“go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Mark 10:17-31
A homily from our Chaplain, the Rev. Luther Zeigler
One of the great privileges of the priesthood is that the dying often call upon us to be by their bedside at or near the time of death. I say it is a ‘privilege’ because these moments are often filled with a holy tenderness as family and friends gather round someone near the end of life to provide comfort and to share their truest and deepest feelings – of gratitude, love, fear, hope. In these liminal spaces – as we watch someone we love prepare to move between this life and the next – there is an honesty, authenticity, and raw beauty that frequently eludes us in our day to day living.
Sometimes, though, in that honesty, there is also heartbreaking regret. I have held the hand of dying persons who outwardly have achieved great ‘success’ – building great wealth, acquiring many things, achieving status, power and prestige – but who at the end of their earthly life are overwhelmed with a profound sense that it doesn’t seem to count for much.
Most of us spend the better part of our lives pursuing these false idols, persuaded that we can somehow save ourselves if we only achieve enough status or accumulate enough stuff. And yet, I have never met a dying person who wished he or she had only worked harder, made more money, or had more things. What the dying almost always regret, more than anything else, is that they did not devote enough time and energy to the relationships in their lives that truly matter.
In today’s gospel we encounter an unnamed man in pursuit of his own salvation, convinced that he can achieve eternal life if he only does all the right things. Notice the question he poses to Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He tells Jesus that thus far in his life he has done everything that the Law teaches; he has abided by all the Commandments. What else is there for him to achieve, he wants to know?
Jesus tells him, in essence, that there is nothing he can do to inherit eternal life. The problem is not what he must do, but what he must un-do. Salvation comes not in striving for more, but in letting go of what he has. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says; “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
There is a double movement in Jesus’ words. On the one hand, Jesus’ concern plainly is for the poor, whose plight the young man may not even have noticed. And so, by telling the young man to share what he has, Jesus is certainly saying something profoundly important about the insidious social consequences that accumulating wealth has on those around us. And Jesus is thereby pointing the young man, and us, to a different form of human community, one built upon providing for each other through acts of generosity that establish human connectedness. Jesus wants the young man to start thinking less about what he has and more about what others need.
But there is a second aspect to Jesus’ concern. Jesus cares not just for the poor, but also for the young man. Notice what Jesus does before he tells the young man that he must give everything away: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him. . . .” Jesus loved him. This is the one and only time in the gospel of Mark that Jesus explicitly singles out a person to love. Caring deeply for this man, Jesus can see that the one thing that stands between him and God are things. Whether he knows it or not, the young man is crippled by his love for things. The paradox of the good news for this young man is that he can only inherit if he first bequeaths; he can only receive if he first gives; he can only live with God if he first dies to self.
That is all well and good, but maybe wealth is not your problem. Unlike the young man in our gospel story today, perhaps you don’t have many possessions. Most of you, after all, are students in a university setting with little or no income. And, I suspect, many of you may have liabilities – read student loans – that exceed your assets. Yet, the pursuit of wealth is not the only form of disabling acquisitiveness. In academic communities such as this one, acquisitiveness is expressed in another currency – the currency of status. While folks in the public marketplace may be preoccupied with money and things, folks in academic communities tend to be preoccupied with status: with degrees and honors and gpa’s and grants and fellowships and all the nuances of academic pedigree. That is how we measure each other. And, we tend to convince ourselves, consciously or not, that our worth and dignity somehow turns on whether we go to the right schools, earn the right degrees, and win the right honors.
The theological problem that underlies both the pursuit of money and the pursuit of status is one and the same: it is the problem of law and gospel. When, like the young man, we start to believe that we can win God’s favor if we only do more, if only we perform better, it is then that we make the mistake of treating God’s love as if it is something to be won. Again, I submit to you that the critical moment in today’s story is not so much what Jesus says to the man, but what Jesus does in response to his question. Jesus looks at him, gazes at him, in love. With this visual embrace, Jesus is assuring the young man that he is already loved if he would only just let go of his pretense of merit and receive gratefully that which he has already been offered. The freedom of the gospel is the freedom to let go, and to let yourself be loved, without the worry or need of earning it. And, just as miraculously, that freedom then allows us to live for and to love others.
One of my favorite theologians writing today is Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. Rabbi Sacks is fond of saying that there are 3 kinds of goods in the world: political goods, economic goods, and spiritual goods.
Political goods have to do with power. If I am President, I am given a certain amount of power over people: I can force them to do what I want because I am in charge. The status and prestige we confer upon one another in academic settings is just another form of political power. The thing about power, though, is that when you give it away, you have less of it. Students of politics know this truth: when kings or queens (or provosts or department heads, for that matter) give up power to others, they inevitably end up with less themselves.
Economic goods, which have to do with the currency of exchange, function in the same way. If I have a 1000 dollars and I give away half of it, I obviously have less when I’m done.
Political goods and economic goods involve what economists call zero-sum games: there is only so much power and money to go around. For this reason, politics and economics both by their very nature invite competition. People compete with each other to see who will win in the game for power or money, and who will lose.
By contrast, spiritual goods are very different. Spiritual goods are things like love or trust or friendship or kindness or mercy. But notice this remarkable quality about spiritual goods: the more you share them the more you have. Spiritual goods are generative. When my first daughter was born, my wife and I loved her more than the entire world. And yet, when our second daughter was born, we loved her more than the entire world as well. Somehow there was more then enough love for both of them. The same thing is true of sharing friendship or trust or kindness. The more we share these things, the more we have of them. This is the simple but profound miracle of spiritual goods.
Another way of capturing Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel, then, is to say that we draw closer to God the more we organize our lives around spiritual, rather than economic or political goods. This is because spiritual goods generate relationships, and relationship is at the very heart of God. Indeed, when we contemplate the nature of God, and are drawn into the self-giving love that eternally moves between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we see the mysteriously generative power of spiritual goodness in its purest form.
Economic and political goods, on the other hand, tend to be divisive. They separate us because they breed differentiation and competitiveness. Don’t get me wrong: In the fallen world we inhabit, both economic and political goods are necessary. Our social lives require them. The point is not whether we need them to get on with our earthly lives; of course we do. The point, rather, is whether we let them dominate our very selves and take over our hearts. That danger, it seems to me, is what so deeply grieves the young man in our gospel story.
Let us pray that we might find the courage to loosen our grip on all those things we feel that we must have, so that instead we might discover that we are already in the grip of a divine love that will never let us go.