21st Pentecost 21.18 “The Unbearable Lightness of Goodness” Mark 10:17-22
Finally we have a competent, understanding, clear-headed, well-behaved, morally upstanding person in our Gospel reading! Whew! It’s been a long time it seems, weeks and weeks of bumbling, clueless apostles (it’s so hard to get good help. Just come to a pastor’s conference with me sometime and you’ll see: the more things change…). But we’ve also been up to our ears lately in the Gospel with callous Pharisees who don’t really want to keep the law but just want to know how to make it look like they do, and demons that just won’t go out no matter how nicely (or not nicely 🙂 you ask, no matter how much prayer and fasting or wrist you use. So many demons…
Isn’t it refreshing then to meet this rich young ruler? Yes! Here’s a guy finally that you might let your daughter date. He should get along great with Jesus, don’t you think? Seems like most people’s idea of the model Christian. I had a good feeling about this guy from the opening verses. Finally, someone who really has eyes on the prize, heart set on the Kingdom. A truly nice guy. He’s gone far and you just feel from meeting him that he’s going to go much further. He has upper management written all over him…
His manners, for one thing, are impeccable. The sign of excellent breeding and rearing. Like Phillip Marlow in the The Long Goodbye (check it out if you haven’t read it already) I’m a sucker for people with good manners and aristocratic bearing, who know which fork to use, to wait for the hostess, who are unfailingly (but effortlessly!) polite. Good lesson here, kids: good manners can cover a multitude of sins in this world.
He’s athletic too. I know the song Englishman in New York says a gentleman will walk but never run, but the true aristocrat knows which rules are meant to be broken (hint: they’re the ones which, in your breaking of them, make your company look more smooth—like the King who, seeing a guest drink from the finger bowl, immediately picked up his own and drained it in one gulp). Can you see the rich young ruler, racing down the road to Jesus in his Anderson and Sheppard bespoke suit, perfectly tailored? Nice haircut, shoes. Pure class. But when he sees Jesus, he can’t help himself. He breaks into a run. There’s an appealing boyishness in the rich young ruler, isn’t there? He probably still climbs trees when no one’s looking; he isn’t entirely grownup. Here he comes, running to Jesus, literally, and kneels before Him. Now, don’t let the kneeling throw you. I know some see in this an act of worship of Jesus as God, but honestly; I think it’s just those good manners more than good theology, for a couple reasons:
Notice how the young ruler asks Jesus: “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” and Jesus shoots back (not so polite) “Why do you call Me Good? No one is good but One, that is God!” People with manners know you never initiate conversation with superiors, you let them start the discussion. So that’s my first reason for not thinking the rich young ruler sees Jesus as King or Lord, but as high-level help: because the ruler initiates the conversation (his kneeling, I think, is just like drinking from his finger bowl, really). Second reason for thinking it’s good manners (not Lutheran theology!) that is at work here is that our friend doesn’t answer Jesus’ question—whether he calls Him good because he thinks Jesus is God? Those two things make me think that the rich young ruler, for all his charm, manners, and good upbringing does not think Jesus is the Christ the Son of God. He thinks He’s a great Teacher, with great insights, like Socrates. He might be hoping that Jesus has His own Plato standing by to take down this dialogue and make him eternally famous (that wish, at least, is granted as you see).
After what I think is a long and pregnant silence, as the rich young ruler lets his silence be the answer to the question as to why He calls Jesus Good (it’s just good manners, rather than great Christology) flashing a winsome smile Jesus’ way. Jesus answers, crisply: “You know the commandments: don’t commit adultery, no murder, stealing, lying, or insider trading, and honor mom and dad…” The rich young ruler replies: “How exactly do You define ‘insider trading’? OK, he didn’t say that, though I think it might be in the NIV. In the Greek he just says: “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”
A large claim, right?! You’ve kept all these commandments since you were a child?(!!!) Really? Lots of commentators have scoffed at this (biblical commentators are known for their scoffing) and written the young man off as a Pharisee—a very charming, well-spoken, incredibly likable, well-mannered Pharisee, granted, but an arrogant, hypocritical Pharisee nonetheless, because no one could really keep these commandments (!).
I’m not so sure about that. St. Paul tells the Philippians that he was blameless in the Law. In Romans, Paul suggests the first 8 commandments were no problem for him, just those pesky, last two on coveting caught him out 🙁 We live in a barbarous age, little concerned for the rules of civility, or God’s Word. But I think things were a bit different in 1st century Israel. The Word of God was central in their life and culture. They were serious about IT, even though seriously misguided, quite often, as to the Word’s actual content. But I imagine Paul wasn’t the only one who could say he was blameless in the law (and note well: Jesus left coveting off His list).
Because we’ve thrown in the towel early on the righteousness in the Law and curating it, it is irksome to run into someone who (in addition to being young, athletic, rich, and charming!) claims he’s kept all those commandments we have not. You’re starting to like this guy less, despite the charm, aren’t you? But Jesus… Jesus loved him this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And since Jesus doesn’t love liars, I figure the guy’s telling the truth (I like him).
Here we see what may be called “the unbearable lightness of goodness”. Because Jesus says to him, gently, with obvious affection in His eye, a hand on his shoulder, emotion in His Voice: “One thing you lack: go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” And the rich young ruler slowly rises to his feet (as one born to lead, not to follow); turns his back on the Master, and with slumped shoulders, head down, smile gone, trudges back to the manor. “Sir, shall I bring the Bentley around?” “No, Jeeves, thank you, I need the walk…”
We often think faith is the end of a long process of behaving ourselves, being nice—as if faith is the reward we earn for following all God’s rules. But it isn’t.We think the pleasant and polite will make the best Christians. But they don’t. Because Faith is most unruly—taking heaven by storm not by birthright. The goodness we achieve, by keeping the law, is good, indeed—it’s so light and bright and utterly attractive we just can’t turn our back on it, give it up, let it go—as the rich young ruler discovered. The greater the goodness you possess, the harder it is to follow Jesus. And yet… our light and lovely goodness can’t get through death and the grave. The dark, heavy weight of Jesus’ cross is the only key that opens heaven’s gate—not something we can take up ourselves, but something lays on you by Word, Sacrament through faith alone so that following Him to His table you will find at last the Peace, surpassing all understanding that guards heart and mind in Christ Jesus, Our Savior. Amen.