20th Sunday after Pentecost
20th Pentecost 20.21 “Rich” Mark 10:17-22
This is the scariest story in the Gospels. To me, at least. A real spine-tingler. Most of all, because, like Jesus, I love this guy. I can identify with him all too easily. But he doesn’t end up tagging along happily with Jesus. He goes away sad(!), because the Kingdom of Heaven just demands too much! And that’s what’s scary about this story to me. If I’m like this guy, identify with him, love him like Jesus loves him, what are my chances for heaven? Not so good, Bob!
You may wonder: but how can Jesus love a guy who doesn’t end up a Christian for Christ’s sake?! He does end up a Christian, right? This was just a temporary set-back and he finally comes around, right? Well… there’s zero evidence for that happy hypothesis. We never see the guy again. It would appear this was his one chance for glory and he blew it. Sorry if that spoils a good story, but I told you it’s a scary one!
He is a likable guy though, isn’t he? Although he gets just a few short sentences, his charm, his basic likableness shines through. The Gospel writers are good! They make these quite real people jump off the page and into our minds and hearts so vividly. I mean, Judas is a snot and a no-good social justice warrior fraud from the start. I hate that guy. Caiaphas and Herod, too. Boo! Obvious villains. When I read the bible stories to my kids when they were little, I’d voice those two like Emperor Palpatine, but my kids picked up (even without the special effects 🙂 that these were bad men.
Pilate, oddly enough, though he does a terrible thing, Greg, is ambiguous. You don’t hate him. There is some humanity there, some yearning for the Kingdom that is overwhelmed by the demands of high office. A tragic character. Nicodemus doesn’t make a good first impression—all flattery, incredibly dense, but surprises you with hidden depths, being there at the end, claiming the Body. A happy turn-around.
No such turn-around is reported for the rich young ruler, though! Which is why he stays with you, haunts you, troubles you…
It’s the little things. The man runs up to Jesus. Doesn’t walk up, saunter up. He isn’t sitting in the cafe with his beret smoking a Galois. He isn’t reserved and casually indifferent to Jesus. He runs up to Jesus like a little kid would do. Given Jesus’ emphasis on child-like faith, this is a great start, tremendously promising!
And also, very un-adult like, he kneels before Jesus. Doesn’t shake his hand, offer him a seat in his corner office for a chat, or treat Jesus like the help. He kneels before Jesus in a humiliating, scandalous way as rich, young rulers basically never do! So, there is a childish enthusiasm for Jesus—like a kid on Christmas morning, and the quite disinterested self-abandonment of adoration which C.S. Lewis flags as an essential element of faith. These are just some of the little details in the story that make you like him right off the bat. You’d be friends with this guy in college, if you had the chance. Despite being a little selfish, he’s not self-centered. His thoughts are directed always outward, to ever greater things—the true, the good, the beautiful—things better than himself.
And what an opening line! He does’t flatter like Nicodemus, challenge like Herod, deny like Judas, demean like Caiaphas, belittle like Pilate, seek favors like the lepers, or fish for a compliment (as the disciples so often do in the Presence of Jesus :-(. No! He just asks a question, a sincere question, the burning concern of his life: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s not an abstract question, a philosophical question like predestination or the problem of evil—a question that makes us look smart for asking it. Instead, this guy just cuts to the chase, the point of it all…
Most of the world lives in the denial of death as Ernest Becker well demonstrated in his classic work by that title (and which still is worthy of a read when you’re weary of the best-seller lists). But not this guy! He knows he’s going to die and that is a big problem! and he’s not ashamed to admit he doesn’t want to die, that he wants to live, forever. Again, a child’s dream…
And he calls Jesus “Good Teacher”, not to flatter, but because he has sensed that this is Goodness in Person—perhaps even God Himself??!! who has the power to grant life even in the midst of death. So, “how do I get in on that?” Selfish, yes, but not self-centered. He wants to be the person God means him to be, and isn’t ashamed to admit he’s not there yet.
Some people mock him for this or complain he isn’t altruistic enough. They do this because Jesus shoots back at his question: “Why do you call me Good? No one is good except God alone.” But, I hear in Jesus’ voice pure playfulness. He’s teasing the guy, messing with him a little. The mockery is gentle, and the guy just takes it without a word. I can picture the guy (I think I know what he looks like 🙂 and I see a little gleam in his green eyes when Jesus says “no one is good except God alone” that yes, that is precisely what the rich young ruler suspects about Jesus!
Jesus goes on: “you know the commandments: do not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, defraud. Honor mom and dad…” And the young man (remember he is kneeling before Jesus) looks up and says “Teacher (see what he did there? Knocked out the “Good”!) all these things I have kept from my youth.”
The guy gets dinged by Lutherans for this claim: “See, he really is a do-gooder, works-righteous Pharisee! He thinks he’s done all the commandments!” But in fact, that’s not what he says. There’s a difference, rather vast, between “keeping” and “performing perfectly” all the commandments. Keeping them means you honor them, strive for them, yearn for them. And remember: the guy asked how to “inherit” eternal life, sensing that all our doing is not getting us anywhere. An inheritance, an undeserved gift is what he’s seeking all along.
Also, Jesus, hearing this answer: “all these things I have kept from my youth”, looking at him, loved him!! Now, Jesus does not love frauds and pretenders, or the self-righteous! So, either the guy really had kept them perfectly, or (more likely) had honored and kept them as the law, fulfilled them outwardly, even as he realized there was a deeper, inward keeping of the them he was missing…
Jesus says, almost whispering, I think: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, because he had neat toys. I have neat toys, too. And while I’d like to think I’d give them all up to follow Jesus—empty handed, hobo-style—I’m not sure. Some of my toys really have a grip on my heart…
At the end of the day, I tell myself my toys aren’t nearly as neat as the ruler’s, that I’ll end up different. But maybe, we’re supposed to end up exactly the same as this guy? Maybe it’s like W.H.Auden said: “It’s almost the definition of a Christian that he knows he isn’t one.”? I find a little ray of sunshine in this: maybe it’s only when we’ve given up all hope of heaven, gone away disheartened, despairing, that Jesus comes, like a friend of mine, hits us from behind, grabs us by the scruff, and drags us all unawares into Heaven? In His Holy Name. Amen.