A man runs up, throws himself at Jesus’ feet and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Notice in Mark he is not introduced as a rich man—that’s from one of the other Gospel’s renditions of this story. Nor are we told he’s young. He hasn’t been sent by the Pharisees to try to trick Jesus. He’s just a man—a man with a problem, one that is eating away at him. He doesn’t just walk up and casually start a conversation. He runs up and kneels before Jesus. Throwing himself at Jesus’ feet implies that he is seeking healing as well as answers.
He wants to know what he can do that will take away this sense that he is missing out on something. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
That question may not strike you as odd. We have had two millennia to hear that question and ponder its answer. But at the time, it would have been strange: inheritances aren’t earned. They are the result of someone dying. The only thing you can do to initiate the process of inheritance would probably make you ineligible to receive it!
But Jesus doesn’t address that peculiarity. Instead he offers an answer that any faithful, religious person of that time would have recognized: obey the commandments and God will bless you.
But here’s what’s so beautiful about this story: just obeying the rules wasn’t enough for this man. He says—and I prefer not to hear it as arrogance—“I have kept all these since my youth.” I don’t hear a man who is boasting; I hear a man who, despite everything he has and does, is still hungry for the one thing Jesus can offer that is different.
And Jesus looks at him, and Jesus loves him.
This week I discovered that the verb translated “Jesus looked at him” is actually more literally, “Jesus looked him in the eye.” Not the kind of ‘stand back and look at the whole person’ image I had carried. This was a deeply probing look. This is the kind of look that is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow” that is “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” to borrow from the letter to the Hebrews. This is scalpel sharp, looking for what needs to be cut away to restore health.
Jesus looks at him, and Jesus loves him. Jesus loves him, not because of what he had accomplished, not because he is a good little boy who obeys all the rules. Jesus loves him because he sees in him a desire for exactly the kind of relationship with the Divine that Jesus could offer.
And out of that love, Jesus extends an incredible invitation: “Go sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”
As much as I do believe the Bible strongly urges us to take care of the poor and marginalized in our society, I don’t believe this passage is simply about condemning rich people for being rich. I think that if we only see that, we miss what it has to say to each of us, regardless of the size of our bank accounts.
This is about Jesus inviting us to set aside the things that keep us tied to the status quo, all those things that prevent us from entering fully into the life of discipleship and relationship with God and others.
For some it will be wealth—wealth that allows one to insulate himself from the suffering of this world, to deny our connection with and responsibility to all God’s people.
For some it will be relationship—family ties that prevent us from recognizing that every person is a brother and sister in Christ.
For some it will be the inability to see that they don’t have to stay stuck in old patterns, old resentments or guilt—they can’t see the new life Jesus is offering when he says, “leave all that behind and come follow me”—a life of non-attachment (to borrow a phrase from the Buddhists) to things so that we can be in authentic relationship with God, and through God with all of God’s creation: people, places and yes even things. Authentic relationship allows us to appreciate things—and people—without having to possess them.
For this man, he was tied down because “he had many possessions.” Ultimately, his faith was placed in things rather than God. So he was shocked and went away grieving. Despite his deep hunger for an answer, he couldn’t bring himself to let go of all he already had, couldn’t let go of the status quo, simply in hopes that Jesus had something better to offer.
The simple truth is, sometimes the things we possess end up possessing us.
How often do we not do what God calls us to do today because we don’t really trust God to take care of us tomorrow?
How often do we step back from the new thing God is doing in our midst because it requires that we let go of the old comfortable ways of being that may not be perfect but at least they are familiar?
Jesus is inviting us to be defined not by what we do or what we have or have been, but to instead claim and celebrate that unique status as a child of God and follower of Jesus.
I want to finish with one image from today’s passage from Hebrews which draws this together. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The story from the Gospel reminds us that when we do this, when we fall on our knees before Jesus and ask for help, we need to be prepared for what comes next. God’s not just going to fix things and send us back to life as it was.
God is going to extend a call—an invitation—to let go of everything else and take that Good News of grace and mercy out to others who are still seeking God, still hungry for some assurance that they, too, can have this new, eternal life that begins with the assurance that Jesus looks at us, and Jesus loves us, and Jesus invites us to join him in God’s kingdom which is at hand.