One thing you lack
Sam was a privileged young man. He had a good education, trained for his station in life, his parents being among the elite in his country, and very well-off. They were regular worshippers, and incorporated their religion into their daily lives, keeping the laws scrupulously, and Sam followed their example. It was unfortunate that his father had died so young, yet Sam was a worthy inheritor of his wealth. Yet Sam still felt something missing. He wanted complete certainty. Would he really inherit eternal life? Was he good enough? He’d heard about this wandering teacher, Jesus, and knew he was controversial. Yet people followed him, and many among his own class talked with him. Sam heard that Jesus was in the area, but was thought to be leaving later that day. He immediately got up, and hurried through the town, looking for Jesus, longing to speak to him before he left. Seeing him, Sam ran up, panting, and fell on his knees: ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’. Sam was well-versed in how to flatter influential figures, and was surprised when Jesus immediately challenged his greeting; ‘Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone’. Sam felt a bit chastened, yet brightened at the next words. ‘You know the commandments: do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, honour your father and mother, do not defraud, do not give false testimony’.
Sam felt relieved. He had kept these all his days: despite the temptation to enhance their wealth with dubious practices, his family had always kept the law. ‘All these I have kept since my earliest youth. What else must I do?’ He felt Jesus looking at him, and Sam looked up and into the eyes of the teacher. He felt the love coming from them, and knew that whatever words came next would be crucial. ‘One thing you lack,’ said Jesus, ‘go, sell everything you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me.’ Sam’s face fell, and he felt flattened. He hadn’t expected that. How could he sell everything? Didn’t he need his house, food. clothes? Wasn’t he generous in giving to the poor already? Wouldn’t they suffer, if he stopped because he, too, had nothing?
Moreover, he had a responsible position in society, he couldn’t just give it up. Furthermore, however much he respected Jesus, he wasn’t sure about becoming one of the ragtag men who hung around with him. No, Jesus had this wrong; he couldn’t be the teacher people thought he was. Sam left, slowly. He couldn’t see that he was attached to his possessions; and not just to what he owned – or, even, primarily to what he owned. He was attached to the privilege that his wealth bought him. He loved being one of the rulers of his district; as one of the younger members, he respected the elders, but longed for the time when he would be one of the elders himself, being respected by those younger than himself. He couldn’t see the pride that bound him to his place in society, the pride that meant he looked down on those poorer than himself, however much he gave of his surplus. He couldn’t see that he had gone to Jesus expecting to be told,’ ‘you are a good person, you are doing everything you need’; that he wanted comfort, not a challenge.
He couldn’t see that the very flattery that had led him to call Jesus ‘good’ was what led to his ultimate rejection. Sam saw himself as good, and had expected the teacher to see this, and acknowledge that Sam was a better person than the disciples that followed him. Sam wasn’t an evil man; he was an upright person, who followed closely the precepts of his religion, and worshipped his God sincerely. But he couldn’t make that final step of giving up everything he owned: not so much the possessions, the wealth, although that came into it; but also the very sense of self that his wealth gave him. As time went on, Sam never forgot his meeting with the teacher who was to bring so much controversy. He often recounted it; but only in certain circles, where he could be sure that he would be agreed with. That far from being the Son of God these Christians thought he was, Jesus had been no more than a charismatic wandering preacher, who, in the end, didn’t have what it took. Sam never saw that what Jesus had asked of him, was what Jesus himself gave: everything.
This is only my take on the story of the rich young ruler, and what motivated him. Yet the question still remains: are we prepared to give everything in order to follow Christ? I don’t think that this means selling all our possessions, as Jesus asked the young man to do. This was a specific request of a specific person; in Luke 9 Jesus calls Levi the tax collector. This time Levi gets up, leaves everything and follows Jesus. Yet, in the next sentence, he is giving a party for Jesus at his house. So possibly for Levi ‘leaving everything’ hadn’t meant selling up. In our case, we cannot literally sell everything and become one of the band of disciples following Jesus around 1st Century Judea. But what does it mean for each one of us to ‘leave everything’ and follow Jesus? What is it that we don’t possess, but that in actuality possesses us? It may be our physical possessions, or some of them; or is it more what goes along with those possessions? How people see and respond to us? Our own vision of ourselves?
It is not easy to leave everything to follow Jesus. We tend to take ourselves along with us. It is so much easier to follow Jesus by conforming to what is expected of us, to turn up at church every Sunday, to get our regular prayer times. Not that there’s anything wrong with all of this; but are we doing it for Jesus or for ourselves? It doesn’t help that the answer is often ‘both’. This is not a one-off decision. It is a question we must confront regularly. What is it that comes between us and Jesus? Can we give it up? Doing so may not change what we possess, or the structure of our lives, our day to day activities. But it will hopefully be the start of a different relationship with our Lord, that will begin to impact how we live. We may find that, however much or little we own, what we possess no longer possesses us.