Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rich Young Me

I am preaching on a passage (Matthew 19:16-22) this week that gives me the willies. The story of the “rich young man” is one of those unnerving encounters between Jesus and someone that leaves ripples and repercussions whenever it is told and wherever it is taken seriously.

It is a challenging passage because all three synoptic gospels include it but with slight variations (see Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23). Matthew and Mark call him a “young man” whereas Luke refers to him as “a certain ruler.” In Matthew’s portrayal the man asks, “What do I still lack?” in response to Jesus’ instruction for him to keep the commands. This gives us the impression that he is truly searching to fill an emptiness inside. Mark and Luke don’t mention this. Mark tells us that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Matthew and Luke don’t.

In general we have conflated these three accounts and taken away the following basic lesson: The rich young man asks Jesus how to have eternal life and is told to obey God’s commands. When he indicates he already does that and he’s still “lacking,” Jesus tells him to divest himself of his material possessions and follow him. This is too much for the man and he sadly declines Jesus’ call to discipleship, thus indicating that for Christians whose possessions stand in the way of salvation, divestment is necessary. For the rest of us, no such problem.

Well, that’s convenient. Luke gives us an out (sort of) by saying the man has “great wealth.” Compared to Bill Gates, we do not. Case closed. But Matthew and Mark simply point out that the man has “many possessions.” (The NIV doesn’t help us by rendering it “great wealth” to harmonize with Luke). Hmmm. The man has “many possessions” and wonders why he is tired and searching. He tries to obey the commandments but knows something is missing. He wants to follow Jesus (perhaps) but can’t bear to change his lifestyle in order to do so. Hmmm. This may indeed be a story for our time.

One of the phenomena this economic meltdown has revealed is the stuff-itis prevalent among Americans. We knew this before, of course, but now it has really risen up and bitten us. We got caught with our hand in the financial cookie jar. We worked hard to enjoy a certain lifestyle and then advanced that lifestyle just enough that we had to work harder to maintain it, then advanced it, etc. Now we’re tired and frustrated. And through all this we say with a straight face, “Possessions don’t get in the way of me and God.” Really? Would we be willing to work less and cut our lifestyle expenditures significantly in order to experience less stress? It’s a challenging question because our lifestyle grows on us and elicits strong attachments from us, e.g., I want to give up my Blackberry monthly fee… just not my Blackberry! We usually assume the solution is to earn more money, but spiritually (and economically) the best solution is more often to downsize.

As Dale Bruner puts it in his commentary on Matthew, “The final tragedy of this young man who wants to have everything, even religion, is that he is not a free man. He does not have money; it has him. He is, as we say, ‘had.’”

We have been “had” whenever we think we can have the best of both worlds.


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