Speaking the Truth
As a priest, I’ve had the privilege of presiding at many weddings. Every wedding is different, beautiful, and moving in its own way. At one recent wedding, the most powerful moment was the toasts. The maid of honor was the sister of the bride, and the best man was the groom’s brother. At the appropriate moment in the evening’s festivities, each of them got up and delivered a word of truth in love. Now I’ve attended many wedding receptions in my life, but I’ve never before heard the maid of honor and best man give pointed, and perhaps hard to hear, advice. The usual speech, as we all know, is to share some fun memories of your relationship with your newly married friend and to mention how much you’ve grown to like their new spouse. It’s then typical to say, “I love you,” usually with lots of emotion.
At this wedding, however, the maid of honor rose and shared the fact that she and her husband have a propensity to argue. She stressed the importance of listening to your spouse, and especially when the giddy days of being a newlywed have passed. The best man instructed his brother in some specific ways to be a good and loving husband: put God at the center of your relationship, provide a space safe where your wife can flourish and grow personally and spiritually, and surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth and not just what you want to hear.
When I heard the maid of honor and best man’s toasts, I thought about Jesus’ words to the man in today’s Gospel. The man, often referred to as “the rich young ruler,” because of the way he is referred to in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, comes to Jesus with one burning question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s easy for us to dismiss the man since we know the end of the story, but his question is a good one. To him the question is a matter of life and death. He wants to make sure he is saved. He is honest and upright, a good Jew and citizen who kept the commandments since his youth. He is concerned with his spiritual future, and understandably wants to make sure he is doing all the right things.
Jesus does not dismiss or shame him, but looks at him with love. Jesus speaks words that won’t be easy to hear, but that have the man’s best interests at heart. Jesus not only sees the man’s strengths, he also sees his weaknesses. He sees clearly what trips the man up spiritually, both now and in the long term. He tells the man that there is one thing he lacks, or has not done. The man must go and sell everything he owns and give the money to the poor, so that he will have treasure in heaven. He ends with the words, “then come, follow me.” The man is shocked, and goes away grieving.
The man, like us, comes to Jesus with a question, and Jesus reveals that the answer is so much bigger. In love, Jesus challenges him to do what he really needs to do to follow Jesus. For this man, like some of us, money is the final hurdle. He hasn’t murdered anyone, he hasn’t committed adultery, he hasn’t stolen anything, he hasn’t testified against anyone falsely, he hasn’tt defrauded anyone, and he has shown his mother and father great respect. Jesus, however, sees the one thing that is holding the man back. He knows that life in God’s kingdom is about transformation and character change, and he challenges the man to address the one area of his life that is giving him a false sense of security and keeping him closed off from others: his possessions. As is the case in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus turns the focus away from the petitioner’s concern with his own salvation to gracious behavior toward others. The man comes to Jesus concerned about himself and his future, and Jesus pushes him to look outward toward those members of his community who are struggling financially, and to help them. In this man’s case, his possessions have become an obstacle to relationships with those who are poor. Jesus knows that God’s kingdom is primarily relational, and that salvation and eternal life are related to the well-being of all.
Jesus’ words are shocking on so many levels. They are shocking because the man who approaches Jesus is a nice and trustworthy guy, a regular synagogue-goer. Jesus’ words are shocking because they raise the question, “are we also called to sell our belongings and give the proceeds to the poor?” They are shocking in Jesus day, because financial well being was understood as a blessing from God. Those who were well off were thought to be especially blessed. Their financial prowess was interpreted as a sign of virtue, whereas those who were poor were thought to be cursed and lazy. This worldview continues in our day, as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen.
Now let me be clear: I don’t think Jesus is asking all of us gathered here today to sell our possessions. As I mentioned last week, I also don’t think he is saying that possessions and wealth are bad. I do believe, however, that Jesus is asking us to think about what is keeping us from participating in God’s relational kingdom. What is keeping us from following Jesus? What is keeping us from loving God and our neighbor with everything we are and have? Is anything or anyone a barrier between us and God? Between us and our neighbor? In the words of Paul Tillich, what is our Ultimate Concern? Where does our heart and ultimate security lie? Is it in our pocketbook? Our job? Our family? Our time? Our desire to control things and pretend that we’re God? Our desire to look and feel young? Our need to separate ourselves from others in some way? What “power” or “powers” hold us captive?
Jesus approached the man in today’s Gospel just as he approaches us, in love. He doesn’t speak or relate to us from a place of guilt, but from an unconditional love rooted in commitment, not feelings. He knows our strengths as well as our weaknesses. He knows what will enable us to flourish, and what will consistently trip us up. As our reading from Hebrews reminds us, we don’t have a savior who doesn’t understand the challenges and temptations we face every day. We have a savior who came here to share our place, who knows how hard life can be, who knows how easy it is to put our security in everything but God.
Jesus knows what sort of transformation needs to take place so that we can truly follow him. Following Jesus wholeheartedly will not be easy, and sometimes it will be downright painful. As any alcoholic or drug addict will tell you, it’s hard to move from the known to the unknown, even when the known causes pain, hardship and separation from others. One commentator on this Gospel noted that it never says that the man did not choose to follow Jesus. He suggested that the man grieved, because he finally understood the deep-seated change that living a Kingdom life would require.
Following Jesus, participating in a whole new way of life, giving up those things that give us a feeling of security or worth, addressing whatever separates us from others, all sound daunting. How could we possibly do this? The good news is that the work is ultimately God’s. God has been inviting us to a new and more abundant life from the very beginning. We need to be open to God’s movement in our lives and neighborhood. As our Gospel reminds us, “for God all things are possible.”
It’s also best to begin simply. We need to make time to be in the company and presence of Jesus. We need to make time to be in the company and presence of those who have committed themselves to following Jesus. We need to be with those who will be honest with us, and not just tell us what we want to hear. We also need to make time to be with those we are most separated from –the people who scare us or make us nervous in some way – the poor, the homeless, the ill, the dying, those from different countries, religions, and cultures. All these relationships will give us an opportunity to experience Jesus’ presence, challenge, and grace. Following Jesus is a way of life that takes place in relationship with God and others. May God give us the grace and encouragement to face whatever is holding us back. Amen.