“There was a man who had worked all of his life and has saved all of his money. He was a real cheapskate when it came to his money. He loved money more than just about anything, and just before he died, he said to his wife, ‘Now listen, when I die I want you to take all my money and place it in the casket with me. Because I want to take all my money to the afterlife.’
“He was stretched out in the casket; the wife was sitting there in black next to their best friend. When they finished the ceremony, just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, ‘Wait a minute!’
She had a shoebox with her, she came over with the box and placed it in the casket. Then the undertakers locked the casket and rolled it away.”
“Her friend said, ‘I hope you weren’t crazy enough to put all that money in there with that stingy old man.’ She said, ‘Yes, I promised. I’m a good Christian, I can’t lie. I promised him that I was to put that money in that casket with him.’
‘You mean to tell me you put every cent of his money in the casket with him?’ ‘I sure did,’ said the wife. ‘I got it all together, put it into my account and I wrote him a check.’”
It is said that if we are not careful, our possessions end up possessing us. Our possessions can warp our priorities. They can distort how we see life, and how we relate to the world. Our possessions influence our thinking and the choices we make. As our Gospel text tells us, they can keep us from following Jesus.
The wealthy young man who approaches Jesus wants to have it both ways. He wants to keep his wealth and he still wants to earn eternal life. Wealth is not guaranteed to anyone, anyway. It is, however, guaranteed that we all shall face death. No one, not even the wealthy, who have the most opportunities to create a secure and comfortable life on earth, can cheat or bribe death.
This rich man filled with worry comes to Jesus for assurance. He doesn’t come with questions about the law or for a healing. He doesn’t even ask Jesus to grant him eternal life. Instead he asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Like a well-bred upper crust ruler, he has manners. He figures he can achieve eternal life by his own efforts.
He is so solicitous that he kneels before Jesus, which we have seen done in the gospels only by a mother or a father in distress, pleading for their child’s life, or people who have exhausted any recourse or help and have only Jesus to turn to. This man kneels, not as a sign of despair but to put himself in Jesus’ good graces.
Jesus begins to quash his tactics by responding, with the Law of Moses, quoting from the Ten Commandments. “you know the commandments: don’t murder, steal, lie, cheat, honor your father and mother.” Strikingly, Jesus omits the first four commandments here. The first four, that deal with our relationship with God. So, this wealthy young man has kept the commandments in terms of how he related to other people. It’s his relationship with God that is the problem.
Jesus looked at him. That knowing look. The word used here is used for the look the servant girl gave Peter, that look of recognition, then the look that Jesus gives Peter at the time of his betrayal. It is a look of knowing who you as you are about to go contrary to your essence. The impact of Jesus’ words created severe pain, distress and upset in this young man. He is shocked beyond belief. Give his wealth away to the poor? Then follow Jesus? He leaves without a word. This wealthy young man appears to be the only person who ever rejects a direct offer of discipleship from Jesus in the gospels.
Despite all this, or, because of all this, the text tells us that Jesus loved this man. Now, Jesus talks a lot about love. Love is to be an important theme in the Scriptures. How God so loved the world. How we are to love our enemies. How we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. We know Jesus loved Martha, her sister and Lazarus, that there was a disciple who Jesus loved. However, of all the people Jesus healed and reached out to and taught, only here it does it mention how specifically that Jesus loved this unnamed rich young man. Jesus loved him. Jesus saw beyond his façade to the heart of his problem. Jesus saw what was missing from his life. Spiritual freedom. His wealth trapped him and kept him from loving fully. Yet Jesus loved him. A rich young man. We can’t get more perfect than that.
Perfection in the Biblical context doesn’t mean a life without failure. It means to be spiritually whole, complete and mature; to realize who you are meant to be. The Accumulations of possessions get in the way of wholeness. That is why Jesus says, “how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” He didn’t say impossible. He said it was hard. Some scholars say there existed a gate into Jerusalem called an “Eye of the Needle” where a camel had to be stripped of all its baggage, get on its knees, and be pushed and pulled through and barely made it in. That’s how hard it is to enter heaven when we cling to our possessions. No way can we get a camel through a literal eye of a needle. Jesus’ point is well taken. Either way we look at it, it’s impossible.
Jesus is not condemning wealth or money in and of itself. I like the Dolly Parton sums it up: “don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” It seems like our rich young friend left God out of the equation and Jesus was trying to help him put God back in. However, he had already become too enamored, too addicted to the illusions of wealth, Jesus was never more than a “Good Teacher” in his book. Never the Messiah. Never the Son of God. Never Savior. Never Lord. How is that? That’s the treasure he would have discovered if he laid up treasure in heaven.
In a spiritual director’s formation class I was taking, one of my classmates, Richard, spoke up. He’s currently a pastor out on the Northshore of Long Island, but back in the late 1970s he was a rising, musician, his band the rage of the disco scene. He coveted to Europe, all the top venues, stayed at the best hotels, girls threw themselves at him, plus all the alcohol and cocaine, top fashion, everything top of the line. Yet he knew his lifestyle was decadent and there was a growing rotten center in him.
One night after a concert Richard went and sat in his truck. He pounded on his steering wheel in frustration. Something was amiss in his life and he knew it. Then out of the blue Richard had a vision. Clear as day, Richard saw himself forty years in the future as clear as if he were transported. Still singing, but with a graveling, wasted voiced destroyed by booze and drugs. Skin pasty from years of neglect. Pot belly. Well, there was the pot there too, and the alcohol, still chain with an iron grip on him. He was playing seedy bars, no one listening, and no one really caring. He saw the trajectory of the luxury possessions, the money; the fame was not really about the music at all. Then he heard a voice speaking to him: “If you want my help you have to give up singing.”
Give up singing. Singing was all Richard knew. It was his whole life. He was under contract and record labels could be pretty nasty. Richard took a deep breath. Unlike the rich young ruler, he didn’t walk away. He was under contract for 12 more weeks. He finished those 12 weeks then walked away from one of the most lucrative music contracts of 1978. He rebuilt he life. He got clean and sober. He went back to school. And although he was a musician with an outstanding voice, he didn’t sing.
Richard and his wife started a ministry based here on Long Island. About twenty years after walking away from the record deal of his life, God, during a time of prayer, said “Richard, I think it’s time you started singing again. But this time, for the right reasons.” So now Richard and his wife have an amazing music ministry built up at their church. Richard learned to make God the priority, and God gave music and singing back to Richard, just at the time God knew he was healed, and could now use his gifts to serve God and minister to others.
We all have our struggles with money or wealth. Things that get in the way with God. Relationships. Jobs. Sports, talents and hobbies. Our schedules keep us from church. It starts out innocently. We’ll just miss church this once. Then it becomes two Sundays. Then it becomes a season. The chasm we have created is deep, and we cannot cross over. Only God can make a way. And thanks be to God in our Lord Jesus Christ a way has been made. With God all things are possible. Jesus took care of that through his loving actions on the cross.
God loves us. Everyday are opportunities to enter the kingdom of God. To get that camel through the needle. To Give to the needy. To follow Jesus.
When we surrender our possessions to God, we learn all things are possible. We can love. Grow in faith. Learn to forgive. Let go and be free, and in Jesus, and discover there is true treasure for us, on earth as there is in heaven. Amen.