Year B, Pentecost 20
This Gospel reading is a very hard text to read and it is an perilous text to preach. I do not feel that I can preach this text with integrity as I have not done what Jesus asks of the rich man in this story. I was called to the priesthood and I certainly gave some things up as a result, but I didn’t give up most things. In our Gospel, Jesus was approached by a man asking him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded in the expected way by reciting a few of the commandments. The man responded that he had been keeping all these commandments from his youth. That is impressive. All of them. From his youth. One would have expected a pat on the back from Jesus, or maybe a high five. Yet, there were no encouraging words from Jesus in response.
The text does say that Jesus looked at him and loved him. He probably even saw something special in him as he asked the man to come and follow him. That is what he said to his disciples when he called them. Who knows, this man could have been number 13. But as with the other disciples, the call did not come without some sacrifice. He said, “You lack one thing, go, sell what you own, and give money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
You lack one thing….it sounds like it should not be a big thing, right? He had followed all the commandments…since his youth. Now Jesus was asking him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. He could not do it. He walked away. He was the one person in the Gospel who Jesus called, but refused to follow. Why? Because he had many possessions. He could not part with them, even if it meant having treasure in heaven, even if it meant eternal life.
If you were to read the stories of Jesus calling the 12 disciples, you will see that Jesus did not ask them to sell everything. All he did was ask them to follow him. In each of those stories, we are told that they dropped their nets, left everything and followed him. Was it easier for them because they did not have much money or possessions? Probably not–because when the text says that they left everything, it wasn’t just about leaving their possessions, it was about leaving their home and their families. I like to think that they didn’t assume it would be a permanent departure, because it’s hard to imagine Jesus wanting people to leave their family. But that’s just what I like to assume because it’s easier and a lot more palatable.
There are not a lot of people who could preach this text with integrity. I don’t actually know anyone who gave everything up to follow Jesus. I know of people. I’ve heard of them, but they are few and far between. So what are we everyday Christians to make of this difficult, seemingly impossible demand of Jesus? I first looked at the readings a couple weeks ago, knowing this would be Celebration Sunday, which is when we ask people to make a commitment to the church in the form of a pledge. Perfect I thought. This is all about giving money away and how important it is to give money to places like the church, that helps those who are poor—either figuratively helping the poor in Spirit, or literally helping the hungry and needy. Some people on the vestry (I will not name any names) keep telling me I need to preach more about money and stewardship. It’s not my strength. But I thought, well this will give me the perfect opportunity. How can I preach this text and not talk about money?
Alas, this text is a little more complicated. And I am not just saying that because I don’t like talking about money. Jesus isn’t telling this man he needs to give because there are needy people and non-profits doing good work. Nope. He is telling this man what he needs to do to be a good disciple. Now, normally when we talk about stewardship, we talk about the abundance of what God has given us and the many way that we can return those gifts to God. Yet in this passage, Jesus doesn’t say, “Look, you have so much, how about returning some of it?” He doesn’t lead with abundance or generosity. He says, “You lack one thing…” He didn’t remind the man what he had, he told him what he was lacking.
When I thought about people who had given a great deal up to follow Jesus, I thought of Pope Francis. I looked to see if I could find anything he had written about this passage. I thought, surely, if someone could preach authentically on this text, it would be him. I could only find one paragraph that came from one of his weekly addresses. He focused on a part that I had never considered. When Jesus reminded the man of the commandments, the man responded, “I have kept all these from my youth…” My youth. Pope Francis wrote that many of us never mature spiritually past our youth. It’s as if we stop growing spiritually at the age of 18. He said that one of the ways that we mature spiritually is when we begin to accept our own limits, when we become aware of what is truly missing from our lives. We can all probably name all the physical things we need. We need a better job, a nicer home, more vacation time, better grades, better relationships with our family and friends. But how many of truly know what we are lacking spiritually.
Consider this man’s original question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wanted to know what he could do. He used the word inherit, because that was what his focus was in life. Therefore, Jesus could immediately see what he was missing, what he was lacking. He needed to let go to the things he acquired. He had let his possessions possess him.
Now I could turn it around and say, “Therefore, we all need to figure out what we are missing, what we need to be closer to God.” That would be a fair interpretation of this text. But I think it also lets us off the hook too easily. Because my guess is that for a lot of us, it is our possessions—those things that we worked so hard to earn that create barriers in our relationship with God and other people. What Jesus reminds us in this reading and other places in scripture is that none of what we have is ours. We didn’t earn it. It was given to us. We certainly can’t take it with us from this life to the next. The more easily we can let go of those physical things, the freer we will be.
Yes, consider what you lack in your relationship to God. Ask God what you need to be a better disciple. God’s probably not going to tell you to give everything away and leave family and friends. However, there is a good chance God will tell you something that will be hard, something you might now want to do. Then, I pray that you will consider pledging to the church, pledging not just financially, but pledging your time. There are few things in life more precious than time. If God is giving us eternal life, then surely we can give God some of our time in this life. And while we may lack something in terms of our relationship with God, every one of us has an abundance of gifts, some of which we don’t even know we possess because other things keep distracting us. Therefore, let’s not perceive this call from Jesus to give things up as a deprivation. Instead, let us see it as an invitation to live more fully and abundantly into the life God has called us.