What questions are burning in your heart today? Is there something pressing on your soul? Are you wondering where your next meal is coming from or whether you’ll have enough money to make it till the end of the month? Are you facing a significant transition in life, wondering what to do next as you’re thinking about changing employment, or graduation, or moving into living space that is better adapted to your lifestyle and physical health? Or are other questions nudging their way to your consciousness? Questions like whether God exists, or whether there’s any meaning at all to life?
Our readings today are full of weighty questions. There’s the Psalm, which begins with an expression of utter despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” By the way, these are the words Jesus spoke from the cross according to Mark and Matthew, the question Jesus asked as he was dying.
There’s Job’s question, not so much expressed in today’s reading as implied, “Why I am I suffering?” There’s the young man’s question in the gospel, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There’s the disciples’ question after hearing Jesus’ hard words about wealth, “Then who can be saved?”
Any of these scriptural questions—the Psalmist’s, Job’s, the rich young man’s, even the disciples’—are questions we might have asked at some point in our lives. Some of us may be asking one or more of these questions right now.
The story of the young man, on the surface, is fairly simple. He comes to Jesus, asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies with a simple answer—keep the commandments. The man replies that he’s kept the commandments all of his life. It would seem that Jesus’ reply at this point is to ratchet things up, give the man another commandment that he must follow on top of all the others.
We’re probably inclined to interpret what the young man says critically—he’s hypocritical or lying if he claims he has kept all of the commandments—but note that Jesus doesn’t respond that way. Mark adds one of his intriguing details when he says that Jesus loved him. It is from that love that Jesus responds, “Go sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” So rather than judging the young man for his inability to do what Jesus asked, we might look on him in this story as Jesus does, with love.
If we do that, we might begin to see things differently. First of all, the story itself. Mark tells us that Jesus is on the way—that is to say, he is traveling. But he is not wandering aimlessly; he is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And as we have seen over the last several weeks, along the way, Jesus has been instructing his disciples on what it means to follow him—that discipleship means accompanying Jesus to the cross, and perhaps facing crucifixion themselves.
The second thing to note is that Mark describes the encounter between the young man and Jesus in terms almost identical to the way he tells healing stories earlier in the gospel. Repeatedly, people come to Jesus, kneel before him, and ask for his healing power. So too this young man. He doesn’t have a physical illness, but it may be that his question about inheriting eternal life is an expression of a longing for deeper meaning in life. Perhaps he senses that there’s more than obedience to commandments and hopes that Jesus will quench his thirst.
Perhaps that’s why Mark tells us that Jesus loves him, that Jesus senses the man’s dissatisfaction and dis-ease, and wants to offer him wholeness and healing. And what is Jesus’ answer? “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” And now, Mark gives us another bit of information that dramatically changes the story. It’s at this point that we learn that the young man is wealthy, he has many possessions. And so, instead of following Jesus, the man turns away in shock and grief.
There’s something else in this story that intrigues me. I already mentioned the young man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And I said that it’s a question many of us, perhaps all of us ask. But I wonder. Think about how it’s phrased and whether Mark is telegraphing something important about following Jesus. Think about that word, “inherit.” In the ancient world, if not today, inheritance almost always was a family thing—parents’ passing their possessions on to their children after death. Inheritance implies family; it implies privilege.
When Jesus talks about discipleship and following him in the gospel of Mark, he stresses that it means giving up everything, including family ties. And here, Peter says, “we have left everything to follow you.” Jesus follows that up with a saying about the reward for giving up everything, including family, to follow him.
Seen in this light, the man’s question is phrased incorrectly. What Jesus is proclaiming is a new community based not on ties of family or economic status. It may be that when Jesus tells the young man to distribute his possessions among the poor, he is instructing him to break away from his old relationships of privilege and family and enter into this new community that Jesus is calling together. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the same words, “Follow me,” to the young man that he used when calling the disciples. But in this instance, he has added another stipulation, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.” It’s as if he knows, to pick up on the idea that this story is in the form of a healing story, that for the young man to follow him, to be whole spiritually, he needs to abandon his wealth.
But what does this all have to do with us? It’s a story that may fill us with guilt because we think about our relative wealth in the face of the world’s and this city’s poor. It may fill us with guilt because of our comfort and enjoyment of life in the face of the world’s need. We may think that this is one of those places where what Jesus has to say has no relevance for our lives.
But I don’t think that’s the case. All of us struggle with money. Some of us struggle with the lack of money, with worries about the future, about making it till the end of the pay period. Some of us have different struggles, as we wonder whether how our financial lives connect with our spiritual lives. Did you know that Jesus had more to say about money and wealth than about any other topic?
It’s not something we like to talk about at church, especially in this time of the year as we are beginning our annual stewardship campaign. But we need to talk about it and think about it, as a congregation and as individual Christians. Jesus calls us to follow him. He wants our whole allegiance, body and soul. Following him totally means living all of our existence in light of him and that call. It means seeing our wealth, our financial choices, in light of that call. As we do that, we know that Jesus loves us as he loved the rich young man.