“And as he was setting out on a journey a man ran up and knelt before him…..” There’s an intensity about this young man because the Greek word used isn’t simply “ran”, it’s “raced up to him.” This is someone who feels an urgent inner need to be and do better than he has ever done before. And we know nothing about him; we don’t have a name or job title or even a city of residence. Maybe that’s Mark’s clever way of inviting all of us to identify with this guy. We learn from the conversation that he is a successful person; he’s a good person who has done all the things he was taught he “ought” to do. He has achieved some success and he has some material wealth as a result of his hard work.
At this point, in hearing his story, we realize that although we are separated by 20 centuries, we have some things in common with him. We can totally identify with his working hard to be a success in the world. We can also identify with his interior, spiritual side as well. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We carry the same questions about what is of real value in this life, and the longer we are alive, the more questions we have.
Questions of meaning and value are beginning to surface in this guy’s life–the road he’s traveling is beginning to look like I-65 between Merrillville and Indianapolis: nothing of interest to see and no exits anywhere around. The young man finds himself in a crisis of faith, and he has come to wonder about what his race to success really means. I think this happens to most of us, generally after age 40, when we look back and wonder what we’ve accomplished, whether it was all worth the effort and what the remaining years should be spent doing so that in another 40 years, if we are lucky enough to live to that point, we can look back with some degree of peace and satisfaction.
Perhaps we’re coming into a fuller appreciation of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” We’ve reached a stable plateau, our kids are either grown and gone or at least they’re less and less dependant on us. We lose a parent or maybe both. And the prospect of getting older and being unable to do what we want with our remaining years haunts us, especially when we find ourselves getting up for the 4th or 5th time to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
“Is this all there is?” Where are the rewards I should get for having played by the rules? Where are the blessings I should be experiencing for having loved God and having kept the bulk of the commandments? “You know the commandments,” says Jesus, and then he lists them. “I’ve kept these since I was just a kid,” replies the man. And so have we, most of them, most of the time. We’ve been running all our lives by all the admonitions of home, family, church and culture: brush your teeth and don’t forget to floss, say your prayers, work hard, obey the law, get ahead, save for retirement. The young man followed the rules, lived by all the imperatives imposed on him from the outside. So have we. That’s the way we all grow—our parents command, our teachers teach, our church preaches, society imposes its models and definitions on us.
But sooner or later we get to the point where we have to do the deciding and choosing on our own. The running man had reached that point. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him, because He understood completely. “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, give the money away, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” Throughout the history of the Church there have been those who took those words literally, like St. Francis. Whether we take them literally or not, Jesus is asking us to sever ties with all lesser things and depend only on him. So often our possessions represent our dependencies.
Jesus was asking the rich young man–and us–to untie ourselve from the things that only provide temporary meaning. Possessions are one of those attachments, but there are certainly others. Think of the Israelites being held captive by Pharoah. For generations they believed that it was Pharoah who had the power to either hold them captive or let them go. It turned out the reverse was true. They chose to allow Pharoah to hold them captive because it gave them a sense of identity, a sense of a predictable life, and a a sense of assurance.
The theme of surrender emerges in this encounter, and really, isn’t surrender just another word for “dying?” Most of us think of death and resurrection as experiences at the end of life, not as an ongoing cycle of possibilities all the way through this life. It is a daily opportunity if we’re paying attention. As Christians we have to die to many things during a lifetime if we are to experience any new possibility. Sometimes the Pharaoh in our lives is the role we play. Think of being a parent. There are certainly enough challenges and satisfactions and disappointments as live more deeply into that role. When our kids are young, we think we can’t wait until they are grown and gone so we can resume our lives. But then the last one does move out, and suddenly the house is very quiet and empty. We’ve been a parent for so long, we don’t remember anything else—and there is a crisis of identity.
Sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes a parent will cling tenaciously to their role that they will try constantly to control, advise, manipulate and otherwise direct their children’s lives, never letting them grow up.
Daring to risk to die to old dependencies is what resurrection faith is all about. It’s hard to do. When the rich young man heard what Jesus was asking him to do with his possessions, “he was shocked and went away grieving, because he had many possessions.” In reality, his possessions had him. He was so close to finding the answer to his deepest needs, but he wasn’t paying attention to what was being said. He didn’t really hear what he was saying in his own question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” If you’re going to inherit something, this usually means someone has to die first, and in this case, his own words revealed the truth that parts of himself were needing to die. Maybe that’s why Jesus just looks at him and loves him just as he is. It’s the same way he looks at you and me: he just looks and loves us as we are. But rather than pulling up a chair and resting in that unconditional love, finding new meaning for life in that love, the young man walked away. Just like you and I walk away.
In a few minutes you and I are coming to a eucharistic feast where God takes some possessions—bread and wine, time and talent and treasure and lives we have offered, transforms them, and gives them back to us as something new and different–redeemed to become instruments of God’s power and presence in this time and place. And he gives us his own self.
The God who gave everything gives everything still.