The Story of the Rich Young Ruler is in Mark 10.
If you don’t know it, the highlights:
- Guy asks Jesus what it takes to be saved.
- Jesus said, “You know the commandments.”
- Guy goes, “I’ve kept those all my life since I was a boy!”
- Jesus says, “Well then sell all your stuff and give it to the poor.”
- The guy walks away sad because he has a lot of stuff.
What if the story of the Rich Young Ruler isn’t as one-dimensional as it sounds?
What if the tragedy of the Rich Young Ruler is less about him choosing his crap over Jesus and more about him thinking his ability to keep the commandments made him worthy of Jesus’ love?
What if the main reason he went away sad wasn’t that he didn’t want to get rid of his possessions but because his system of belief and what he thought would save him — his own good behavior — had just crumbled before his eyes?
What if when he said he’d kept all the commandments he was expecting Jesus to give him a high five and instead he received an invitation to relate to Jesus differently — not by earning his affection but by accepting it without anything else (his stuff, or his obedience to the law) to prop him up?
What if his grief over all this falling apart kept him from hearing that invitation clearly, and he didn’t just walk away sad but he stayed sad the rest of his life.
Today I celebrate 25 years of following Jesus. I was baptized on March 6, 1994, and in my faith tradition that’s kind of the event you point to for when you signed up to be a Christian. I was twelve-going-on-thirteen, and I knew just enough about Jesus to be dangerous. The day after my baptism, for instance, I went to school and told a girl she should get baptized because otherwise, she was going to hell. I was zealous. I was serious. I wanted to follow Jesus. I did the best I could.
For most of the past 25 years I thought Jesus and I had a deal — I’d be really, really good and everything would go really, really well for me. It worked. I was really, really good. Things went really, really well. The problem is I’m the only one who signed the deal. Jesus wasn’t interested in those terms. But I signed it, and I meant it. So it worked…for a while.
But what happens when you realize you’re not as good as you think you are?
“What about the times when even followers get lost? Because we all get lost sometimes…” songwriter Andrew Peterson asks.
For me, I spent a decent chunk of the last year in crisis mode. I figured Jesus didn’t love me anymore, and I didn’t blame Him — I hadn’t kept my end of the deal. I wasn’t perfect like I was supposed to be and the stuff that used to prop me up (like that good behavior I’ve been talking about) wasn’t strong enough to hold me anymore.
Then I heard a sermon recently from a fellow Recovering Christian Poster Boy about what God does in the desert. And I listened to some liturgy about the grief of the Rich Young Ruler and I realized I’m not alone with all this reconfiguring of belief after 25 years of being really, really good. My fellow RCPB had to do it. The Rich Young Ruler had to do it.
Father Richard Rohr says most of us have to do it, too, and it usually happens around the middle of our lives. A falling or a failure punctuates this reconstruction. He calls it a “necessary suffering” if we’re going to continue to grow. For me, it’s been like a second baptism — a second death, burial, and (still in process) resurrection. Jesus is offering another invitation and I’m starting to hear it over the grief of my losses.
My 25th Baptismal Birthday, Ash Wednesday this year, is today and I’ve decided to give some stuff up for Lent. But I’m not giving away luxurious possessions or chocolate or coffee. What I feel led to surrender goes a little deeper into my existence than that. I used to think the story of the Rich Young Ruler was about him not wanting to sell his stuff. That he loved his stuff too much. I think it was more about him realizing that his goodness wasn’t enough. He’d kept all the commandments, he said. He was really, really good. Things had gone really, really well. But Jesus isn’t signing that deal. It’s a bad deal.
Instead, he invited the Rich Young Ruler, and he is inviting me, and he is inviting you, to give up all that we possess and follow him. What I possess, not the junk I have but what I really am possessive of,and what I must surrender this Lent and forevermore (albeit 25 years too late) is the belief that I can be good enough to earn a spot by Jesus side. It’s the belief, deep down, that Jesus owes me something for my loyalty and Poster Boy status.
When that which props us up buckles from the weight of our failures, even after 25 years, Jesus is still standing there.
Turns out, He’s been there all the time.