Before worship this morning a number of us gathered to begin what will be a series of opportunities to share our faith journeys. So it’s fitting that today’s gospel reading begins by telling us that Jesus was setting out on a journey. The story that follows speaks to us of the challenges and possibilities for our journeys.
Before he could even begin his journey, a man ran up to Jesus and knelt before him. Here’s someone who has set high standards for himself; he wants to grow! He’s willing to take responsibility for his own faith formation. Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? But instead of answering the question, Jesus first sets him straight: Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. For Christians who don’t believe that Jesus was a fully human being just like us, this might come as a shock!
He rattles off a few of the commandments—commandments that no one can obey perfectly, or even well. But the well-intentioned man assures him that he has kept all of these “since his youth.”
And then, if you remember nothing else from this story, remember this: Jesus, looking at him, loved him. No matter what choices the man had made in the past, no matter what choices he would make in the future, no matter how much or how little the man’s life would change, that one thing would never change: Jesus, looking at him, loved him.
You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
In last week’s reading Jesus took on the subjects and divorce and adultery. The life of faith for grown-up Christians means wrestling with grown-up questions. This week it’s money.
What is this story about? It’s a story of the power of money to control our lives. That’s true. It’s a word we need to hear because money remains God of our land: the fear of not having enough, the fear of losing what we have, the fear of not being able to get and keep as much as we want. These things can make our lives small.
But I wonder, is that all there is to it, or, is money only the beginning of the conversation?
When Jesus rattles off a few commandments, by his response the man shows that he believes that rules are the most important thing. By his response, however, Jesus shows that rules can often get in the way of doing the right thing! “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor,” Jesus says. That’s not one of the commandments! It’s as if to say, now that you’ve learned to follow the rules, can you follow God?
What do you think? Are you a rule-keeper or a rule-breaker? All of us are a mix of each, maybe even every day. There may be whole periods of our lives where we are more of one than the other. I remember, for example, that when I was a kid I really wanted to please my parents. Even into middle school and high school, when many other kids were rebelling, I wanted to please my parents.
That sounds like a good thing (especially if you’re a parent!) and in many ways it was. After all, one of the commandments Jesus mentions in today’s reading is, Honor your father and mother. On the other hand, it’s possible for that rule in some situations to become too important! What, for instance, is a person to do if the passion of their heart is to follow one path but the parents insist that the child do another? Martin Luther, for example, wanted to become a priest but his father wanted him to become a lawyer so he would make money. How many countless times through history has that story—or something similar–played out? “You will go to this school. You will marry this person.”
In such cases, which is most important, to follow the rules or to follow the heart? To live out the parents’ expectations and unfulfilled dreams, or, to be true to one’s soul?
I just finished a book called Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Really, Finally Grow Up. The author, James Hollis, asks this question: Whose life are you living? Are you living according to your parents’ rules? Society’s rules? Some other rules? Or, are you living in response to the deepest calling of your soul?
The man who ran up to Jesus was following society’s expectations. Go out; find a job that will make you a lot of money. Be successful. Win approval and admiration of others. He’d listened to those voices. He’d done that.
It doesn’t always occur to us that in the kingdom of God rules need to be broken. Growing up I always assumed that I would go to college after highschoolbecausethat’sjustwhateveryoneIknewdid,soIdid. Iwasn’t pressured; but I knew for years beforehand where I would go. On the one hand it was a good experience but I wonder what might have been different if someone had said, “Scott–listen to your soul.”
The kingdom of God is where God’s will prevails. The voice of our soul is one of the most powerful ways God speaks to us. But it is hard to discern and to trust the voice of our soul. Some wise person once said, “The will of God is that you follow the deepest desire of your soul. The hard part is knowing your deepest desire.” Which may be what Jesus is getting at when he says, How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! So many voices compete for our allegiance: expectations from family, nation, friends–on top of the frightened little boy or girl inside of us still craving the approval of others! We are drawn to power, control, wealth, popularity, success—and like the man in today’s story, we follow without thinking about it too much. When Jesus taught him a different way he was shocked. How could he turn his back on the choices and voices, the values and rules that he’d organized his whole life around? So he walked away, sad.
Listening to desires, wants, our needs for security—that’s easy. Entering the kingdom of God–listening to the voice of our soul– is hard. But the price we pay for not listening may be harder still.
The author of the book I mentioned writes that when we forget to break the rules; when we live someone else’s life or expectations, still, our soul speaks to us. And if we ignore it or suppress it, our soul will protest, often through depression, physical illness, or addictions.
The good news in today’s story, though, is that we don’t know the end of the story. The man walked away, shocked and sad. But who knows? Maybe hours, days, months, years later he remembered Jesus’ words. He’d asked what he must do to inherit eternal life but the truth is, none of us can earn eternal life; it is a free gift that begins now–for all people!
God has nothing but time. If we choose to walk away from our soul’s urging as the man walked away from Jesus God can wait a lifetime—and even into the next! God can wait as long as it takes; God forces us to do nothing. Jesus looks at us, and loves us. God’s love waits to gather us, and all people, into the kingdom of God.
This is why Jesus assures his disciples—including us—that listening to the voice of Christ, the voice of our soul, will greatly surpass whatever advantage we may think we have in following our own way. Following Jesus means an expansion of God’s community of love among us, he says, a “hundredfold”—all this new family of brothers and sisters, and persecutions—hardships–he says. The persecutions we experience as disciples of Christ may be outside of us. But maybe more often, they are the heaviness we feel in response to pressures we experience from those voices close to us that would have us follow the crowd, or follow the rules, rather than the voice of our soul.
As Jesus set off on a journey a man ran up to him. We are that man or that woman. We also are on a journey—a journey that each day invites us to decide whether to follow the rules or to follow Jesus, to follow the crowd or to listen closely to the voice of our soul.