This coming Sunday, we'll hear again the story of the young man of wealth and station who approaches Jesus and asks the good teacher what he must do to inherit eternal life. The answer is simple and expected on Jesus' part: Keep the Torah.
The man responds that he has done so from his childhood. He is a righteous man, a faithful man and clearly fortune has shine on him, just enough, to allow him the true luxury of a life uncompromised by temptation and sin. He, for the sake of the Gospel story, is just about as blameless as one can get outside of the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to bear witness to, and to which we are all called as those who follow him. And that is where the exchange between Jesus and the young man breaks down: Jesus, seeing him loves him and says that he lacks only one thing...to give up all and follow him. That is the one thing the young man cannot, does not do. Give it all up. The text gives the reason for this as being that he had many possessions.
We are trained from birth in this material culture to assume that wealth creates wonderful things in our lives like freedom, health, opportunity, safety....it can even give us "time" in that the more we have, presumably, the less time we need to spend getting what we need to survive. Having should open doors, not close them.
Yet, this is exactly what happens. The young man stands at the threshold of the greatest opportunity any of us could hope for. He is seen, known and loved by Jesus for who he is...and his righteousness opens the gate between him and unadulterated, open and grace-filled union and communion with the Son of God.
And he turns away.
What are we to make of this thing happening before us? First, I think, we have to recognize that this thing is happening in us ALL THE TIME. The young man's attachment to his possessions is something that we all struggle with and it is the thing which continues to constrain our being able to live in God's economy and not in the economies of the world. The economy Jesus calls the young man to, God's economy, recognizes that possessions do nothing for our true path to life-and to union with God. We can't own anything, anyway. Can we? We even inhabit our earthly bodies as tenants, borrowing/renting even the subatomic particles of our being from a universe more infinitely vast and complex than what can be compassed in our own finite life strategies and plans. Sure, I hope for a time when I might be materially "set" and have the financial freedom to make choices based on what I would like to do versus what I need to do in order to thrive-or to feel like I am thriving.
A long time ago, I was teaching a youth Inquirer's class as the young people of the parish prepared for the bishop's visitation and their subsequent Confirmation as members of the Church. We were talking about what it means to be an adult, and to be seen as an adult. To be seen as an adult is "simple" in that it pretty much means being willing to start acting like one-instead of expecting the world to accept you as one. An adult recognizes that proving oneself in anything means taking personal responsibility for the preparation, work and witness required of that role.
As to what it means to be an adult...well, I always liken it to having the freedom to sit down and eat an entire chocolate cake. Sure, you can do it. Heck, you can even have the best cake in the world sent to you via overnight mail... Still, eating that whole cake means being willing also to take on the responsibility of what that means to you and to the world. For your body, eating an entire cake CAN'T be good. Too much...too much sugar, fat, all the stuff we are urged by nature and the wellness concerns out there to take on in moderation means a sore stomach...or worse. But also, that abandon in consumption entails costs beyond your stomach.
The rich young man, removing himself from fellowship with Christ and the Disciples, deprives them, as well as his own self, of what might be-a deepening relationship with God that ALL share and enjoy. It also means that he gets to avoid the big and demanding answers to questions he doesn't want to ask. Just following the rules doesn't buy us our ticket into heaven. We have to be willing to live into a life-and a universe-that is infinitely larger and more complex (and more eternal) than our little lives can begin to compass.
Wealth does that to a person. It gets that one into a head/heart space that says, "It is all about me." When, in fact, the more we have (in the Kingdom of God's terms) then the less we have as God's expectations of us increase. I have seen it again and again in my life. When I have the least, I am actually happiest-because I am forced to make choices based on what is possible now, and what creates greater benefit to those around me. When I have had more material resources, I have tended to make life more about my own needs, wants and desires. As Paul has said, "I find that it is sin that dwells in me." That's true, and has been true for the balance of my life's experience.
Giving it all up isn't easy, because it also goes well beyond material possessions. Giving it all up and following Jesus means giving up the attachments we are only seldom honestly aware of in this life: attachment to possession, to relationship, and perhaps most deeply-attachment to outcome. All of us face those moments in life again and again...the ones that the young, rich ruler faced when challenged to take the last step to salvation in THIS life...the invitation to surrender ourselves to God and what God intends for us here, now and in the age to come.
"Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us...."
The rich young man passess up the chance to learn what those words actually mean and the release they promise if we are willing to surrender our attachments and embrace not our own agendas but the agenda of the one who inhabits Eternity.