Our passage today is one of those really difficult one’s that many people have struggled with.
Some people have taken the passage at face-value and have quite literally sold all their possessions and devoted their lives to the poor, and in doing so have sometimes made a huge impact on the world and in the lives of those they have given themselves to serve.
Others have read the passage with discomfort and perhaps even fear that they might not make it into heaven because they are unable to sell all they have and give it to the poor. For such people, the passage seems to come as a judgement because they just can’t live up to it’s demanding expectations.
Often underlying this sense of judgement is a dreadful fear that fundamentally, God can’t actually be trusted and that given the slightest mistake or weakness God is going to throw us into hell.
I believe that not only is that unhelpful, but it is also untrue.
Firstly I believe that whenever we read difficult passages in the Bible it is really important that we remind ourselves of the underlying fact that God loves us beyond our ability to comprehend. Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say that God is not waiting to see how many people he can throw into hell. God is waiting to see how many people he can drag up into heaven. And the hell that God is seeking to save us from is not an eternal hell of God’s making, but rather a temporary hell of our own making.
And so, when we read a difficult passage like this one today, I believe that we need to read it with with an underlying understanding of God’s infinite love for us an all people and that God’s love for us far exceeds any human conception of love that we can have.
Secondly, when looking at this specific passage, Is it possible that Jesus’s interaction with the rich young man is not universally applicable but was a specific message to a specific person with a specific struggle?
What I do believe, is that even if this passage does not require all of us to sell all of our possessions and give them to the poor, it does invite us to reflect more deeply on our relationship with money and our relationship with our possessions and perhaps also, our relationship to the poor.
Before looking directly at the passage itself, I would like to tell another story that might help us to reflect more deeply on ourselves but that might also shed some light on the passage itself.
The story goes that a boat docked in a tiny Mexican fishing village. A tourist complimented the local fishermen on the quality of their fish and asked how long it took him to catch them.
"Not very long." they answered in unison. "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more?" The fishermen explained that their small catches were sufficient to meet their needs and those of their families.
"But what do you do with the rest of your time?"
"We sleep late, fish a little, play with our children, and take siestas with our wives. In the evenings, we go into the village to see our friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs. We have a full life."
The tourist interrupted,
"I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat."
"And after that?"
"With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant.
You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City!From there you can direct your huge new enterprise."
"How long would that take?"
"Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years." replied the tourist.
"And after that?"
"Afterwards? Well my friend, that's when it gets really interesting," answered the tourist, laughing."When your business gets really big, you can start buying and selling stocks and make millions!"
"Millions? Really? And after that?" asked the fishermen.
"After that you'll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and have a few drinks in the evening and enjoy your friends."
And the moral of this story is: Know where you're going in life. You may already be there!
This is an interesting and challenging story. It really invites us to think deeply about our worlds obsession with material wealth and possessions.... making money at all costs, even at the expense our well-being and quality of life.
As we turn again to the text, we read that the man who comes to Jesus is young and he is wealthy. Probably wealthy by inheritance, and yet all his wealth has left him unsatisfied. Unfulfilled. There is a depth of meaning that is missing in his life otherwise he wouldn’t be coming to speak to Jesus.
Isn't it fascinating that we are told that the Rich Young Man comes running to Jesus. Why is he running? Is he trying to catch a moment with Jesus in between meetings. Maybe he only has 5 minutes? Life is such a rush managing all his wealth.
In the midst of his rushing, he knows something is missing. He comes to speak to Jesus
The rich young man is sincere. He has kept the commandments. His wealth has not been obtained by dishonest means. But it still has not satisfied him.
He is looking for something deeper. In English translations we are told he is looking for Eternal Life.
Some suggest that “Eternal Life” is a poor English translation. One commentator says that Greek word for Eternal Life might be translated to mean something like “timelessness”... he is searching for that dimension of life that is not affected by the decay and change of the material world. Some commentators suggest that the term Eternal Life does not so much refer to a life that goes on for ever and ever, but rather a life with depth and meaning, a life of joy and fullness. From this perspective the Rich young man is wanting to discover a meaning and a quality of life that his wealth has not brought him. In fact, it seems that it is even possible that his wealth has become an obstacle.
Do we posses possessions? Or are we possessed by our possessions?
Jesus sees the genuineness of his searching, the sincerity of his longing, but he also sees how much this man is possessed by his own possessions. And yet, despite this, we read that Jesus gazed at him and loved him.
Even when we are our own worst enemies, and we undermine our own true and deeper happiness, we are loved by God.
The passage ends with the young man going away sad. He is too attached to his possessions to be able to part with them, even when his deeper happiness depends on it.
But the end of the story is not sadness but hope and good news. Jesus reminds us that what is impossible for us is possible for God. In God’s good time, God’s grace will work within each of us to accomplish that which we are unable to accomplish by ourselves. Jesus words suggest that in this passage, what is impossible for this young man will in the end, in God’s good time, be possible for God.