words of my mouth

Pentecost XXI

Mark 10:17-31

“I'm late! I'm late for a very important date. No time to say hello, good-bye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late.” Or so sang the White Rabbit in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland”. And we all know that feeling – no matter how hard we try, there’s never enough time for everything. We all have lives filled with things that detain us, turn us around, stop our actions, or push us forward when we’d rather rest.

Maybe it’s work. I’d rather be resting but I have a job to do. Or it could be family. It would be so nice to go for a walk today, but the kids or grandkids need me there to look after them. Sometimes it’s housework, or grocery shopping, or laundry, or home repair. There’s always something that keeps us from our heart’s desire.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus is setting out on a journey, but this isn’t just any journey. He is setting out on the road to Jerusalem, and to Calvary. Before He can get underway, this young man appears before Him with a burning question. He is a young, well-mannered, well-educated, and well-off Jewish man. He is sincere, honest, and seemingly above reproach. Maybe he also had an engaging personality and a winning smile. We don’t know. Certainly Jesus found him likable, for Jesus, who was about to set out on His way to the cross, took the time to speak with him.

From what the young man has said, he was looking for an inheritance – not a gift or a payment or an allowance or a reward – but an inheritance. The Greek word quoted by Mark seems to convey exactly what it does to us. Did the man with many possessions see himself as a child of God who was due a birthright like one might expect from a parent? His conversation with Jesus would indicate otherwise, but whatever the case, he wanted Jesus to tell him how to secure the benefits of God’s most fundamental values – and to find the key to a meaningful, contented, and fulfilling life.

However, before even beginning to answer the young man’s question, Jesus deals with the reverential term the man has used to address him. “Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God.” Is the young man merely trying to flatter Jesus, probably, or does he know to whom he is speaking? We aren’t told. Yet, Jesus goes to the trouble to call attention to the word, to emphasize that no one is truly good except God.

Then our Lord addresses the question He has been asked. Referring to the Ten Commandments, He offers a list of what the man has to do to qualify. But when the man with many possessions testifies to his lifelong practice of following the commandments, Jesus seeks to provoke in him, as he provokes in us, a whole new level of understanding about eternal life in God. With love for him, our Lord said, “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.”

This information is shocking indeed, as much to us as to the young man. Jesus doesn’t even say, “Give to your synagogue, or your favourite charity” but “give to the poor”. Imagine being told to take all that makes us feel secure, all those things that we feel are extensions of our personalities, and sell them, and then, without any fanfare or recognition of our generousity, give all our wealth away to the poor. Is Jesus serious? Yes, He is.

As we think about our Lord’s encounter with the man with many possessions, we can imagine Jesus’ insight into his heart and soul. The young man had followed the specific, outward regulations that were spelled out in the Bible – but Jesus perceived that something still blocked him from total obedience to God – his many possessions. Material belongings stood in the way of his following Jesus, because, having heard Jesus’ opinion that he needed to give them up, he went away shocked and grieving, stunned and defeated – perhaps with a broken heart. The young man could not meet the ultimate measure of obedience to God. His love of possessions blocked him from totally loving God and following Christ.

Many scholars are quick to say that this is not necessarily a teaching by Jesus against a Christian’s having material possessions, in whatever quantity. They remind us that the crisis for the man with many possessions was not how much he owned, but that the property owned him, blocking his way to unity with God.

Isn’t this familiar to all of us? How many times have we felt owned by a job, or a duty, or just by our stuff? Thinking about todays’ Gospel story gives us a starting place to examine our own lives.

Would Jesus have said to another person, “One thing you lack,” and then listed something quite different from selling possessions and giving the income to the poor? What does Jesus say to us – about the one thing more that we lack? What do we need to give up, to rid ourselves of, to put behind us, that would allow us completely to follow Him? What can blind us and deafen us from connecting with God?

What changes do we need to make in our lives? What is it that stands in the way of our becoming what God intends us to be? It is almost certainly selfishness of one sort or another – because putting ourselves first puts God second or third. Because we do this, we become separated from the Holy Spirit, from the strength and grace it offers us.

What is it that we need to give up in order to gain what is much more valuable? Is it greed or prejudice – ignorance or pride – anger or the need to control others, the inability to acknowledge our sins of hurting others or the “things we have left undone” or something else?

Or is it, after all, a love of possessions that stands in our way of connecting with the eternal life that we can find only in God? Is the fate of the man with many possessions at least in part to be our fate as well? Is what stood in his way also at least in part what stands in our way, preventing us from totally connecting with God and following Jesus?

We live in a culture of materialism in which we measure too much in monetary terms. We are inundated day after day, hour after hour, by advertising that insists that if we buy one thing or another that we will be happier and better off. The push for more and more material possessions insinuates itself into our lives constantly.

For those of us who are not impoverished – and even those of us who live with severely limited resources, this is a question we must examine. Is what we own so precious to us, that it stands in our path and blocks our way to our Lord?

The young man in today’s Gospel is an example of everything Jesus’ society, and ours, prize. He is young and strong, well dressed, and successful. He is polite and affable, and very much involved in his religion. His personality and the depth of his goodness are so magnetic that Jesus looked at him and loved him. That’s a pretty strong recommendation. And then, after telling this young man to give all his wealth away, Jesus calls him to be a disciple, “Come follow me.” But the young man turns away.

It seems ironic that the man with many possessions asked about “inheriting” eternal life. The truth is, he had already inherited it – as a child of God. The God-within-him existed as a part of the created order – because he, like each of us, was created in the image and likeness of God. He had inherited God’s spirit already – he just didn’t know it. Jesus tried to open him to understanding that reality – to instruct him how to break through what blocked him from recognizing the Spirit of God that he only had to put before all else in his life.

“I'm late! I'm late for a very important date. No time to say hello, good-bye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late.” What must we do, what must we give up, in order to recognize and put to use the eternal life that each of us has inherited? Jesus calls each of us to be His disciple. What stands between us and the fulfillment of following our Lord?

Let us pray:

Lord God, You know our weakness and failings, and our attachments to worldly things. You know that without Your help we can accomplish nothing good for ourselves or for others. Grant us therefore the help of Your grace. Enable us to seek You first, to do Your will set before us in the daily routine of our lives, and to let nothing stand between us and You, that we may follow You all our days. In Jesus’ Name – Amen.

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