Jesus can be so extreme sometimes. Really! I mean there’s all that business about if your right hand offends you, cut it off. And his warning that it would be better to put a stone around your neck and jump into the lake than to cause one of his little ones to stumble and struggle. Not to mention all the business about losing your life to save it.
And then he comes up with his instruction to the rich man who was basically trying as hard as he could to be a good guy. “Sell all you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” I’m sure all the guy heard was the part about selling all you own and that’s the part we probably heard as well and it’s impossible and completely unrealistic. What was Jesus thinking?
I think we all make some common mistakes when we hear language like this from Jesus. The first is that we don’t pay any attention to it. We may think it has nothing to do with us because we’re not rich. Or we may think it’s completely idealistic and therefore can be ignored. We decide we just won’t pay that much attention to these kind of crazy ideas from Jesus.
Of course another mistake is that we read this as a form of judgement against rich people. Ah ha, we think! Clearly those stinking rich people are being selfish and greedy and need to give up what they’ve got and give it all away to the poor. Jesus said so. I remember in my early days as a priest I was so mad at Bill Gates. While I knew of widowed parishioners who were sacrificially giving 10% of their resources to charity, in his early days at Microsoft he was giving a paltry .03%. I felt absolutely certain in my judgement of him and I think I even said so in a sermon! I’ve had to reconsider that position many times over as I hear about the ways he is now trying to give away nearly everything he has amassed to solve problems for the most vulnerable in our world.
I’ve also heard many well-meaning preachers use this text as a way to encourage the congregation to adopt a percentage giving discipline during the fall season of fund-raising for congregations by saying that really God demands 100% so if we’re only asking for 5-10% for your pledge, you’re getting off easy!
The reason I think these interpretations are mistakes is because they miss the main points of this interaction between Jesus and the rich man. One of the most important points is that the man was desperate and anxious and needy. He came before Jesus and interrupted him by throwing himself on his knees in front of Jesus. He had great riches, yes and a good life but he was missing something.
He was longing for more and he was afraid that he might be missing out on what was most important. This is a man with a great spiritual need in the midst of all his material abundance. He has the goods but he lacks the ultimate Good.
It’s also important to note that Jesus loved him. Jesus didn’t judge him. Jesus didn’t need his money to run his operation. Jesus didn’t tell everyone to sell everything they have. Jesus looked at this particular man at this critical time with love and offered him the best hope the guy had of meeting his deepest longing. And Jesus promised him exactly what we needed. If the man heeded Jesus’ words he would have the heavenly treasure he sought, security, joy, peace and a deep purpose. Jesus offered him what he didn’t always offer everyone, the chance to follow him, to be close to Jesus, to experience the power and love and glory of God up close and personal. What Jesus was inviting the rich man to is nothing less than a life-giving relationship with God that would be offer riches greater than he could ever ask or imagine.
I met such a rich man during my walk on the Camino this past month through northern Spain. We had stopped for a night at a pretty poor hostel where two brothers had prepared for us a simple meal. There were about 25 pilgrims sitting on benches around a long table. I chose to sit next to Dennis who seemed to be more obnoxious that most of the pilgrims I had met. I was curious why this man seemed so arrogant and edgy. My finely tuned pastoral skills were telling me something was going on with him!
Most pilgrim conversations are about how far you’ve come and where you’re staying next and where you’re from. Dennis made it clear that although he was Irish, he had been trained in England. He also made sure I realized that he was walking much further and faster each day than I was (which wasn’t hard to do since I was pretty slow!) He also mentioned the many places all over the world he was familiar with. He had just retired at age 40 from a career with a global corporation that had him traveling 3 weeks out of 4. In other words, in very short order he made it clear to me that he was richer, fitter and smarter than me and possibly most of the people on the Camino. He was obnoxious and I couldn’t imagine what had driven him to spend over a month of his life walking in all kinds of weather, sleeping in dormitories with smelly, snoring people and eating the most basic food in simple alburgues.
I decided to ask him about his reasons. Something very surprising for both of us happened. He told me that he was trying to stay only in hostels run by the church. He also said that he had tried to walk one day in silence which was difficult for him, and I could believe it given his tendency to dominate conversation. Then he finally got real. He said he had decided to give away one thing every day. Like many on the Camino he had packed too much stuff. I’m sure in his own life he had too much stuff. So every day he tried to share something. By this point in the journey he had to buy a new shirt because he was running out of things to give away.
Finally he pulled a black pocket watch out and showed it to me. On the final day of the Camino when he reached the Cathedral at Santiago, he planned to give away his watch. And then he started to tear up. He finally looked right at me and at that moment I loved him. He said the watch wasn’t that valuable but that he had had it since he was 14. It would be really difficult for him to let it go.
For one moment this rich man got real. I saw his heart and his need. He was vulnerable and open and breaking. I offered to pray for him on the journey, thinking that I would probably never see him again since he would be walking so much faster than I.
The conversation changed. His mask came back on. He tried to get me to drink more wine and then ignored me for the rest of the meal. I did see him again. But he had shut down again. He made it clear that he had other people to walk with who were his friends and that he was going so much faster. His vulnerability which was his salvation, had also made him scared and insecure so he had to turn me away and walk away. And I grieved for him. And I pray for him. And I love him.
What Jesus wants for the rich man is the same thing he wants for Dennis and for me and for you. He wants us to have the most abundant, free life possible. He invites to live as part of God’s kingdom where there is always more than enough so that we can share generously what we have. He gives us brothers and sisters on the journey so that we never walk alone or without companionship. We cannot let go of more than God will give.
There is a saying on the pilgrimage, “The Camino provides.” People repeat this with great faith because they have experienced it in miraculous ways. We know who it is that makes that provision possible. It is the Spirit of God calling all of us to a life of generosity and love that brings to life the very Kingdom of God. You don’t have to walk hundreds of miles through all kinds of weather, you don’t have to sell everything you own or leave your family and quit your job to experience this radical provision of God. All you have to do is follow Jesus and be open to the Spirit. All around us there are other “Dennis’s” longing for love and meaning and purpose. They want to be free from the race to succeed and accumulate and look good. The good news is that Jesus looks at each of us in love. He promises us treasure in heaven and he calls us to a radical discipleship that leads to life eternal.
Canon Britt Olson