Lent is only a few days away, which registers with no-one in my household but me (although I’ll give the 1 year old and 3 year old a free pass for now). And I have been thinking about the story of the rich young ruler.
Do you mark Lent? I spent a good few years as an Anglican in my childhood and then as a teenager threw in my lot with the Pentecostals, and they didn’t really pay attention to Lent, so it hasn’t always been part of my yearly rhythms. I probably looked down on my completely unreligious school friends who tried to give up chocolate for Lent each year, without any particular purpose. But now, in my 30s, I am drawn most years to this austere season, even while my comfort-loving body shudders at the prospect.
And so the rich young ruler. Is he the archetype for the human who can’t give up the ‘things of the world’? That man we know so little about, this rich and apparently high status individual (a ruler?), who runs to Jesus, Mark’s gospel tells us, runs to him and kneels before him, and asks him a question. A future-oriented question. Not, according to better theologians than I, a question about how one gets to heaven, but about how he participates in the kingdom that is coming. The thing that Jesus is doing. And after going through the official answers, Jesus tells him to do two things: sell all that he owns and follow Jesus.
And what do we do with that? What can he do with that?
I have so many excuses for the guy, I do, probably because of my own relative wealth and privilege. How many people depend on him to survive? – extended family, dependants, employees, slaves probably too. It’s so far out of the ballpark that how do you begin to make sense of such an extreme invitation? Is it purposefully unpalatable? Why is that the only path Jesus offers him? That’s the bit that makes me saddest – the fact the story ends with him walking away. The conversation ends.
People have ways of explaining why Jesus asks him to sell all he owns (and why we don’t need to worry that he might ask us the same thing). And mostly it’s about priorities and things we cling onto – things that aren’t bad but come to matter too much. And so I ask myself what I cling onto, what I wouldn’t let go of? And if it was hard, would Jesus stay and help me?
I don’t think Jesus tries to make life harder for us, I don’t. I don’t believe that he enjoys asking us to give up the things that are hardest. But I think I also believe that my heart and my body cling to certain things for support that aren’t good crutches; and that if I hear a whisper of an invitation to give them up, that Jesus will walk me through the loss and be altogether more to me than they could be. We can walk through a hundred little deaths when we believe in resurrection.
How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God, says Jesus. How hard it will be for me. How many things compete for my heart and my money and my time.
Lent to me is an invitation towards death, the death of some of the ways I distract, anaesthetise and pacify myself to keep my mind away from my sorrow, longing, disappointment and need. It is like a rehearsal for better choices, or a practise run. A step of faith towards Jesus, that he might meet those needs if only I dare to step closer and let go of my comfort blanket.
If you’d like to read the story of the rich young ruler, here it is in the version in Mark’s gospel.
17 As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.19 You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”20 And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”21 Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
23 And Jesus, looking around, *said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”