Jesus’ Gift to a Young Rich Man

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. “You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

I remember years ago hearing someone say that morals are for rich people. Which I didn’t understand. I mean, I can understand how a lack of money could drive you to stealing or fraud. But otherwise, why would morals be optional for people just because they didn’t have money? You don’t need money to be a good person, after all.

I, of course, still don’t think that poor people don’t have morals and that morals are for people with money. But what I have come to understand two things. First, that having good morals does not make you a good person. I know plenty of people who never break any of the 10 commandments and are terrible people. The second thing I’ve learned is that it takes much more to hang onto morality when you are already depleted by a ridiculously stressful life.

When there’s no comfort or pleasure in your life, it’s much harder to turn away from the comfort found in the arms of someone you are not in a covenant relationship with. When your mother and father were so desperate and depleted by the time that they came home, that they lashed out at you, it’s much harder to honor them than it is when you have a mom who greets you after school with a plate of cookies and a smile and a dad who wants to play catch in the yard after work while you tell him about your day. When a shady mortgage broker has defrauded you and you’ve lost your home and are living out of a cheap motel room, it’s much harder to convince yourself to stick to the rules just on principle. Life’s just different when you’re just struggling to survive.

While we may admire the upstanding, morally sound, financially comfortable person, the truth is that many of those people wouldn’t have held up any better under trying circumstances than anyone else. Which is part of why we can’t judge people. Only God knows the heart. And sometimes even a good heart gets overwhelmed, depleted and despairs. Which isn’t an excuse for immorality, but it is an explanation. God knows this.

The thing is that while we see morality as something that is just expected of us, it was given as something to struggle with. We’re actually meant to fail at it. In Romans, Paul says, “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” If we can follow the law, without fail, then the law is not having the effect God intends it to have in our lives.

Now, does this mean that God has set us up for failure so that he can then show up and play the super-hero who graciously saves us? I can certainly understand why someone would think that. However, this isn’t the case. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains about the law, “therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

As Brene Brown says, “we are wired for struggle.” The law was meant to cause us to struggle. It is in struggling that we learn, grow and change. Struggle is like weightlifting for the soul. It tears us down and builds up back up, shaping us in the process. By placing demands on us that we will struggle and fail to meet, the law becomes our teacher, showing us the way towards Christ.

If we never fail, we don’t need forgiveness. If we never rebel, we don’t need grace. If we never fall under our heavy load, we don’t need our burdens lifted. If we never rail against an unfair world and a seemingly uncaring God, we don’t need comfort. If we have no need of forgiveness, grace, burdens lifted or comfort, then we have no need for God. We all need God. But without struggling, we will never know just how much. Nor will we understand the value of what God has to offer us.

When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying that rich people are worse people than everyone else. That they love money more than everyone else. Or that they care less about other people than everyone else. He says that it’s harder for rich people because the whole point of wealth is to protect us from struggles. The whole point of the law is to cause us to struggle. Which is why money and following God are so often in conflict.

Now, consider what Jesus does in his interaction with the young rich man. When the young man approaches, Jesus starts by disarming him. “Only God is good.” If the point of the law is to follow it, then those who are good at following it are completely justified in thinking that they are themselves good. But if only God is good and even Jesus refuses to accept that descriptor, then this young man knows he cannot stand on his own goodness. We are not good because of our morality, but any goodness we have comes from our connection with the one who is good – God alone.

Jesus then brings up the commandments in order to draw out the young man’s relationship with them. When the young man responds that he has kept to them from his youth, we see the problem; he’s never struggled. Sure, he may have faced temptation. But he’s never had to struggle with the law to the point of failure. Which means that the law has not had the intended effect in his life.

The story says that Jesus looked at this young man who has sought righteousness the only way he knew how and loved him. Jesus loves us all, of course. But he looked at this young man in particular and saw something in him that he loved in that moment. I suspect that what he saw was a young man who had done all of the right things and yet knew somehow that it was inadequate. Something in him knew that he needed more than to keep to the commandments in order to attain what he sought.

He could have gone to the Pharisees and asked them what he needed to do and explained that he kept to the commandments and always had. They would have been happy to tell him that he was right with God, especially in light of the financial support his family provided to the religious establishment. But he didn’t. For whatever reason, he sought Jesus. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what the law is supposed to do – lead us to Jesus.

So Jesus looked at this young man and loved him for whatever was in him that knew he was lacking. And he says, “sell all you own and give it away.”

Jesus knows perfectly well that he’s asking this young man to do something he cannot do. It wasn’t just love of money, comfort and security that made it impossible for this young man to do as Jesus instructs. It would have been terribly destructive and irresponsible for him to sell everything and give it away. It would have meant casting his entire family into the streets, for one thing.

Jesus had other followers who were wealthy. He never asks any of them to sell everything to follow him. But he loved this young man and so gave to him what the law could not – something to struggle with.

The Long Walk

Since I was in high school I have suffered from cluster headaches. Fortunately, it has been several years since I have suffered an episode. However, for years I lived with persistent daily bouts of scathing pain for weeks and sometimes months at a time. One of the things I discovered from living with pain was that over time, your ability to cope with fairly minor pain tended to decrease. It was like dealing with excruciating pain took so much physical and mental energy that when more garden variety pain from something as simple as an upset stomach or a stubbed toe came along, you just didn’t have the mental reserves left to deal with it.

I have thought of this fact fairly often over the past couple of months. If you’ve read my blog at all in the last few weeks, you already know that my family has been going through a difficult time and I have not been dealing with it all that well. Which has surprised me. Although our situation is terrible and could potentially get much worse, I’ve handled situations just as bad or worse without diving into the sort of despair and bitterness which I have been struggling with for the last few weeks. I have found myself questioning the very existence of God as well as His faithfulness and His good heart. Which, given all that He has seen me through before and my well established relationship with Him is ridiculous. I think that part of what has thrown me so off balance this time is precisely that I’ve been down this road so many times before, I’ve shown my faithfulness, I’ve trusted in God in the middle of an evil place. So why am I finding myself back on this road again? Haven’t I already gone over this ground and been found faithful? There’s really nothing to be gained by going back over all of this again – can’t we move on now? Just like with my cluster headaches, the fact that I had been through worse before seemed to be making it harder for me to deal with a fresh bout of struggle, not easier.

Fortunately, I have a copy of The Ransomed Heart, which is a collection of readings from John Eldredge’s works in my bathroom and I have frequently thumbed through this book and found some little string to hold onto. One day it was a couple of paragraphs on how easy it is to forget that God is real and faithful. This is why God told the Israelites to remember over and over and had them set up memorials at the sight of significant encounters with God. Even Jesus, when instructing us to practice the Eucharist tells us to do it for remembrance of him, so we won’t forget.

Today, I picked up the book and found this:

One of the most poisonous of all Satan’s whispers is simply, “Things will never change.” That lie kills expectation, trapping our heart forever in the present. To keep desire alive and flourishing, we must renew our vision for what lies ahead. Things will not always be like this . . .Julia Gatta describes impatience, discouragement and despair as the “noonday demons” most apt to beset the seasoned traveler. As the road grows long we grow weary; impatience and discouragement tempt us to forsake the way for some easier path.” (The Sacred Romance)

Isn’t that the truth? I too have found that the lie of “things will never change” can be an ever present spiritual taunt in trying situations. (This seems to be a particular problem in marriage, I think. You have a fight and you think that your spouse’s anger or bad attitude towards you is going to be the new “normal”. But that’s a whole other conversation.)

As I have struggled, especially with how pointless this whole thing seems to be, the thought has popped into my mind, “maybe this isn’t about you. Maybe this is so you can be a demonstration of faith for others around you. One of those ‘so they will see your good works and glorify God’ times.” But the thought seems too arrogant, too presumptuous to actually adopt.  Then today I also read this in The Ransomed Heart:

We run our race, we travel our journey, in the words of Hebrews, before ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (12:1). When we face a decision to fall back or press on, the whole universe holds its breath – angels, demons, our friends and foes, and the Trinity itself – watching with bated breath to see what we will do. . . The question that lingers from the fall of Satan and the fall of man remains: Will anyone trust the great heart of the Father, or will we shrink back in faithless fear? . . . The great struggles of our heart reveal to the world our true identity: We really are the sons and daughters of God.” (The Sacred Romance)

Hmmm . . . Personally, I keep coming back to the problem of hope. Hope can seem like a fool’s errand. What if it doesn’t work out? What if I end up not as an example of faithfulness in God’s good heart, but as an example of misplaced hope and optimism? Yet like many times before, I find myself repeating the words of Simon Peter to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

So I’ll just keep plugging along and hope that I will be found worthy and that some one, some where will glorify God because of me.