There’s an old saying, “Have you ever seen a U-Haul on a hearse?” While the answer to that rhetorical question is “no”; of course, someone had to stage a picture and publish it. The saying is a metaphor for “You can’t take it with you”, meaning that you can’t take your material possessions beyond the grave. Another way to say it is the Yiddish expression “A shroud has no pockets”, literally meaning you won’t need a place for your wallet when they’re winding you in linen.” The young man in today’s gospel lesson wasn’t about to die, not physically at least, but he does have something to teach us about life and wealth.
As our lesson opens, Jesus has stepped out of the house where he has been teaching and blessing the children while on his way to Jerusalem and to the cross. A man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. We know him as the “rich young ruler” from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Described as a “ruler” is an indication that he was a prince or magistrate of some sort. Since no Roman ruler would address Jesus as “teacher” or “master,” it is assumed that this man was a Jewish ruler in the local synagogue. We are also told that this man also had great wealth and many possessions, with which he was not willing to part.
We might note that Mark is much more ambiguous about the man’s identity than the other gospel writers, which I think is intentional on Mark’s part. Because without a name, this man becomes everyone. You. Me. This man becomes every. one of us. One writer said, “If we snatched him out of ancient Israel and plopped him into middle-class America, he’d fit right in. Just swap out the robe and sandals for some Levi’s and Nike’s and set him up in suburbia with a wife, 2.5 kids, a Subaru, and membership at (blank) Church (no specific church intended), and you wouldn’t know him from any other average church-going American family man.
We also come to understand that he was a devout and practicing Jew, a good church-going Jewish man. Yet, he seems to realize that something is missing. He comes to Jesus, and immediately kneels, an obvious sign of respect. His question — “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” — is not a test for Jesus. He truly wants to know Jesus’ answer, and we as readers should probably be just as interested.
In telling the young man to keep the commandments, Jesus was not saying that he could be saved by obeying the commandments; rather, Jesus was emphasizing the Law as God’s perfect standard. If you can keep the Law perfectly, then you can escape sin’s penalty—but that’s a big if. When the man responded that he met the Law’s standard, Jesus simply touched on one issue where the man did not measure up to God’s holiness. The man was not willing to follow the Lord, if that meant he must give up his wealth. Thus, the man was breaking the two greatest commands; he did not love the Lord with all his heart, and he did not love his neighbor as himself. He loved himself (and his money) more than either. Far from keeping “all” the commandments, as he had claimed, the man was a sinner like everyone else. The Law proved it.
Jesus tells the man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”. But the young man decided that Jesus was asking too much. “He went away sad, because he had great wealth”. Rather than obey Jesus’ instructions, he turned his back on the Lord and walked away.
Jesus, in the tradition of the prophets, proclaims good news to the poor and not so good news to the rich. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. And, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Gandhi was once criticized for helping people in the caste derisively called “Untouchables.” “You should not help them. This is their karma,” said the critic.
“You do not understand karma,” replied Gandhi. “The ‘Untouchables’ are there for you. How you respond to them determines YOUR karma.”
In today’s heartbreaking story, the rich young ruler missed his opportunity; he missed out on his “karma”. He missed his opportunity to be in close fellowship with Jesus, the man. He missed the opportunity to participate in the mystery of the Word Made Flesh. All he had to do was give up those things that chained him to his place in life, and, as it turns out, in history.
If the man had loved God and other people more than he did his property, he would have been willing to give up his wealth to the service of God and man. But that was not the case. He had made an idol of his wealth, and he loved it more than God. With surgical precision, Jesus exposed the greed in the man’s heart—greed the man did not even suspect he had. The man’s choice undoubtedly saddened Jesus as well, because Jesus loved him.
He must have been somewhat unhappy his whole life, in his beautiful clothes, with his power, his wealth. He knew something was missing. Something connecting him with the Eternal, with compassion, with the mystery of new life that the cross would bring to birth. A love deeper, higher, broader and more glittering than anything he could possibly have imagined or possessed. Yet he didn’t see it.
As the text moves along, we find Jesus making a number of important points related to this encounter, but I was stopped by Mark’s statement, “And Jesus… loved him”. A person who valued possessions and wealth more than following in Jesus’ way. And while Mark makes the statement before the man makes his choice, I still think that Jesus loved him. One commentator says:
The encounter with Jesus begins the story – being loved, being known, and then walking sadly away. Jesus lets him go. Perhaps Jesus loved and knew him well enough to know this man’s journey would perfect itself in the absence of Jesus, ever trying to make up for his loss with a life of holiness. Sometimes a loss, a mistake, a bad decision, sometimes even tragedy, shatters you so much that grace can seep through the brokenness. Sometimes for you and for me, the brokenness becomes the holiness, perfected in the empty space between imperfection and desire.
I have to think that this wasn’t the end of the young man’s story. I fully believe that he was changed by the encounter with Jesus. He went away sad because he had many possessions, with which he was not yet ready to part. I have to wonder if after a time, he realized anew the emptiness in his soul that his riches didn’t fill. I have to wonder if he later went looking for Jesus, only to find out that he’d been crucified. And with the events of Good Friday, I have to wonder if he didn’t lose hope – until the whispers of the resurrection reached his ears. And then maybe he was ready. Or not. But he certainly would never be the same.
In the end, I wonder if we don’t fail to see this story, a sign of just how much we all have in common with the rich young ruler. Like him, we will go so far with Jesus, but we will turn aside sadly and go no further. I think there is a temptation to make the rich young ruler out to be the worst kind of sinner, rather than a disciple with whom we can empathize because he is just like us. And maybe we just don’t want to see that.
Jesus used the man’s love of money to show how the man fell short of God’s holy standard—as do we all. The rich young ruler needed the Savior, and so do we. And just because we fall short of God’s standard, which we inevitably do, despite our best efforts, God still loves us. Jesus still loves us. And unlike the man in the story, turning our back on Jesus isn’t the end of the story. Because when Jesus loves us, we have the chance to turn back again, and be welcomed in with loving arms. For that we can give thanks to God. Amen.