I have always really liked the story of the Rich Young Man. It appeals to my inner teen age rebel. I must confess that I tend to be suspect of excessive amounts of money. Can I really believe that a bank manager or a CEO of multinational company has really earned their money in a moral way? When I first looked at this story I felt like cheering “Yes, Jesus, Way to Stick it to the Man!” There is no love loss between me and my imaginary “Man.” The “Man” I can blame all the injustices of the world. To quote one of my 2x the Mono songs “I hate the Man and the Man hates me.”
But I need to be careful with all my thoughts of “raging against the economic machine.” Being rich isn’t exactly a specific number; it is more of a comparison of who is standing next to you. I might look at someone who is making $80,000 a year and say “that guy is rich,” but he might look at himself and completely disagree. He might look at a millionaire he read about in the paper and say “No, I’m just average, that guy he is rich!”
Most people in my circle of family and peers would never accuse me of being rich. But what do I like to a senior who is on a fixed income? Or to someone who finds them self living in a shelter? I think in those cases I’m looking pretty rich.
When I was in high school I took a geography course called World Issues. In the class I wrote a very socialist essay about basic human rights relating to homelessness. I would just like to say that in my young mind I had fixed that whole problem. I handed that ground breaking essay in and was waiting to get it back with a nice big fat “A” on it. I was more than a little surprised when I got the essay back. I looked down at my masterpiece and saw a big red “C” on it with a paragraph of comments.
Now I wasn’t really an “A” student so I was use to the red comments (often informing me of all my spelling mistakes and grammatical errors). I was also use to the comments referring to my insufficient bibliography, and lack of footnotes and improper use of quotations.
But these red comments didn’t talk about any of those things. I had lots of great quotes about homelessness, poverty and basic human rights. I had a large bibliography. I had a couple spelling mistakes circled but nothing deserving of a “C.” Where did I go wrong?
My teacher wrote me a short letter on the back of my essay saying something like this,
“Randy, glad you are thinking about issues of homelessness and poverty, but you were missing examples of poverty and statistics from around the world. All the quotes you used were focused on Canada and the United States. You need to know that there are homeless people all around the world that would look at the poor people in our country as being richer then they could ever imagine.”
So that was my high school introduction to being a Rich Young Man.
I want to fast forward a bit and tell you another story. As many of you know I spent a number of years working for an automotive company building vans and SUVs. In case I say anything bad about my former job I won’t name the company (but it does rhyme with Fonda). I made good money making vans and hated the job. Most of the employees hated the job but loved the money. I thought of myself as quite well off, possibly even rich. My colleagues wouldn’t have considered themselves rich but they would admit to doing OK. We all made pretty much exactly the same amount of money, which is funny because I had one friend who worked for “Fonda” who was living like he was very poor. I saw this guy (whom everybody liked) looking really sad, and I asked him “What’s wrong?” He said he was hungry, and that he had no money left and all that he had in his fridge was a jar of pickles. He was actually eating all his meals at the company cafeteria (which was saying a lot about his situation). We didn’t have to carry cash inside the factory because our ID card could be used to pay for food at the cafeteria, they would just debit our next week’s pay cheque, that is how this guys was getting by till his next cheque, he figured out he could eat off his next week’s pay. Where did all his money go? He hit the casino hard on the weekend and spent his whole cheque. Here was a guy who made good money but through some bad choices and addictions had become the “working poor.”
I share booth of these stories today to blur the lines of who is rich and who is poor. When we are looking at this room, being in a country like Canada all of us in this room are in some ways rich and in other ways poor. In this light let’s look back at the snap shot we read earlier about an encounter Jesus had with a unique young man.
What can we learn about this young man? He showed Jesus a lot of respect; he knelt down before Jesus and called him “Lord.” People like activist Shane Claiborne like to talk about how this was a title reserved for someone like Cesar. He shows even more respect by calling Jesus a Good Teacher. It doesn’t seem that he had the sarcasm behind these remarks that we might see from some of religious leaders who were often trying to trap Jesus with their questions. This guy was asking a real question and we see Jesus honouring the young man with a real answer.
Q: “Good Teacher, what can I do to have Eternal Life?”
A: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good. You know the commandments. `Do not murder. Be faithful in marriage. Do not steal. Do not tell lies about others. Do not cheat. Respect your father and mother.’”
The Young man looks at the list and says “Yep, yep, yep, check, check, check, I got all those. What else?” I find it kind of funny that the young man pressed Jesus. He just got a short list; the 10 commandments got shortened down to 5. By human standards they were five commandments he could have conceivably complied with. Murder, faithful in marriage, theft, all pretty cut and dry stuff that the young man could have conceivably had no issues with. Telling lies about others? No one is perfect, so it is hard to conceive no lies at all but no deliberate lies about others? OK maybe he was good there, No Cheating, I myself have cheated on the occasional spelling test when I was young but have never done any cheating on something important like a board game or my taxes. So I can grant the young man the possibility of not being a cheater.
Respect your Father and Mother? If Jesus was being strict on this then I would have to say that the young man was being a little brash here. No disrespect? Come on not even when you were 13 and started getting into the first century equivalent to Punk Rock? Well let’s assume Jesus was talking about a wider definition of respect; one that accounted for natural childhood developmental stages that lead to defiance. The man was Rich, so he probably took care of his parents in their old age, showing them the respect that was due to them in the society of the time.
After the young fellow takes account of his life he says, “Teacher, I have obeyed all these commandments since I was a young man.” When I read those words I imagine them said with a little bit of hurt and sadness. That rich young man should have felt pretty good; he had just hit the eternal life jackpot. but it seems he had a nagging feeling somewhere inside of him and I think Jesus could see his disappointment.
We are told in the gospel of Mathew that “Jesus looked closely at the (young) man. (and) He liked him…” I think Jesus saw that this guy wasn’t satisfied with Jesus’ answer and that they both knew that there was something missing. Jesus honours this man’s real questioning with a real answer, “There’s one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me.” We are told that “When the man heard Jesus say this, he went away gloomy and sad because he was very rich.”
I don’t think the Rich Young Man was angry with Jesus, and I think he actually believed Jesus. He went away sad. Often we become sad when we learn a sad truth, like a child who finds out their parents aren’t perfect, or that there isn’t actually an Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Clause (sorry to break the news to you kids, that’s the sad truth). A child who finds out the truth about one of our holiday friends and doesn’t believe the adult who just told them “by the way your dad is the one leaving a nickel under your pillow” gets mad. You can hear the little squeaky voice in defiance say “No! There is a Tooth Fairy, my dad told me so!” Anger shows disbelief, sadness shows a realization of a truth you didn’t want to know.
We don’t know what happened to this young man afterwards but I really hold on to the statement that Jesus liked the guy, he told him what he needed to hear and then he lets him go digest it.
He then tells his closest followers what they need to hear. “It’s hard for rich people to get into God’s kingdom!” “It’s terribly hard to get into God’s kingdom! In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom.”
We are told that the disciples are shocked at this, and they start asking some of their own questions. “How can anyone ever be saved?“ They were probably thinking to themselves “If this good successful rich person can’t make it into heaven, there is no hope for us; we know we haven’t even kept the basic 10 commandments, we are liars, cheaters, some of us are even tax collectors.”
Just to step back into my “I hate the Man” mindset for a minute; I do think that money has lots of bad stuff attached to it. There are lots of evil ways people make money. There is also always the danger in trusting more in money then in God. Even without knowing it I could be hurting people with my money; I could buy sneakers made in a sweatshop. I could be living in unfair luxury because I always have food and other people are starving to death. I think everyone in this room would be aware of all the dangers money can pose to our spiritual morality, and these are good things to be thinking about, sad truths we need to wrestle through and be accountable to God for, and I don’t want to deny that this is part of what Jesus is talking about but Jesus doesn’t end there, He gives us hope. Jesus sees the eyes of his disciples learning a sad truth and says “There are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything.”
We all have stuff that is holding us back, stuff that is keeping us from following Jesus. I can’t tell you what it is, but I would be willing to bet that if you are honest with yourself, you have a good idea what that might be. Some of us have really visible things holding us back and others of us like the Rich Man are able to hide with in society’s basic expectations of us.
Jesus knows we aren’t perfect that’s why he is so quick to say “Only God is Good.” Jesus wants us to follow him to come be with him and his community of followers. He asks us to give up things that keep us from being with him. He doesn’t expect perfection, but he does ask us to keep listening to the little nudges, the nagging questions, to not go it alone, to not let anything get in the way of following Him. He asks us to look at the sad truths, and yes be sad but to not despair because “God can do anything.”
- Thread a needle, and while you are threading the needle talk about what you think Jesus was saying when “It’s terribly hard to get into God’s kingdom! In fact, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s kingdom.”
- Take turns stitching the thread with the needle through a piece of cloth. Let the stitches represent things that you feel God might be asking of you. If you are brave feel free to share some of those things with the group, sometimes extra voices can bring wisdom, or at least understanding.
- Talk about any analogies you see with the Thread, the Cloth and Needle, the Eye. Which one is the kingdom? The Obstacle? Yourself? God?