Jesus loves the young man who is being asked to give up everything in order to follow and the young man is very sad when he feels unable to let go. So how are we to understand this story as good news? (RCL Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; and Mark 10:17-31). Maybe because when we give up attachment to all that defines and rules our life we are free to find a new and better way.
We in the church, those who call ourselves Christians, seem to spend a lot of time worrying about morality. Quite understandably as we are called to live lives of personal holiness and goodness toward our neighbours. But we are often so focused on what happens in people’s bedrooms between consenting adults that we have utterly ignored what happens in boardrooms around the world that have had devastating consequences for the whole world but most particularly for the poorest of the poor. It is interesting that the church, just like the rest of the world, tends to pay more heed to matters of human sexuality than to matters of material wealth. And yet for every verse of Scripture relating to sexual behaviour there are nearly a hundred referring to our material wealth and our relationship to material things.
All of this week’s readings likewise cut like a two edged sword. Words that bring comfort in their deep truth telling and great discomfort. At least to me. I squirm each time I read this gospel story for as a western Christian, no matter that I may live a fairly modest life by Australian standards, there is no way I can hear this other than from the perspective of the sinner in need of healing, and the rich young man in need of great courage and conviction to go the next step. I know both the longing for freedom from possessions and the fear of loosing field, and house, and family for the gospel.
One day, probably on many days, we will each be asked this question – or our version of this question. For relationship with God will always eventually bring us to a point where we are challenged beyond our comfort zone, where we are asked to give over what most holds us back, to let go of what we most want to hold onto, to decide where our ultimate attachment is.
Jesus often taught against the wealthy and challenged all who listened to him to develop a different attitude to the poor, a different and more just way of living. Is Jesus being a bit unfair with this young man – first keep all the commandments, then sell all you own, and then follow me! Surely all that is reasonably required of any of us is to keep the commandments! Remember that Jesus looks upon this young man with love – he knows that this is hard. Jesus knows that this is the moment for this young man, that it is decision time, and I have always imagined that Jesus was as sad as the young man who walks away.
So what is Jesus really asking of him? As is often the case I think a lot is going on in this seemingly simple story. Firstly I suspect that Jesus is not so much asking him to give up his wealth ‘as well as’ keeping the commandments but to redistribute his wealth as a way of keeping the commandments! Whilst not all followers were told to sell things or even to leave their homes, the good news for Israel was always good news for the poor. The sum of living the commandments was always to be summarised by loving God and neighbour. The young man was only being provoked and encouraged to live the spirit of the commandments that he had already committed himself to keeping.
Secondly, like in many spiritual traditions, I think we are being taught about attachment and non-attachment, about the need to let go of what has a hold on us. Many of us will be familiar with the explanation that the camel getting through the eye of the needle being a reference to how the camels that were loaded with goods to be traded had to unload all their goods and then lower themselves to get through the small gates into the holy city of Jerusalem (and other ancient walled cities). This may well be part of the background association but even if this association is not the literal meaning it is clear that our material possessions and our attachment to them makes it impossible to be fully available to God and god’s good purposes for our life.
The need to let go of all the possessions, roles and relationships that define us and keep us busy is spelt out more fully in the conversation between Peter and Jesus and highlights the need to detach from the usual ambitions and busyness of ordinary life if we are to truly be disciples, if we are truly to be available for the new and better age to come, to the kingdom of God now. The fruit of detachment is availability to something new and different. I suspect it is why Jesus often states that the poor and the least will “get it” first before those who are very sure that they know what is spiritual and what is right, who amusingly spend a lot of time telling God what God means!
So why is detachment and letting go necessary if we are then just given more/alternate fields and families? How is this the new age, the age to come, the kingdom of God? I suspect the great difference is that having broken the attachment with particular fields and family (and roles and expectations) we are then free to engage differently and more lightly with our life - that we then belong to our possessions and community in a different way. And this lighter more open way of belonging allows us make real the kingdom of God.
For now (or then) we live in a kingdom where brothers and sister, mothers and fathers, houses and fields are lost and gained. Where my house becomes your house, and your field becomes my field. My joy becomes your joy, and my pain is accepted as your pain. Life in God’s family is not guarenteed to be easy and yet it is deeply true and right and good. For in one sense my wealth – my field, my house, my family – were only ever borrowed from the universe, they were no more mine than fresh air or the clouds that pass overhead!
For better and for worse the air I am breathing now was in your lungs only minutes ago (if we are in the same room) and will be breathed in by someone else soon. We are all made up of carbon atoms that once were stars and far flung planets. Maybe if we remembered this – that we are all just recycled dust and energy – then we would not fear so much letting go of what we think of as ours. We might trust our Creator God a little more, we might return to Source a little more courageously and hopefully.
And maybe this is where acknowledging that we are sinners, broken people, in need of healing, or as camels needing to unburden ourselves of our loads, benefits us for this means we can give over to God and God’s work what we most treasure and still find ourselves the richer and freer.
Even so, come Lord Jesus, help us to let go of all that enslaves us and trust ourselves to you.