Proper 23 / Year B
In the bible, most often when a person approaches Jesus and asks a question it is to test or to trap him. This morning, however, he meets a person who is a genuine seeker. Mark does not tell us anything about the man at the outset of the encounter (Matthew tells us he is young, while Luke lets us know he is a “ruler” – perhaps a person with administrative authority of some sort). Still, we learn a lot about him when he kneels before Jesus and addresses him. He is sincere and he is reverential.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is an interesting question and an interesting way to ask it. Why is a young person concerned about eternal life? And why does he want to “inherit” it? Typically, you only inherit something when someone else passes away. We might expect him to ask “what must I do to earn eternal life or to merit eternal life or to be rewarded with eternal life.”
In his answer, Jesus takes the question in this direction. “You know the commandments…” It is as if Jesus is saying “Be a good person and you will receive eternal life.” You can almost sense the man’s relief, “I have kept the commandments since my youth.” Now he can check off the box about receiving eternal life and go about his business in peace. His spiritual worries now are behind him.
Except two things happen. The text tells us Jesus looks at the person and loves him. He sees the man for who he is and loves him deeply. And because he loves him, Jesus wants more for the man than eternal life in the great by-and-by. Jesus wants him to experience the fullness of life in this life in the here and now. He invites him to become a part of the Kingdom of God by following him on the way.
“There is one thing you lack,” Jesus says to him. “There is something holding you back. Go and sell all you own, give the money to the poor so that you might build up treasures in heaven, and come follow me.” Think about it. If the man accepts he will become the thirteenth Apostle. The only thing standing between him and sainthood is a yard sale! But he is at a point in life where he values accumulating and retaining. He is nowhere near ready to let go and to pass on. The text tells us he goes away “grieving” because he has many possessions. How ironic that had he been willing to die to self he would be celebrating, but because he clings to his present life he is distressed.
A colleague of mine posted this quote of Archibald Macleish, the American born poet of the last century:
Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.
Can there be a more challenging question than “What do you lack?” What is holding you back from participating fully in the life God offers to you. Jesus sees you and Jesus loves you and because he sees and loves you he invites you to be all in. What is holding you back?
Maybe you are like this man and are too invested in what you have to let go. Perhaps you are so over-committed, there simply is no way to fit anything else into your already crammed calendar. I suspect some of us see ourselves as unremarkable or unworthy and doubt Jesus could ever use us to do anything of merit or value. Maybe you think you are too old, or in bad health, or not possessing enough education.
I suspect something holding back many of us is that we have not heard Jesus invite us to follow. And the invitation is different for each of us. Years ago I heard God invite me to the ordained ministry. It is not a better calling than yours, just different from yours. The group who is participating in the Women’s Bible Study spends over an hour a day doing reading and homework. Each has responded to an invitation to deeper knowledge and understanding. Some of you have responded to Jesus’ invitation to service in our community. Do you lack a sense of what God is inviting you to do?
Think about the people Jesus met. He does not ask the Samaritan woman at the well to follow him. Legion, the man released from many demons, wants to follow Jesus, but is directed to remain in his hometown, perhaps as a witness of healing and new life. The person we meet today is invited to follow Jesus on the way and thus must take extraordinary measures to comply. And what the invitation requires of him he is unwilling to do.
What is Jesus’ invitation to you at this point in your life, what does it require, and what is holding you back?