What Must I Do? (10/14/2012)


Rev. Stacy Swain

Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
This encounter between Jesus and the rich man in the Gospel today must have made a huge impression on the new community that was following Jesus. For it is included not just in the Gospel of Mark that Frank read for us today, but in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel as well. And all three Gospels place this story about two thirds of the way through the book, when Jesus is turning his mission towards Jerusalem, when the stakes are high, when what is means to be a disciple of Jesus, to follow him, has been talked about but when choices are now needing to be made and actions taken.

But before step into the story, let us pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The young man in the story today has a good heart. He has been trying to do what is right. Trying to walk in the path of righteousness, trying to do just what it is that God requires. And since people in that time tended to see material wealth as a sign of divine favor, it appears that he has been doing it all quite well. That God is pleased with him. For he is rich, with lots of possessions.

And being materially wealth means that he is also most likely highly respected and powerful. Luke even calls him a ruler. So here is a man who exemplifies the faith, who is well off, and well respected in his community.

And yet, despite all of this, there is a disquiet within him. There is something that is troubling him, keeping him from the self satisfied assurance that at least based on outward appearance, ought to be his.

It is this deep unease that propelled him out into the street that day.

I imagine that up until this point he had been fighting it. For all the time Jesus had been in town teaching and preaching he had kept his distance. But, I imagine, the word, came to him early that morning. Maybe from one of his servants who, while out sweeping in front of the house, saw Jesus and the twelve moving quietly down the dusty street in the predawn light. And maybe she turned and ran to her master telling him that Jesus and the disciples were “getting ready to move on.”

And who knows. Maybe his servant’s news woke him from troubled sleep. Or maybe he was already up and at prayer and the cusp of dawn spoke possibility to him.

Whatever it was, it was enough to stir this man from where he was and propel him to run out to Jesus. Now we know that in this time men, especially respectable men did not run. Respectable men had all the time in the world, people waited for them. Running was to put oneself in subservient position to someone else. But that is exactly what this well off man does today. He hitches up his fine robes and runs. And I imagine he does so because he fears he may just be missing the opportunity of a lifetime and the shame he may face in running is nothing compared to the possibly losing a chance to finally be at peace, with this man Jesus, who has changed the lives of so many.

So he runs and catches up with Jesus and the disciples and then rounding on Jesus, he kneels down in the dirt before him. It must have been a startling site, the fine young man in his fine robes kneeling down before this itinerant preacher in the predawn light.

But before the young man can change his mind he speaks the disquiet on his heart. He asks “Teacher, good teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life? As if to say, “Is all of this, all that I have set my life about, dedicated myself to….enough?”

Now I imagine the intensity of Jesus’ gaze as he takes in this man and the question that now hangs in the air between them.

Jesus has heard this question before. A few chapters ago this same

question was asked of him by a Pharisee. That time Jesus answered “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10: 27). And when the man countered by asking “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus went on to tell the story of the good Samaritan — the one who set aside his own needs to tend of the one who had fallen into the hands of robbers who had beat him leaving him half dead. And of the Priest, the Levite those whose lives were suppose to exemplify what God required, but walked by the man in need that day.

I imagine Jesus was remembering that encounter as he gazed down at the man now before him.

And then Jesus speaks and says: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Ouch. For good is exactly what the young man believes he too is. Racking up good points is exactly what this man’s life has been about. Where does that leave the man if proving goodness is suddenly off the table? If goodness if God’s alone.

Seeing his confusion, Jesus continues, “you know the commandments” and then interestingly Jesus lists just those of the Ten Commandments that pertain to right relationship with others. And then even throws in an extra one from the teaching of the book of Deuteronomy, “you shall not defraud.”

And sensing a life line, the man quickly replies that he has been doing all of this, living in this way ever sense his youth. And for a moment, I imagine the man is so relieved. The disquiet he has been feeling is really nothing at all. All is well, he is good. And all this will surely get him to what he thinks is the end goal of it all — of eternal life with God, right?

Now even though up until this point Jesus and the young man I am sure must have been in a face to face in conversation, the text suggests a qualitative shift in how Jesus is sees the man at this point. Mark writes “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” .

The power of this kind of knowing is spoken of in the passage from the book of Hebrews today. God “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4: 12-13).

“Jesus, looking at the man, loved him.” I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in scripture. Jesus looks at this man and sees his hunger, his hopes, and he loves him. Jesus sees his accomplishments and his failings, and he loves him. Jesus sees his pride and his promise and he loves him. Jesus sees his boldness and his hiding and he loves him. Can there be two more hopeful assertions in all the biblical texts? That we can be fully seen and that we can be fully loved by God?!

For me this is the climax of the story. What a witness to the man to be able to vulnerable enough to be seen and witness to God who loves the big sloppy, naked mess of who we truly are.

But because God is working always on our behalf to deliver us into the fullness of life that God intends for each and every one of us, Jesus does not stop there in that beautiful moment of looking and loving. Jesus continues by speaking to what he has seen with love within the heart of the man.

Jesus says: “You lack one thing.” And then instructs the young man to “Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.”

Now much of biblical commentary sees the point of this story to be a critique of money and wealth and how we can be so caught up with acquiring and the status it brings that we become so singularly focused with our own well being that we lose sight of God and the well being of our neighbor.

But while all of that is valid and important, and certainly a teaching in this story, I believe there is also something more here for us as well. For what I find it fascinating that we never hear what it is that this man is lacking. We never find out what Jesus saw when he looked at this man and loved him. Jesus said, “you lack one thing” but we don’t hear what was that one thing that the man lacked? What was it that by selling his possessions he would finally be able to obtain?

Was it a lack of trust? A lack of hope? A lack of a community of fellow seekers to support and encourage him in growing in love of God and neighbor. Was it a lack of compassion? We don’t know. All we know is that the man lacked one thing and that his wealth was somehow an obstacle for him in obtaining what it was he lacked.

We don’t know what the man lacked and we may not even know what it is that is lacking in us. What is it about us, that in our heart of hearts makes us uneasy, disquieted, not really at peace? What are we lacking? What does Jesus see in us?

We may not know at this point, but one thing we can know is that the way to obtain whatever it is that we lack is found through getting up and following Jesus right now. And what ever it is that prevents us from doing just that may be give us some insight in what it is we are lacking.

I think what makes this story so compelling is that first it shows that that even the one who seemingly has it all is lacking and two that in our lack and need we are not only loved but called to follow Jesus. The good news in this story is that the invitation to follow Jesus comes in the midst of our deficiency. We follow Jesus not because we are good. Not because we have figured out what we need to do and are at peace. Instead we follow Jesus because we are lacking, because we question and are seeking. Because there is disquiet within us.

You know the other curious thing about this story is that we really don’t know how it ends. We don’t really know what the man decided to do. We know “he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” But was he grieving because he really wanted to follow Jesus but just could not bring himself to part with his status and security? Or was he grieving because he decided to follow Jesus and that meant that he now had to let go of that which he had worked so hard to obtain. Following Jesus is not easy. It may ask that we let go of some things and ways of being that we have been holding onto tightly for years.

We don’t know how it turned out for this young man. Do we know how it will turn out for us? Amen.