“You lack one thing,” said Jesus to the rich man, the man who probably thought he had everything. “You lack one thing.” And without much effort at all, we can imagine the rich man’s thoughts as he hears Jesus’ answer:
One thing? One thing will be easy. Surely I can go get that one thing. And because I’m rich, I can even buy that thing if I have to—like the missing ingredient one needs from the grocery store, or the crucial tool for the DYI project from Lowe’s! One thing is no biggie, especially once you’ve mastered the Ten Commandments, right? Once you’ve figured out how to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. Acquiring the one thing I lack is going to be a piece of cake.
Yes, without much effort, we can imagine the rich man’s thoughts as he hears Jesus’ answer because it could so easily be us. It could so easily be us, relatively rich people that we are, running up to him on the road and wondering if we can join along with the other disciples as they prepare for their next adventure on the way to Jerusalem, this grand quest for eternal life. We, too, are accustomed to thinking of life and all of its opportunities in terms of what we’ll gain, what we can accomplish. And if we can make a list for it—one of those lists where we check off the things we’ve managed to do—well, then all the better. We feel secure, solid, set.
I know this is how the Martin family operates so much of the time. We make lists constantly, especially if we’re going on a trip somewhere. What I’ve noticed over time, however, is that my wife’s and my lists are very different. She lists things that benefit the whole family’s success and safety on the excursion. She makes a “Things to Get or Buy” list, a “Things to Do Before We Leave” list, and a “Things to Pack in the car” list. My list tends to be, “Bring my bird book, my music, my camera, my other bird book…” Regardless, we all like those lists and those goals. And if we’re ever told there is only one thing we lack, we’ll find a way to add it on.
So, just as we might be able to imagine the rich man’s thoughts, we can also imagine the rich man’s surprise to learn that the one thing he lacks is not something he can really add on at all. It’s not something that can be purchased or achieved or jotted down to a list somewhere. It is something he must give up. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” Jesus replies. “Then come, follow me.”
In a gospel that doesn’t give us precious little detail about people’s emotions, we hear the rich man’s loud and clear: he goes away grieving, for he had many possessions. The whole scene must have been pretty shocking, the disciples and other interested townspeople standing around dumbfounded, wondering why Jesus wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, himself, to include such an influential and obviously well-connected benefactor in his band of followers.
In the ancient world, honor and public distinction was the currency most people valued. It gave a person power in relation to others, and power led to wealth. If Jesus could find a way to incorporate this rich man into his community, there is no doubt their prestige would continue to rise. Yet, instead of playing into those established, worldly ways of influence, Jesus demonstrates this reversal that his kingdom is all about. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Jesus uses the opportunity to explain how the wealthy have a worse chance at a place in that kingdom than a camel does squeezing through the eye of a needle. Many a Bible scholar has tried to explain this saying of Jesus away, claiming that the “eye of a needle” was the colloquial name for one of the gates surrounding Jerusalem, but the truth is Jesus is speaking like a normal middle eastern male: truthfully, but with a little bit of hyperbole. The point is that attachment to worldly things, status and the acclaim of others, will be a barrier to experiencing the grace of God’s kingdom.
It’s not that wealth itself is evil or contrary to God’s purposes. But the power and influence and freedom that wealth often provides can easily become that which we worship. We can be swindled into believing that the only freedom worth having is the kind of freedom that money gives us. It can cause us to forget about that greater freedom—the freedom that Jesus Christ offers in his journey toward eternal life, the release from sin and shame, the freedom that comes from serving others. Like with so much else in a life of list-makers, it’s often easy to think of following Jesus and the journey of faith and focus on what we’re going to gain out of it, especially in our culture. But here Jesus reminds us that being a disciple will also involve losing something.
This is hard stuff for us to hear, and we grieve, too. Those who have the greatest ability to influence their reality and their future probably have the most to lose—at least initially—from a deeper relationship with Jesus. That is why atheism and agnosticism can take root among those in culture who have the most relative power. I don’t say this to make light of those points of view, or to belittle those who struggle, like I imagine many of us do, with doubts about God’s existence and goodness. But I find myself needing to be reminded that that in our times and in our culture, those who are, by and large, white, male, affluent, and educated will end up being the easiest to convince that they have no need of a God, especially if that God asks them to suffer, or at least indicates that persecution is a part of the deal. The truth is that the rich man wants a deeper relationship with Jesus, but that will involve overcoming that barrier of privilege and security.
In her autobiographical play, “A Little Girl of Privilege,” and more recently in her interview for the upcoming film Human, French Holocaust survivor Francine Christophe tells the moving story of her experience as a young child in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after being rounded up with her mother off the streets of France. She explains that as children prisoners of war, they were “privileged.” By that she meant they were allowed to bring one thing with them from France. Usually they could take along a bag with two or three small items. Some brought chocolate, some brought some sugar, others a handful or two of rice. Francine’s mother had packed two little pieces of chocolate. Her mother said, “We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate and you’ll feel better.”
Francine goes on to explain that one of the women imprisoned with them was pregnant. The women was so skinny it was hardly noticeable, but the day came when she went into labor. Francine’s mother was barracks chief, and so she went into the camp hospital with the woman. Before her mother left, she looked at Francine and asked, “Remember that chocolate? How do you feel?”
Francine responded, “I’ll be OK, Mama.”
So her mom said, “I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.”
The woman did, in fact, give birth to the baby, and she did not die. Francine goes on to say that the baby was extremely weak and very small and never cried. Not once. Not until the camp was liberated by the Allies six months later. When they unwrapped the baby’s swaddling clothes, it finally screamed. That’s when it was born, Francine says. They took the baby, scrawny as it was, back to France with them and they parted ways.
One day a few years ago, Francine’s daughter asked her how much easier it might have been if the concentration camp survivors had had psychologists or psychiatrists upon their return to France in order to help them work through their trauma. It gave them an idea to host a lecture entitled, “If the concentration camp survivors had had counseling in 1945, what would have happened?” The lecture apparently drew a crowd—elderly survivors, historians, many psychologists, psychotherapists. Many ideas emerged from the conference and people got a lot out of it. Francine says that then a woman took the podium and said, “I live in Marseilles, where I am a psychiatrist. But before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.” Francine explains at that point the woman reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to Francine and she said, “I am the baby.”
Jesus reminds his disciples, reminds you and me, that there are things to give up, even our privilege. But then he also explains this strange economy of God’s kingdom, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
If even one piece of chocolate is what we’re asked to give—if it is just one morsel that separates us from a deeper life of service to others—we can trust it will still come back to us hundred-fold. You have experienced that phenomenon already, I’m positive, in some fashion, in your service to others in our ministry programs here or in your personal sacrifices to the kingdom in your lives outside of this building. Jesus says we’ll get fields once we follow him? Well, the youth group happens to be going to go work at Shalom Farm today, a huge field out in Goochland County that provides food for the undernourished of Richmond. It’s our field!
But in those moments we’re not sure we have it in us, when the selfishness rises within and our desire for security and privilege comes crashing in once more, let us remember this Savior is not asking us to do anything he’s not willing to do, himself. That’s not the kind of leader he is, asking, like some televangelist, to fork over some more while he builds the castles of power off camera. He looks at us, loves us, and asks us to give up and cast off things, ideals, agendas, power…but then let us remember he’s on the road to Jerusalem. He knows all about giving up things. He’s going to be giving up his life, after all, and the road to eternal life will go through the cross. And many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
It sounds absolutely ludicrous, monumentally foolish—a whole life of eternity hanging on just one thing?—utterly impossible! But for God, all things are possible.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.