"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus said to the man, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone."
The rich young man addresses Jesus as "good teacher," which is a respectful way to address a rabbi, a teacher of the Law. But Jesus quickly discounts that greeting and shifts the focus. This is not about him being a teacher, good or bad, but rather about his teaching us how to live within the rules God has set. Jesus has just said in the previous passage in a similar question about divorce, that the Law on divorce was an accommodation to our imperfection. It was because of our hardheartedness that the Law of Moses allowed men to divorce their wives so easily. But this is not the way God intended marriage to be in the Creation, he explains. You have taken what God desires and watered it down to be palatable for yourselves, Jesus says.
In his book How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian, John Dominic Crossan calls this behavior of taking God’s rules and watering them down to make them palatable, the “rhythm of assertion and subversion.” This pattern of assertion and subversion in the Bible occurs when we humans don’t like how radical God’s call to us is on how to lead our lives according to God’s will. We humans find that way just too hard or inconvenient, so we domesticate God’s desires by adding Bible verses that temper God’s rules to our liking so that the normalcy of human civilization is maintained. In other words, so humans can take the easy way out. This is a frequent pattern in the Biblical canon.
Just as in that earlier exchange about divorce, Jesus now takes a different tack from where the questioner thought he would go, and maybe more to the point, where he wanted Jesus to go, with the rich young man and his question about obtaining eternal life. The man’s desire is for Jesus to temper God’s call so that he can obtain eternal life. But Jesus is not so easily domesticated.
The reality is, Jesus came to earth to lead us directly into the heart of God. Jesus is here not just to be a "good teacher" but to tell us the truth about God’s will for us, in order to bring out the image of God that is inside and upon each one of us. Jesus is the antidote to the assertion-subversion conundrum.
He wants to chip away everything else that has accrued to us in the subversion of God’s message – those things not of God - so that all that remains is us, as God sees us and dreams for us to be. It is in this soil that the good news of the radicality of God can thrive.
So "Jesus, looking at [the man], and loved him." There are lots of other verbs that could be in the place of "loved" here. Jesus could have rebuked him, pitied him, laughed at him, chided him, challenged him, told him to get lost. You can fill in the blank yourself. But we are told, "Jesus, looking at him, and loved him." He loved him as a prerequisite to telling him the most difficult truth he had to tell. He loved him before he shared something with him that was going to disabuse him from false beliefs, to potentially cause him sorrowfully to go away from Jesus . . . presumably forever. In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says: "God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are." Jesus loved this man enough to tell him a truth he needed to hear, even though it might end their relationship.
Jesus' challenge is about possessions. But the root of any question about possessions is not so much about what we own or how much we own. This is not a story about the condemnation of owning things or being a person of means. Rather it is a story about what owns us.
This story could as easily be about pride, ego, or addiction, to name but a few. Like money, if these things own us than we really cannot love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and we cannot really love our neighbor as ourselves. If anything other than God owns us in our entirety, than that is a problem. Jesus sees that the man is a person of great wealth. Despite his efforts to meticulously follow all the Law of the Torah, he is still owned by his possessions. That is why Jesus instructs him to “…go, sell all your stuff, divest yourself of your love of things and their control over you, so that you can authentically follow me.”
Jesus is always inviting us into a new way of being ... a way of being where our identity is not wrapped up in anything else but being God's beloved child. Everything - and he means everything - else falls by the wayside.
At his baptism Jesus hears words from God coming from above. “You are my beloved. You are my beloved. You are my beloved.”
These are the words he says to us, as well. “You are my beloved. You are my beloved. You are my beloved.” He loves us so much, that he’s willing to risk the relationship with us to tell us God’s truth. Nothing else matters.
If we don't trust that we are known and beloved by God, it's pretty much impossible to give up everything . . . or even anything! It’s one of the most important aspects of the call to stewardship in the church. In fact it’s critical.
A lot of people don’t want to hear about their need to honestly assess their relationship with the stuff that owns them. So when we speak about stewardship of time, talent and treasure and call people to the Biblical standard of tithing, they frequently respond by saying, “that’s all you ever talk about in church is money.” To avoid “all” this talk they often stay away from worship for the duration of the campaign.
Frankly, each time I hear someone say that the only thing we talk about in church is money, my first thought is that this belief says a whole lot more about that person than it does about the parish’s honest effort to talk about our relationship to money and the things that control us. There is more than a little pattern of assertion - subversion in it. Think about that.
So, as we journey through this annual stewardship campaign for the next few weeks, I am going to ask you to do the following: For a few minutes at the beginning of each day and a few minutes at the end of each day, take some time in silence. Pray this phrase:
"Jesus, looking at him (or her), loved him (or her)."
Let Jesus look at you and love you. Then let yourself look at Jesus and ask him to help you know him better. In that knowing, let him help you loosen the grip of those things that have control over you. As that happens, remember, "God loves you exactly the way you are, and God loves you too much to let you stay exactly the way you are."