What Shall I do? | Mark 10:17-31 | October 10, 2021

“He went away grieving for he had many possessions.”

I am painfully aware of just how many possessions I have. I do mean “painfully” because my stiff back and aching knees from carrying boxes. Moving will teach you about your possessions. When we looked for a mover, the first estimate came to 18,000 pounds of stuff. Imagine 18,000 pounds. That is 9 tons, the size of an African bull elephant, the anchor on a cruise ship, a tank. No wonder I’m tired.

We spent a month downsizing. We took trunk loads of books to the League of Women Voters book sale. I made a half dozen trips to the Cancer Connection Thrift Store with random pottery, clothes and old gifts from relatives who don’t get us. I discovered the wonders of Facebook Marketplace. You just take a picture and post it, and people want it. I sold the gas lawnmower for $30, and the leaf blower, grill, and my Vinyl Records. I was never going to listen to “Foghat” again, but I was reluctant to part with Beach Boys “Endless Summer” and Led Zeppelin. But it made someone else happy, and I have Pandora.

I discovered the town recycling center takes old printers, computers, and junk. There was always a line. At my turn, an attendant would look in my trunk, and give a price. $21? It was always as if it were a question. Could I bargain? I would then back to a warehouse the size of an airplane hanger, and put my stuff on the floor, and a big plow truck would come and push it into the massive pile of trash. I remembered a random statistic. An economist estimated that if we had three percent growth in world GDP from the time of the rise of ancient Egypt till 2100, the earth would be buried in 40 feet of garbage.

Ten days ago, a big Atlas Moving van came and several men spent all day filling every inch of it. Our final weight came in at just under 11,000 pounds. I’d like to think we downsized 7,000 pounds, roughly 39 percent of our possessions. We downsized from the weight of a bull elephant to the weight of an elephant seal, from the tonnage of a military tank to an ambulance. Though somewhat satisfying, we still have a lot of stuff, and most of it will sit in a warehouse for the next nine months, some we may never open again.

It was challenging to give away 40 percent of what we had, but it doesn’t really change my life to be rid of it. It felt great to give things to people who wanted it. I discovered the inward joy of generosity, an inner freedom of releasing things. But as the Atlas van pulled away, I marveled at what we still own. We watched thousands of people at the Kabul airport, carrying a few suitcases with everything they had left. Jeanne texted her kids about our struggles to downsize. I need to get everything I own into a big truck. “Boo-hoo, poor me. First World problems.

How do I relate to the rich young ruler in our Gospel story? I’m not rich. I’ve lived most my life right around median income. Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, are rich. They make more per second than I make per week. Bezos spends $1 Billion a year on Blue Earth, his space travel hobby. But it is only .5 percent of his wealth, the equivalent of me joining the Y. Wealth is relative. I worked in a shelter and housing program for eight years. I taught financial management classes for people trying to live on Social Security disability at $700 a month. Sometimes their monthly goals were as simple as saving enough to buy a new hairbrush. Our daughter, as a first-year social worker, was given the assignment of living for two weeks on the equivalent of a welfare check and prepare meals with only food stamps. She made it under the cap, but was often hungry, and didn’t think it would be healthy for the long haul.

When I face toward the super-rich, I live modestly. When I face the nature of grinding poverty, look at my Atlas moving van of stuff, I live in excess. What should I do? On which side of the eye of the needle do I stand? Here are a few things in the text I find interesting. Note that the rich young ruler has no name. The Gospels name many people. We encounter Blind Bartemaus, Jarius, Mary and Martha, Nicodemus and many more. But in Mark, we often encounter people named by their condition. A paralytic man, a leper, a woman with a hemorrhage, a man possessed by an unclean spirit, a rich young ruler. Are they all named for their problem? Unnamed characters invite us to stand in their place. How are we like them? St. Ignatius urged people to pray by imagining themselves as a character around Jesus and let the Spirit speak through their imagination.

There are positives about the rich young ruler. Like me, he grew up in the faith. He likely memorized Bible verses as a child, recited the 10 commandments in fourth grade, desired to be a good person, and yet had a nagging unease about the state of his soul. Was he truly good enough? “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus pushes him. “You know the law, you know the 10 commandments, don’t lie, cheat, steal, etc.” “I’ve done all that,” the man answers. Is the rich young ruler longing for something more, a deeper sense of connection to God beyond keeping the basics of the law? Jesus may sense this. “One thing you lack.” Just one. If I only lacked one thing! The text notes that Jesus had compassion for this man. “Go sell all you have and come follow me.”

That invite is unexpected. It sounds impossibly unfair. Sell everything and become impoverished? Who would do that? It makes us want to dismiss this passage as any kind of moral or spiritual guidance. Remember Zacchaeus, the tax collector, who watched Jesus from the tree? He proclaimed he would give half his possessions to the poor, and Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Why must this man give up everything?

Pay attention to his emotion. He went away sad. He could have been angry with Jesus, or thought he was ridiculous or unrealistic. But he was sad. He really wanted to follow, but not at this cost. Was he afraid of what would happen to him, the loss of status by losing his wealth? I wonder what happened next for the rich young ruler? Did he regret his decision? Did this encounter change his life in any way? We don’t know because he leaves the story. If his life was transformed, we would have heard from him again, maybe in the Book of Acts. He keeps his wealth, but disappears from the story of Jesus. If the rich young ruler would have said, “Yes” would he have been named on the list of 12 disciples?

Jesus gives this little fable, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter heaven.” That sounds harsh and definitive. Is Jesus saying rich people can’t get to heaven at all? If so, where is the cutoff line, so I know just how much to give away to not be too rich? Even the disciples are amazed. Who can get to heaven then? Perhaps the disciples equated wealth with God’s favor. Its common today too. Doesn’t wealth come from hard work, saving and self-control, creating value, and is a just reward for work? Poverty comes from laziness, bad habits, lack of initiative. We make judgements about peoples’ worth, and ethics based on their wealth. Did any of the disciples think Jesus was making a tactical error? Most pastors would be quite happy to add a major donor to the flock, and this man could have supported Jesus’s ministry for years. He wouldn’t have needed to challenge money changers at the Temple or end up on the cross.

Here is the problem as I see it. The man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” You don’t have to do anything to inherit wealth. You don’t earn the Kingdom. The rich young ruler was probably born into a wealthy family, and certain values about money. He wanted to do something to earn status with God. Pray more, go to seminary, join the board of Deacons or pay for the new education wing. His wealth taught him that he had to do stuff to be valued. Jesus is trying to say that the realm of God doesn’t work like that. You can’t earn it. There is no solution to the camel getting through the needle. You can’t shrink the camel or expand the needle. Its impossible. Stop trying to earn the favor of a God who already loves you. What Jesus says to me is to beware of how money can be one of the main things that distorts my relationship with God and others.

As Peter says later, the rest of the disciples left everything to follow. The fishermen left their boats. Matthew left his lucrative tax collecting station. They all got the same invitation. “Come and follow me.”

Here is my point in brief. Money deeply affects how we see the world and our place in it. Faith in Jesus teaches us to see the world as God sees. We too often look at the world from our socio-economic position. God calls us to look more deeply with the eyes of love. When we see as God sees, our hearts are more understanding of the failures of others. As we look with God’s eyes, our hearts are broken instead of judgmental. If we have God-infused vision, we seek justice rather than status and safety. Come follow me, says Jesus. I will, but like the rich young ruler, what about all my stuff? What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Amen.

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