By Timothy E. Kimbrough
Every Sunday — well, most Sundays of the year — the People of God assembled for worship will hear four passages from Scripture read or sung to inspire, to connect us with our forebears in the faith, to present us with the overarching narrative of God’s saving work in the world, and to challenge us afresh with the very presence of Christ. The Word of God, we say, is declared. God speaks to us directly, says the Prayer Book Catechism, in the words of Scripture.
The writer of the book of Hebrews puts a fine point on it: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him 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 4:12ff.). There’s a delightful and fearful melding of written word and the person of Jesus here that mysteriously captures the sense of wonder and awe in the very reading of the text. These are the words of life that convict, convert, and bring us to the foot of the cross, to the door of the empty tomb, and onward to the Mount of Olives.
The student of history may require that you first deconstruct the text before its reading. One needs to strip away the accretions of history, they might say, along with the scribal gloss and whatever the first authors didn’t really intend. The student of history, the language scholar, the scientist, can all bring important bits to our understanding of a passage. But their work often values the progress and preservation of history over the unfolding majesty of God from before time, throughout time, and beyond time.
Oh, but we almost didn’t have this book of the Bible were it not for this or that Council of the Church. Oh, but this textual variant suggests a different meaning in the Alexandrian family of manuscripts. Oh, but this book that didn’t make into the Bible seems to challenge Mark’s presentation in today’s reading. If we’re not careful the voice of God, the raw, unadulterated challenge of God, can be obscured in the rush to get your historical context just right.
The high view of Scripture, on the other hand, would have us value each word. It would have us hold and cradle each jot and tittle, savoring the grace, love, challenge, and scandal it brings into our lives. The high view of Scripture will make you uncomfortable. So much so that we’d almost prefer to get lost in the scholar’s maze of qualifiers.
The scandal of this morning’s gospel lesson is so central to our life in Christ. And yet its reality is so harsh as to require some kind of moderating gloss. When the lesson introduced the rich young ruler, you may have raced ahead to the end of the passage: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25) and worked to insert your own gloss (no matter your level of income). You may have thought, ‘I’m not rich. I’m not rich like this guy. This story is not meant for me.’
The rich man. Another gospel tells us he is young. He is a man with authority beyond his years. He is up and coming. He has leisure time. He is brash but seemingly sincere. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus is interested and takes time out from his travel preparations to respond. But lest you be quickly convinced of the young man’s sincerity, note how Jesus immediately picks up on the excessive flattery—almost muttering under his breath. “Good teacher? Good teacher? What does he mean “Good” teacher? No one is good but God.” It’s an aside; not central to the main event, and yet it is enough to let us know Jesus has already identified ulterior motives.
Next Jesus offers the obvious. “You look for eternal life? Have you given you heart and soul to God?” You know the commandments. You have your answer. But the young man confuses Torah observance with finishing-school etiquette, manners, and social grace. “The commandments? Sure, I know ’em. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. No problem. I’ve kept them since I was young. What kind of household do you think I was raised in?”
He’s responded with near insolence to the rabbi. It would have been Jesus’ right to give him a tongue lashing like he has never had before. Bring out the whips and clear the Temple. But Jesus shows restraint; not simply for the sake of patience but on account of the compassion he feels for a young man so completely self-possessed. The text reads simply, “and Jesus loved him.” You almost want Jesus to despise him. But he loves him. You almost want Jesus to turn his back and get on with his journey. But he loves him. You almost hope that Jesus would be at the very least less patient. But no, he loves him. And in that love he makes yet another attempt to bridge the gap.
“You didn’t understand my references to Torah, to heart and soul? Okay. Let’s try this. You want eternal life? You want a closer relationship with God? Go and sell what you have, and give it to the poor.”
This time—silence. Complete silence. His jaw drops. He shakes his head and slowly walks away. The cynic will say the young man had his bluff called. The unsuspecting crowd will cheer like a Greek chorus. But the rabbi, the rabbi who loved him, cries the tears of one who has known the embrace of God and will know its absence.
The young man, I believe, was sincere in his pursuit of eternal life. Only for him eternal life, life in its fullness, was a commodity to be traded. His “what must I do” might just as well have read, “How must will it cost?” What will God require in exchange for eternal life? The answer came: complete and utter vulnerability. Complete and utter dependence on God. Don’t run the cost-benefit analysis. The young ruler did and it left him looking for other bargains.
To sell all that he had and to give it away would have meant forfeiting every asset in the portfolio. There’d be nothing left with which to bargain. No value. No worth. Nothing—a complete loss of identity. That’s why it’s so hard for the wealthy (anyone with any possession) to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Impossible? No. Everything is possible with God. Difficult? Yes—for the cult of possession challenges our allegiance to God and would replace the cross with the idol of self-preservation on the altar of your heart.
Are you still working on your gloss of the text? Are you still wondering what the “middle way” reading of this text might be? Are you thinking that only a literalist would think that Jesus actually meant “sell everything”? He’s a teacher, a good teacher. We just need to search for his point a little more today.
Okay. Let’s go with that for a moment. Let’s assume that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, a little over the top, for the purpose of homiletic shock value. He didn’t mean sell everything. He just meant don’t hold on to it so tightly and give some of it to the poor, if only to help them in their lot in life. He might more reasonably have said, “Go sell half of what you have.” No, no wait a minute, don’t tell me to go sell half of what I have, I couldn’t pay the bills then. Okay. Okay. “Go sell a quarter of what you have.” Well now, wait a minute. Sell a quarter of what I have? That still sort turns things upside down for me. Okay. Okay. Just take 10 percent of what you have … or maybe 5 percent of what you have. Okay. Okay. Just be sure to remember the poor every now and then.
If there was still some meaning, some teaching, hidden in the hyperbole, then let’s agree—there’s no amount here, no percentage, no call to remembrance, that we will gladly hear, embrace, and incorporate into our lives. You can’t make this teaching of Jesus palatable. It’s all outrageous.
It’s not the remembering the poor. It’s not the development of charitable character. It’s not finding the right balance in your pursuit of cultural comfort. It’s about becoming completely and wholly vulnerable to God. This is why if you don’t sell what you have and give it away, it will be taken from you when you die. You don’t get to meet God with your pockets full and a U-Haul in tow.
The story of the rich young ruler is a call story gone awry. Did you notice that Jesus says to him, “Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor … and come, follow me”? Come, follow me. The very same words said to each of the disciples. We could have had 13! But the rich young ruler turns away, not willing to risk leaving “his nets.”
Come and follow me. That call comes to you every morning of every day. It comes by the voice of Jesus, who would have you clear the altar of your heart—leaving room only for the majesty of God. It comes in the rhythm of your daily prayer. It comes in the call to offer up acts of mercy. It comes in the acknowledgment of and advocacy for the poor. It comes in the witness for peace. It comes in the opportunity to serve. It comes in the privilege of declaring this life-saving gospel to the world. It comes in the challenge to tithe.
Will you follow Jesus this morning? Will you leave your nets behind? Will you, in abandoning all that you have to the poor, become vulnerable to the awesome, loving gaze of your Savior? Come and follow me, says the Savior. Leave every care and idol of this world behind. Follow me into my death and resurrection. For there you will find life eternal. There you will find the kingdom of heaven in all its fullness. There you will find the mystery and wonder of [human thriving and] the life abundant.
The Very Rev. Timothy E. Kimbrough is dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville.