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Was he late to the gathering? Why was the rich man running? Was he tardy, or had he merely been tentative—standing there all along but lingering uncertain?
I imagine he was there, leaning against a tree, watching Jesus bless the children. It interested him to see the way Jesus interacted with the kids, talking to them, defending them, telling anyone who would listen, “The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The Kingdom of God was theirs—imagine that, the Kingdom in the hands of toddlers. They’d done nothing to deserve it except open their arms in unabashed expectancy.
The rich man was less bold. He hung back and took in the scene, hesitating so long he almost missed his chance to speak with Jesus, and he was forced to going running after him to get in the request he came for: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, “I saw the children receive the kingdom, but what about me? Am I too late, too old, too flawed?”
I remember the way I felt at Great Grandpa Howard’s when I passed the cut-off age for the children’s Christmas gift exchange: I outgrew the tradition and there were no more presents for me. Is that what the rich man felt, only worse? This wasn’t just a toy or t-shirt he was bargaining for; this was the Kingdom of God he wanted and he had longed for it his whole life. Since he a child himself, he’d been working for it: “Teacher, I have kept all these laws since I was a boy!”
And the text says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him,” which is no mere accessory to the story, but the crux of it: Jesus loved him.
But Jesus also had something to say. “One thing you lack,” he began, and here was something the man already knew. That’s why he had come, and he was relieved to see Jesus understood. He had riches aplenty, but no real treasure in heaven, that is, nothing of value, nothing incorruptible and timeless, and this was a void he felt in his gut. Those children had it, but he did not. He was perplexed, hungry, passionate for an answer, and this is how Jesus replied: “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this, the rich man’s face fell and he went away sad. The end.
It’s really not a very good story. No happy ending, zero resolution. There’s not even a villain to spice up the plot: just a law-abiding rich man and Jesus who go their separate ways.
The Bible drags things on by mentioning the disciples, who were understandably a little shell-shocked to hear Jesus proclaim how hard it is for the rich to enter God’s Kingdom. They had thought the wealthy were the ones whom God had blessed! If the wealthy weren’t in, who else had a chance? Peter, who was always a bit anxiously cocky, quickly declared: “We have left everything to follow you!” Many of the 12 disciples weren’t so wealthy to begin with, but there was a lot of other stuff they left behind: houses, fields, fishing nets and families, and Jesus commends them for all of their sacrifices.
What happened to receiving the Kingdom of God simply like children?! That’s what I want to know. How did discipleship go from simple to complicated, from generous to demanding in such a short snap of time? One minute the babies are inheriting it for free and the next minute a wealthy religious man is not worthy unless he sells everything.
This passage makes me antsy. Besides being an unresolved story, it is an unresolved dilemma inside of my self. I don’t know what to do with it. I start to second-guess every good thing I’ve been given and wonder whether I should sacrifice it on an altar. I think maybe I should go down the list of all my possessions, achievements, and family members and figure out which ones to abandon in the name of Jesus. Is there something I own that in fact, owns me and keeps me from following unreservedly after Jesus?
Like the rich man, I walk away from this text every single time, confused and distraught. I just don’t know what this means for me. Not really.
When I simmer down and get real quiet, a new and more peaceful thought begins to capture me: Might I cultivate a lifestyle in which it is easier to let go? Might I learn the art of surrender?
Have you ever noticed when the elderly approach the very end of life, how like children they become? They are dependent on someone else to feed them, wash them, clothe them, move them here and there. For those of us who knew their former strength, watching this process stirs up a lot of grief and our grief is appropriate. But on the flipside, perhaps that childlike dependency is, in part, what prepares them to receive the Kingdom.
The older you get, the more you are forced to practice letting go. For most of us, it begins before we are ready. Whether it’s retirement or an empty nest, the decline of your health and mobility, or the loss of loved ones, growing old requires a variety of farewells. I have heard that in a way, this is practice for your own final goodbye, and that doesn’t have to be as dismal as it sounds. These little losses along the way are training wheels: you are learning how to ride with a looser grip on stuff and a tighter grip on the Kingdom.
Tradition has it that this rich man who approaches Jesus was young, and maybe that is half his problem. He’s too old to be a child, to climb in Jesus’ lap and receive the Kingdom with wonder. But he’s far too young to know how to die, to enter the Kingdom with readiness. It’s a tough age to be, when you’re trying so hard to grow up quick and get places fast and achieve your dreams; yet, inheriting the Kingdom asks you to slow down, give stuff away, and be more like a child. You are in acquiring-mode, building and buying mode. 40 years to go, at least, before you even think of downsizing. It will be decades before your grandkids start asking for your stuff and your kids start dropping hints about moving to the retirement home.
Because he is young, and because this young man clearly desires the Kingdom, and because the text explicitly says Jesus loved him so, my personal theory is that this man will come back. He walks away now, but he has an entire long life ahead and a man with that kind of passion cannot simply grow old denying the call to die forever. My bet is he’ll be back. I suspect Jesus thought so too, which is why Jesus didn’t hold back when he made his demands. Here is a man who wants desperately to be “all in,” but “all in” requires even more than he thought, so (initially) he walks away.
But he will grow older. A crisis or two will arise that even his wealth won’t fix. He’ll lose a friend or a family member to an untimely death and he’ll reflect somberly on what matters most. He’ll gain more and more status, more and more recognition yet at the end of the day feel empty in spite of it all. Somewhere along the way, he will grow up and become more like a child: less self-sufficient, less demanding of himself, less frantic, less competitive, less consumed by worry and wealth, less driven by achievement and accumulation . . . mark my words, he’ll be back.
We’re all in the same boat, I think, no matter what our age. We can embrace death later, or we can embrace death now. We are moving towards death at the same pace either way, but it’s up to us when we begin to participate in the surrender, how soon we begin to learn how to let go. This seems so daunting, so unfortunate, so unfair, but welcoming our death won’t make us more morbid; it will make us more playful.
We will come to know what truly matters, and that will clear up a lot of the worries on which we waste most of our energy. Most of those worries didn’t bother you a bit as a child; you learned them from somewhere and whenever you are ready, you can begin to unlearn them. Learning how to worry, how to participate in the rat race, how to crave status and esteem, how to accumulate things, how to climb over others on your way to the top: learning all that was easy. It came to us like second-nature though we knew nothing of it as small children. Unlearning it is work, our spiritual work. Life itself will teach you—eventually—how to loosen your grip, but some people fight those lessons off all the way to the grave. Those with a passion to inherit the kingdom start listening to the lessons sooner. Bit by bit, they practice dying, and bit by bit they experience resurrection, that bit of the Kingdom that rises up inside you like a light, a light that will shine on even when all else goes dark. Amen.