It is a truism of the legal profession that a good lawyer doesn’t ask a question in court unless he knows the answer he will receive. Courtrooms are a theater of sorts, after all, with lawyers each wanting to present their clients’ stories in the way that will favor them. It is also a fact of life that the rest of us rarely ask a question if we think we already know the answer to it. So I am very curious when I hear our Gospel story today, the question of the rich young man. Which side of the divide is he on?
Jesus is getting ready to head out of town, and at the last minute, this young fellow runs up to him, a question on the tip of his tongue. Psychotherapists will tell you that it is often at the last possible minute of a session that the client will stop a moment, turn and say “One other thing….” This is one of those last minute, one other thing moments.
He’s got a question, this young man. Perhaps he’s a little nervous posing it to this famous teacher, this rabbi. Perhaps he’s been weighing in his mind whether or not he should ask the question. You can imagine the interior dialogue: Ask it? Don’t ask it? Will I appear stupid? Should I bother him with my silly question, because I think I know what the answer might be, but still…”
So he poses the question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a big question, isn’t it? Perhaps we ourselves sometimes wonder about it, or more importantly, wonder if we can ever meet the standard we set ourselves.
And Jesus tells him “You already know the answer to the question. Follow the commandments.”
You’d think that would be a comfort to this questioner, but it isn’t.
“I already do those things. I’ve been doing them since I was a boy.”
Jesus is right – the young man knows what to do. He has faithfully been following the law that he was taught as a boy. Why, then, is he asking the question?
What is bothering him? Does he feel like he isn’t doing enough? Does he still feel unworthy of eternal life? Is there an emptiness at his core, a sense that something is still missing?
He doesn’t say specifically what is bothering him, but he wouldn’t have asked this question, a question that he might have presumed he knew the answer to, a question that might make him look like someone who didn’t follow the laws of his childhood in the eyes of this teacher, if he didn’t sense that there was more that was expected of him.
And then the Gospel says “ Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The very fact that this young man was striving to ask the harder question, to seek the deeper answer than just following the commandments that he had been taught, that fact caused Jesus to love him. To love him for seeking, for questioning, for trying to find the more difficult answer. What a comfort those words are to those of us who struggle and ask questions!
But with that love comes an answer that is shocking. Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus. And the young man, who had tried so hard to follow all the rules he had been taught, was stunned, and walked away very unhappy, because he was rich. He may have hoped that following the rules was sufficient, but Jesus, loving that he asked the question, told him the rest of the story. Following Jesus is a hard thing. It is demanding, just as being a parent is demanding, just as being a soldier is demanding, just as being a nurse is demanding, but it is all those taken to the nth degree. Following Jesus is not for the half-hearted.
Now while this whole conversation was going on, the apostles have been listening in from sidelines, waiting for it to be over so that they could head out of town, as they had originally planned. They, of course, think that they’ve dodged the problem of the young man. After all, they’re poor. They’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus. Saved, right?
Perhaps. These men have let go of the little they owned, of their families, their work, to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy, but with God’s help, it is possible, even for rich young men.
But the problem of being rich and getting into heaven isn’t just a problem for the Donald Trumps and Bill Gates of the world – it is also a problem for us. Frankly, we all have a lot, and we like what we’ve got. You don’t need to be a millionaire to be attached to your stuff.
The comedian George Carlin did a brilliant riff on our attachment to our stuff a few years ago. Because it’s pretty raw in its language, I’m not going to quote from it – go look it up in his book “Brain Droppings” if you want to read the whole thing – but his point is worth repeating: we want our stuff, all the little odds and ends that we’ve bought or that has been given to us, but eventually we end up getting ruled by our stuff. Our stuff becomes a burden, an albatross around our necks.
A little story about attachment to our stuff. My stepson B had an incredibly large stuffed bear named Tedwin. Tedwin had been a gift from his auntie M. I first met Tedwin when I began to date his dad. B was about five then, and Tedwin was perhaps twice B’s size. Because of the dog at home, and the various kinds of food that had been dropped on or rubbed into Tedwin’s fur, a large bite had been taken out of Tedwin, right in the vicinity of the armpit – do teddy bears have armpits? – and this became Tedwin’s chink in the armor. That repair, you see, regularly failed, requiring yet another “piteration,” a sewing operation to resew closed the seam where the original bite was. Tedwin was pretty deformed by these successive piterations by the time I met him and B, and many decisions we made were based on Tedwin’s condition. Should we take Tedwin on our skiing vacation? Well, he was pretty fragile. But B couldn’t conceive of going without Tedwin, even though the bear was four feet tall and the car was already pretty packed, so even though Tedwin smelled bad, he sat on the bench seat next to B. Because B wouldn’t go without Tedwin. Should we go to a family reunion in Kansas? Well, could we get Tedwin on the airplane? Our lives were ordered in some ways by this thing, this beat-up stuffed animal. A piece of stuff that took us away from the more important conversations. The irony of all this struggle over a stuffed animal is that a few years later, Tedwin was no longer the center of B’s life and was consigned to a closet in his father’s house, never to be seen again.
I tell this story not to say that stuffed animals are bad or that B was wrong to care about it, but to remind us that it is so easy to become too focused on our stuff and be unwilling to consign them to their proper space. Do you feel like your life is over if your laptop comes up with the blue screen of death or your iPhone gets dropped in the sinkful of water? Do you want to take out the shotgun when the lady in the parking lot scrapes the side of your car door with her shopping cart? Do you worry that it reflects on you badly if your lawn isn’t mowed in a perfect crosshatch pattern? It’s time for some perspective.
And that’s the real takeaway from this – stuff isn’t inherently bad – money or wealth isn’t inherently bad - it’s how you relate to it that is the measure of how you are moving toward eternal life. Do I think rich people have a hard time getting into heaven? I don’t know. I do know that the likelihood that they will have a lot of stuff, and be seduced by the value of that stuff, rather than seeing it as a mere tool for the kingdom of God, is greater. I do know that if I spend more on dinners out in restaurants than I do contributing to those who have no food, it’s not a good use of my stuff. I do know that spending several thousand dollars on a big screen TV and dropping a five-spot into the collection basket on Sunday is getting the priorities wrong, because what I get on Sunday and how I’m transformed by it is what will get me into heaven. I do know that worrying about what others think of what brand of jeans I wear, or sneakers, when not too far away some people are wearing what they’ve been able to glean from Goodwill, is a misplaced view of what is important, what Christ asks us to focus on.
Here’s the Gospel message: as we order our priorities, as we live our lives, there are some basic rules to follow, about not cheating or stealing or murdering, and so on. We know those rules. But we also need to attend to the harder challenge, to live our lives letting go of the priorities that Madison Avenue wants us to cherish, putting first and foremost the love of God and the care and love of others, both the lovable and the not-so-lovable. And this is an “all-in” challenge, not something we do halfway. All-in. Not working around how to live with one leg in the world of our stuff and one in the kingdom of God. All in, with joy and relief, letting go of that which we thought we wanted but which has become a burden and distraction. All in, and ever closer to the Christ who was all-in for us.