“Complex Loyalties” Mark 10:17-31
He lay awake, noticing that the bright moonlight outside his window was fast fading into the light of dawn. He had been waking up in the middle of the night a lot, thinking of all of the changes in his life, and wondering if he had made the right decisions. He would often lie awake for hours, and on the good nights, he would fall into a fitful sleep again just before dawn. Everyone kept congratulating him on his recent promotion at work. A substantial salary increase came along with the new job title. Before he knew it, he and his wife had launched into a major home improvement campaign. “We’ve been waiting a long time to do these things,” they reasoned to themselves as they wrote out fat checks to the contractors. But it seemed that he and his wife were fighting a lot more lately, mostly about money, but also about his increased travel time and the long hours he spent at work. “We should be saving more,” he argued, feeling anxious. “What if the stock market continues to fall,” he worried, or “what if I get sick?” He enjoyed the secure feeling that came with his wealth, but always felt like he needed more and more to maintain that sense of security. And was it worth all the time he spent away from his wife and kids?
Knowing that sleep would not come to him, he got up and put on a pot of coffee. As he washed his face and brushed his teeth, he looked at himself in the mirror. Surely people would be able to see dark circles under his eyes and the new worry lines on his face. He leaned closer to the mirror and whispered: “I don’t know who I am anymore.” He felt the anxiety tighten his chest. He dressed quickly, gulped down his coffee and closed the door softly so as not to waken his family as he left the house. Something was wrong in his life, in his soul. Working for a Fortune 500 company wasn’t the answer, being true to his faith did not ease the anxiety, putting a new addition onto his house didn’t seem to help. But today he was determined to put his finger on the dull ache in his heart and name what was keeping him awake at night. Today he would find the answers.
The bright, successful businessman walked down Locust Street, turned right onto Cedar, and then left onto Main Street. Already a crowd was gathered in the Town Square, and he knew that is where he would find the rabbi. Fearing that he would miss this opportunity to speak with the rabbi, the man began to run toward the crowd. Propelled by his anxiety, driven by his dissatisfaction with his life, the man ran up to Jesus. The sheer force of his quest forced him to his knees, and he blurted out his ultimate question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, the famous rabbi, looked at him with a little humor and a lot of love.
We wait to hear what Jesus has to say to this man. Perhaps when you hear this story you might think, “Well, this story is not about me. I’m not rich,” because the one thing we do know about this man is that he was rich. But everything is relative. We live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and even those among us who live from paycheck to paycheck, one step ahead of the bill collectors, have far more in terms of material possessions than those who live in third world countries. This story is about us, and so we listen carefully to the exchange between Jesus and the successful man with the empty ache in his heart.
Jesus teases him. “You know the drill,” he says “Follow the laws of your faith.” The man’s face lights up. Now this is familiar territory. He has been a good boy, followed all the rules and laws of his faith and then some. If there ever had been a question of fuzzy morals, he opted for the clear-cut choices. “I’ve done all that,” he exclaims. Jesus seems to feel a special compassion for this man. Perhaps he knows the type: the one who anxiously tries to please, tries to be everything everyone else wants him to be, to live up to impossible standards. OK, so he has been a good man, maybe not perfect, but pretty close. Jesus pushes a little harder. “Sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.” The man’s face falls, and he turns away. Of all the invitations Jesus has issued, he is the first to say no, to refuse. He goes back to his old life, back to the relentless hamster wheel of success, working hard to run in circles to get nowhere. He just can’t let go of his security blanket. Even though he has given himself to the pursuit of religious ideals, the painful truth revealed in this encounter with Jesus is that his money defines him.
There comes a moment in every life when we must choose who we are going to be. Jesus was asking this man: Who do you want to be? Do you want to be a person whose primary attachment is to money? Do you really want to be defined by your job? Jesus has the uncanny ability of putting his finger on our deepest attachments, of naming the things that define us, and of asking if we are willing to let it all go.
Later Jesus will tell his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God. The disciples will be shocked because they always believed that wealth was a sign of God’s favor, and if wealth isn’t the benchmark, then what is? The church has continued to struggle with this passage. When the early church, which was made up of mostly poor people, first heard these words, they felt comforted by God’s preferential treatment of the poor. But later, when Christians rose in status and came into money, they would concoct an interpretation of this passage that allowed them to hang onto their riches. They argued that there was a small gate in Jerusalem where camels had to go down on their knees in order to pass through, and if rich Christians prayed on their knees they would be acceptable to God. And I recently heard a story of a rector of a wealthy Episcopal parish who was asked by his vestry warden not to ever read this gospel lesson on their church again. Sell all we have and give it to the poor? Jesus has stopped preaching and gone to meddling.
I think this passage is about wealth and it is about much more. It is about attachments. We are attached to many things that give us a sense of identity. We may be attached to our money, or to our status in the community, or we may be defined by our job, or our friends. We may look to our children to give us a sense of identity, or to our church to tell us who we are. When I was making the decision to leave my job as a full time pastor a few years ago, I found myself thinking about this identity question a lot. At that time, I had been a Pastor for almost twenty years. My identity was very much tied up with the role of being “Pastor.” When I left my church, I thought we would be going to China to bring our daughter home after a few months. But two months turned into nine. To pass the time, I volunteered to help at a friend’s Plant Nursery down the street. It was while I was up to my elbows in potting soil, that I realized that being Reverend Dr. Whoever didn’t matter to anyone there. I saw how deeply attached I was to the role of Pastor. Part of the transition for me was to consider the question: “If I am not Pastor, then who am I?”
There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we are asked to look deeply at the question: “Who are we, and to what or to whom are we attached?” We often encounter this question at a variety of points throughout our lives. Who are we, and what in our life defines us? Are we willing to put all of these attachments down and let Jesus define us? Are we willing to risk our sense of self and security in order to follow where God leads?
There comes a defining moment in our lives when Jesus asks us: who do you want to be? Who do you want to become? What will define you? What are your true attachments in life? Money? Status? Title? Recognition? Relationships? Dare you follow this man Jesus who is so demanding?
One of the things I love about this passage is that Jesus doesn’t run after the man or berate him for his decision. Jesus does not try to bribe or threaten or strong-arm the man into following. Jesus issues the invitation, and allows him the freedom to choose. We don’t know what ever happened to the man who asked the question on our behalf. But we are told that with God all things are possible. The end of the rich young ruler’s story remains a mystery, but what about the ending of your story? From this moment on, who will define you? Who will you become? With your burden of complex loyalties, will you follow Jesus? And Jesus noticed the man’s shoulders sagged as he turned walked away. And Jesus loved him. Oh love that will let us go, and yet always welcomes us back. AMEN.