If you were here on Ash Wednesday, then you heard the story, shortly before this one, of when Jesus was teaching his disciples what “greatness” truly is. And do to so, he pulls a young child into the middle of the crowd and says, “Whoever welcomes one such as this, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” And today, we have the story of a rich man, approaching Jesus, asking what he ought to do. And when he can’t do what Jesus says, Jesus just lets him walk away!
And as I thought about these two stories back to back, I couldn’t help but think, “Well, obviously Jesus has never tried to grow a church!” Making way for kids and outsiders? Yes! Of course! But just letting the rich guy walk away?! I mean, come on! What are you thinking, Jesus? Sure, you talk about money and stuff. In vague generalities. The ‘power of money’ as a concept. ‘Wealth’ as a thing. But when it comes right down to it, when it actually comes to just letting the rich guy walk away? Well now. Let’s not do anything crazy. Surely we can figure something out, right?
But Jesus said, “Sell you stuff, give the money to the poor. The come, follow me.” And he couldn’t. So Jesus just let him, and all his money, just walk away. Didn’t even try to work with him. No meeting half-way. No compromising or looking the other way. Nothing.
Mark Twain supposedly once said, “Some people are troubled by the things in the bible they can’t understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.” And this story today is one of those we can understand. It’s not a confusing parable or prophetic quote. It’s not vague or “multi-faceted”. It’s a guy with a lot of stuff, who is told to sell his stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. And he can’t. So he leaves. He’s sad about that. But he’d rather be sad than poor.
And yeah, what Jesus tells him to do is hard and scary. But it’s not impossible. Some of the commands of Jesus, like “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself,” I just can’t. This side of heaven, my heart is to divided and fractured to do as Jesus says. Until the fulfillment of all things, it is impossible for me, for you, for anyone, to fulfill this command.
But some of what Jesus says is very possible, like sell your stuff and give the money away. People have done this. The disciples. Saints. Mother Theresa. So we know, we have very real (and pretty recent) evidence that it’s not impossible to do what Jesus says here.
We just don’t do it. Because we have done the cost/benefit analysis and would rather throw ourselves at the mercy of a forgiving God than risk losing what little stability it feels like we have.
I mean, really, isn’t that the truth? We can try to weasel and squirm and cajole and explain all we want. But Jesus said, “Sell your stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow me.” And here we sit with all our stuff. I’ve got a house full of it! We’ve got a church full of it! And I will tell you, I want to make it easier for you. Because that would make it easier for me. But I can’t. Jesus’ words are right there. And all I have to do is take a quick look around and know that we are convicted.
The good news, of course, is that God’s grace is real. And yes, God does forgive our failure. Salvation does not and never will hinge on our ability to get it right. Jesus never stopped loving the rich man, after all. Even when he walked away. But the danger of going to quickly to forgiveness is that we’ll miss the heart of what’s going on. Because when we just write this off as a test we inevitably fail, we miss the invitation.
Consider this – Jesus is met by a man seeking something more than he currently has. Looking for a type of life that is stronger even than death. Jesus invites him into exactly this kind of life, the kind of life he’s not going to find anywhere else, and he just…walks away.
So you tell me, who loses in this situation?
I do not believe that Jesus’ invitation to sell his stuff was a test. That Jesus was trying to trap him into feeling bad or guilty, or condemn the man simply for being rich. What if we consider that Jesus is actually sincere here? That perhaps he knows that we have an unhealthy and life-crushing relationship with our stuff?
I mean, consider how much time and energy and money goes in to taking care of our stuff. How much of our own identity is tied to our stuff. How much we define ourselves by what we own. Just imagine for a second that we did free ourselves from our stuff. How would that feel for you? Once you got past the shock, what would happen? I mean, can you imagine if we realized, as a congregation, that all we need to be the church is people, bread, wine, water, and a place to meet? Everything else is just stuff.
We are not defined by our building. Or by our stained glass. Or by our pipe organ. Just at you are not defined by your car or by your clothes or by where you live. Those are not the things that tell us who we are. The only thing that defines us is the promise we live under. The only thing that has the power to tell you who you are is the voice of God. That voice that speaks at your baptism and claims you as son, as daughter, as beloved child.
And over time, that voice can get drowned out by all the other stuff that fills our life. So Jesus invites us to get rid of it. Get rid of anything and everything that holds us captive. That lies to us about who we are and what we’re worth, and find real freedom in life with God.
And the truth is, most of the time, we will just walk away. Because it is hard. And it is scary. But it’s not a test. It’s an invitation. Because faith will not be forced. Love cannot be mandatory, or it’s no longer love.
So Jesus just keeps inviting. Keeps the door open. Keeps calling us into life with God. And when we walk away, God just keeps walking with us. All the way to the end, when all that’s left is all that we need. And we hear again our name, and the word of God speaks, “Welcome home…finally.”