Mark 10: 17-31
A few years back in Bible study we came across this passage. Rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and also to sell everything, give the money away to the poor, and then to follow Jesus. And it says, “When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10: 22).
It’s that leaden ending, just sitting there simple and heavy, that caught my attention that night (and every time I read it). The rich man had coming running to Jesus (v. 17) and after asking the exact question he came to ask, has absolutely nothing to say and leaves heavy-hearted and silent. We don’t know what happens to this guy. We never hear from him or about him again in scripture. But he’s intriguing, isn’t he?
So that night in Bible study we were working to get at this passage and I asked the students what it would have been like had the rich man spoken again, talked back. What if he had argued with Jesus? You know from the story that he walks away without a word. What a strange thing for someone who knew the question and wanted the answer and came running to find it out. Not one word. Not even a sad and dejected “Oh.” Nothing.
In our study we were wondering about this and I asked everyone to rewrite the story as if the man had decided to argue with Jesus. One student wrote a playful response I want to share with you. Some of you have met Joel Winstead from our Easter sunrise hikes. Here’s his re-imagining of the story, with a little help from Monty Python:
Man: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
JC: I told you once.
Man: No you haven’t!
JC: Yes, I have.
Man: No you haven’t!
JC: I most distinctly told you.
Man: You have not!
JC: Yes, I have: you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might…
Man: Oh, is that all! That’s EASY!
JC: …and sell all you have, and give the money to the poor; then you may follow me.
Man: WHAT! I can’t do that! That’s absurd!
JC: No it isn’t.
Man: Yes, it is!
JC: Is not.
Man: Is! Look, if I sell all my possessions, then what will I eat? What will I wear?
JC: Look at the lilies of the field: they do not toil or spin.
Man: That isn’t an argument!
JC: Yes it is!
Man: No it isn’t!
JC: Is too!
Man: Is not!
Man: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition! You can’t just go around stating beatitudes and call that an argument!
JC: Yes I can.
Man: No you can’t!
JC: I can.
Man: You can’t!
JC: Can too.
Man: Look, I came here for eternal life.
JC: No you didn’t: you came here for an argument.
Man: I did not!
JC: Did too!
Man: Did not!
JC: Did too!
Man: Did not!
JC: Time’s up!
JC: Time’s up. No one knows the day or the hour.
Man: Oh come on.
JC: I can’t argue with you unless you’ve paid.
Man: But why should I pay you?!
JC: Hmm, hmm hmm, hmm, hmm.
Man: Just argue with me a little bit more.
JC: I told you, I can’t argue with you unless you’ve paid.
Man: Oh, alright.
<sells his possessions and gives Jesus the coins>
Man: There. Well?
JC: Well what?
Man: Let’s argue.
JC: I’m sorry. I can’t argue with you unless you’ve paid.
Man: I just paid you!
JC: No you didn’t.
Man: I did too! Just now!
JC: No you didn’t!
Man: I did!
JC: You didn’t!
Man: I did! Did did did did!
JC: Whose face is on that coin?
JC: Then you didn’t pay me!
Man: This is ridiculous! You just said I had to sell all my possessions, and I did that! What more do you want?
JC: Follow me.
Man: Oh, this is futile!
JC: No it isn’t.
Thank you, Joel! Does the retelling help you hear anything echoing in the silence of Mark’s version?
Sometimes humor is a good way to swallow a hard truth – or at least to chew on it for a while without being scared off. And this is a hard passage. The man’s grief and silence make some wonder what Jesus is up to here. Doesn’t he want followers? The rich man seems like a perfect match – and he came running to see Jesus! He was already doing everything Jesus named! Except for that one thing, the money part. He went away silent, shocked, and full of grief because “he had many possessions” (v.22).
I read a fantastic novel a few years back, called Possession. The author, A.S. Byatt, tells two parallel love stories that become entwined. A couple of modern-day academics are researching two long-dead Victorian writers and uncovering their unknown love story in the process. The novel is a combination of love story and detective novel/thriller. What I remember now from my reading is how I began to think a little differently about the nature of possession. The story is about lovers who want to possess the objects of their affection and about academics who want to possess the exclusive story to be told from the past. It’s also about how, the deeper one sinks into a pursuit, the less you are in control of the direction and the more you follow where the trail leads. The more you desire to possess/own/hold onto something the more control it has over you. The American Heritage College Dictionary (Third Edition) has these twin sides of possession as the “a” and “b” of its first definition: “the act of fact of possessing” and “the state of being possessed” (p. 1067).
The rich man left Jesus full of grief because he had many possessions. I would say that he’s felt possessed by his religious pursuit and also by the wealth he has amassed. I’ll say it again: he came running to ask Jesus his question. He is on a spiritual journey and he is following the trail right to Jesus. What happens when he gets there? Does he realize that he wants to possess more than he wants to be possessed? Does he realize for the first time the power his station in life – his wealth and status and belongings – have over him? Does he realize for the first time that this spiritual road he’s been on does indeed lead to eternal life but only by way of sacrifice? Does he realize for the first time that he isn’t in charge of the direction? Does he only now understand that he has to give himself over to God without reserve?
Saint Francis de Sales says “We cannot help conforming ourselves to what we love” (Behold, September 6-November 22, 2009, p. 8). We hint at that same language during our Eucharistic prayer each week when we pray for God’s Holy Spirit to be poured out on us as we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving. Each week we remind ourselves that this is the food that satisfies our deepest hunger and our deepest thirst. We gather at the table each week to remind ourselves that this is only a taste of what God has in store for us. Each week we come and try to offer a little more of ourselves. Tonight’s liturgy comes from the Iona Community in Scotland and says it even more directly and beautifully (A Wee Worship Book, Fourth Incarnation, p.88):
Merciful God, send now, in kindness,
your Holy Spirit to settle on this bread and wine
and fill them with the fullness of Jesus.
And let that same Spirit rest on us,
converting us from the patterns of this passing world,
until we conform to the shape of him whose food we now share.
It takes reminding. We can so easily get attached to other things and be formed and conformed to them instead of to Christ. What was the rich man so attached to – so conformed to – that he couldn’t let go in order to grab more tightly to Christ?
We sometimes talk about people who are “self-possessed,” meaning they are confident and assured of their own authority and power and abilities. The other night at forum we discussed the spiritual dangers of being a UVA student: the danger of believing in your own abilities so much that you begin to think you aren’t broken and don’t need help or saving – even from God. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner talks about it like this (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, p. 98):
The trouble with being rich is that since you can solve with your checkbook virtually all of the practical problems that bedevil ordinary people, you are left in your leisure with nothing but the great human problems to contend with: how to be happy, how to love and be loved, how to find meaning and purpose in your life.
In desperation the rich are continually tempted to believe they can solve these problems too with their checkbooks, which is presumably what led Jesus to remark one day that for a rich man to get to Heaven is about as easy as for a Cadillac to get through a revolving door.
Jesus’ own disciples are dumbfounded after witnessing the encounter with the rich man and hearing his pronouncement about riches, Cadillacs (or camels) and heaven. Mark tells it this way: “They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” (v. 26). It’s kind of an odd thing for a ragtag group of dusty disciples to say, don’t you think? They aren’t rich. Jesus isn’t rich. But apparently even then the “prosperity gospel” was rampant, that idea that riches are a reward from God and reward in and of themselves. And the accompanying idea that once we have a little money in the bank we don’t have to rely so much on God for help.
This story is and isn’t about money. Jesus doesn’t say that rich people won’t get into heaven but he makes no bones about the fact that it is mighty hard. The rich young man looks like a Sunday school teacher, an upstanding Wesley Foundation member – keeping commandments, running to seek out the spiritual leader – but maybe he’s a little too self-possessed. He knows what he wants, asks for it, and gets the answer to his question and still he goes away grieving because of his possessions. It doesn’t say he went away grieving because Jesus was pig-headed or not who the man thought he’d be. He doesn’t say one word in protest, which is exactly why I wanted the Bible study class to imagine the argument. What could he have said back to Jesus?
But he does not argue because he knows Jesus is right. Further, he knows that he can not do what’s required. He’s come this far but now he sees that he’s hollow inside, that he is more attached to his things than to God. That’s not the way he’s used to thinking of himself and it’s surprising, shocking even.
This story is and isn’t about money. Jesus tells this man that for his own salvation he needs to sell everything he owns. But just a few verses later, speaking about rich people in general, he only says that it is very hard for them to get into heaven. Maybe he would give different prescriptions to different rich folks, just as he does other folks. I guess he knew what this sad man needed. Apparently this man knew Jesus was right but just couldn’t go along with it.
It is tempting to think of Jesus as rude or harsh with the man but that’s not a reading supported by the text. When Jesus realizes the one thing the man has to do, before he says it aloud to the man, Mark tells us “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (v. 21). Jesus gives him exactly what the man asked for and he does so with love. Maybe this is why the man doesn’t argue. How depressing to be loved so much that Jesus will tell him the one thing he needs and does not want to hear. How depressing because he knows he just got what he came for – but his hands and his heart are so full of other things that he can not reach out to take this gift. He is possessed by his possessions.
This passage may be about a lot of things but for us – for UVA students, Americans, people living in North America – it is also about money and material possessions. In this room people come from a variety of backgrounds, socio-economic spheres, family means. In this room we have people with nice cars and no cars. In this room we have penny pinchers and people who don’t worry about the pennies. We are definitely not all in the same place wealth-wise. But as UVA students, Americans, and people living in North America, we are in the same boat with regard to the rest of the world, even in this recession. Sometimes in the midst of our struggling it is helpful to realign our perspective on the matter.
This happened for me a couple of weeks ago at the Bishop’s retreat for extension ministers (clergy serving in chaplaincies, campus ministries, non-profit settings, etc.) Bishop Kammerer reminded us that our Conference’s new capital campaign also includes a missions focus, to help fund the non-existent and under-funded pensions for clergy in the developing world. For all of us clergy in this country, the United Methodist church contributes to a pension fund for the time when we retire. For clergy in some other parts of the world, their retirement programs look a bit different. Bishop Kammerer told us the story of one clergyperson’s recent retirement in Africa. His Bishop and members of the Conference proudly and generously gave the retiring man a Bible and two pieces of metal. The metal would be used to form a roof for whatever house the man could manage to create for his retired years.
Personally, I hate it when preachers – or anyone else – tell stories that are designed to induce feelings of guilt, especially when that’s the whole design. So let me say that I don’t tell you this story to make us feel guilty about what we have. But I am telling it to remind us of the scope of our vision. For me, this was one of those perspective reminders. It’s common for clergy and others talk about how little clergy make. And while I don’t usually join in that chorus and feel content with my salary, from time to time I can still fall into thinking about the money I wish I had or the bills I wish I didn’t have. The Bishop’s story cast my retirement plans (far off as they are) in a new light. She reminded me of our connection to other United Methodists, other Christians, and just others all around the world.
When I heard our Bishop say that minister got two pieces of metal I felt indicted. I couldn’t remember the last time I considered the church in Africa, or its clergy. I couldn’t remember the last time we prayed for people further away than our friends and families and hometowns. It’s easy to be possessed by our own schedules and concerns. It’s easy to start to look like a camel approaching a needle.
This is a story about money and about the spiritual journey. They are not unrelated. “We cannot help conforming ourselves to what we love.” What do you love? Who do you love? How do you love? What or who possesses your life? What are you holding onto and do you have room left to reach back when God reaches towards you?
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis