. The man can’t do it, so he walks away. This encounter between Jesus and the young man is recorded in both Mark and Luke. What is interesting in the Mark passage is that the young man is not immediately identified as rich, as he is in Luke’s text. Jesus knows what has hold of this young man just as surely as Jesus knows what has hold of each of our hearts.
In the lectionary group this week, we discussed how confusing and difficult this passage is, and one member said that he thought this was not an absolute text; that is, Jesus was speaking specifically to one person, not to everyone. The audience who would have heard this story was all poor – it is being presented to people who have nothing, who are living in occupied territory. Jesus tells the young man that, although he has everything, he in fact has nothing. As we have been following Jesus in Mark’s gospel we have consistently seen Jesus turning the cultural values inside out, and this passage is no different. It ends with: But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Today, we find ourselves in the position of the wealthy young man, rather than in the position of the poor in an ancient culture or the poor today in a third world country. Let’s for a minute follow the money trail. There is not one of us who has not benefited from an economic system that favors us, both locally and globally. We have pensions, 401Ks, health insurance, and the capacity to buy fruits and vegetables out of season. We pay very little for a pound of coffee. We have cars and houses. The list goes on. You can go on the internet and find out how wealthy you are compared with the rest of the world. You might be surprised that all of us, all of us, are in the top 5%. But we’re struggling to meet our financial obligations. We have elderly parents to care for, children to educate, our own retirements to think about. We don’t feel that rich.
Hebrew scripture reflects the belief that the virtuous are rewarded, and that’s exactly how the young man feels. He’s followed the commandments since his youth and has been rewarded with many possessions, but something is still missing. Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and then says “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.” In that moment, when Jesus looked into the man’s eyes, Jesus must have seen the struggle that he was going to have. Jesus knows, even if we don’t, what has a hold on our hearts. Notice that Jesus doesn’t judge the young man; he loves him and invites him into another way of living his life.
The question this passage begs us to ask is this: What do I have to give up to make my commitment to God real? The stuff I have been gripping most tightly are the very things that are most in my way. It isn’t always money. Mother Teresa did the things that Jesus asked the young man to do. But what if Jesus had said to Mother Teresa, when she was working among the poor in Calcutta that she should leave India and go home. Would she have had a struggle giving up her work and her identity? Jesus would know. Even good things, like family and exercise, can separate us from God if they become our first loyalty. Sell what you own can mean get rid of what has a hold on your heart. Give to the poor can mean to convert your assets, time, and talent into those things that will bring people out of poverty and into abundant life. Following Jesus can mean crossing those boundaries that Jesus was always crossing to build a new community.
We live into the Kingdom of God gradually. This rich man’s story is not finished. Nor is ours. When Jesus delivers the famous metaphor “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples are greatly astounded and said to one another “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replies:: ”For God all things are possible.” We cannot save ourselves; we cannot enter eternal life by doing extra credit assignments.
If you have ever watched the trapeze artists on Cirque do Soleil, you may have been amazed by the courage and artistry of the performers – one trapeze artist swings from a very high platform at one end of the circus tent to the center of the tent where the second
trapeze artist, the “catcher” waits for him. If the first performer lets go at the precise moment and allows the catcher to grab his wrists, then he can swing in a long, graceful arc to the platform at the other end of the tent. Most performers work with a net, so if the trapeze artist fails to let go, or the catcher fails to catch, the trapeze artist can swing in shorter or shorter arcs until he drops to the net below. You have to trust the catcher in order to let go of the trapeze.
Perhaps the metaphor of the trapeze artist can be applied to the Christian life as well. You can swing around the idea of Christ for years, you can be pious as the rich man is pious, but if you want to get to the other side of the tent, you have to trust your catcher and let go of the trapeze. If you don’t, your life swings in smaller and smaller arcs, until you drop into the net below.
The story of the rich man is more about invitation than anything else. It’s an invitation to take our cues from Jesus rather than from the culture. It is an invitation to let go of those things that have a hold on our hearts and to make real our commitment to God. It’s an invitation to surrender our lives and to claim the words: I am poor, and my only wealth and security is in Christ.
Our culture gives us the dream of power, wealth, and prestige. We all buy into it at some level. We have all made bricks for Pharaoh and been rewarded for it. But Jesus looks deeply into our eyes and tells us that success and fulfillment don’t always come the way we expect them to. That’s the question I leave in the air this morning: What do I have to realign in my life, what do I have to give up to make my commitment to God real? Amen.