Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Asking Too Much

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

                        Mark 10.21-22

I Just Can’t

Some of life’s toughest moments come when someone we love or admire asks for something we’re terrified of. The request can seem minor to them, but it’s monumental to us—as my partner discovered our first time together at an amusement park. Right out of the turnstile, he headed for the biggest roller coaster, not knowing an awful experience as a boy ended my coaster career. He pleaded until I got in line with him. But with each step, I grew tenser and when our turn arrived, I couldn’t do it. Saying, “I just can’t do this” took all I had, making me feel miserable and small. When the request is major and beyond our ability—a request to borrow more than we can loan, for instance—the regret and sorrow are many times greater. Wishing we could but knowing we can’t puts us in an awful spot. How we’d love to say, “Yes, of course!” Having to say no humbles us, but it doesn’t help anyone, either the individual who asks or us.

Mark’s account of the rich young man captures this unfortunate mix of emotions. He publicly kneels before Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10.17) Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments: ‘Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, and respect your parents.” The wealthy man says he’s abided by them all of his life. At that, Mark tells us Jesus looks at him and loves him. The man’s sincerity moves Him. Yet it also quickens Jesus’s sensitivity to obstacles the young man will need to conquer to remain pure and sincere. So He asks him to do the one thing that terrifies him most: “Sell all your possessions and give the proceeds away. Then follow me.” Mark writes, “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Thorny Patches

It’s easy to be troubled by this story. Watching it from the young rich man’s perspective, Jesus’s responses seem patently unfair. The man asks for what Jesus came to give—eternal life. Yet He assigns a price to it: obey the Law. This, too, strikes us as out of character, since He lists six of the Ten Commandments, rather than those He cites as the greatest ones: love God completely and your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22.37-40) When the young man says he’s complied with the Law his entire life, why does Jesus raise the ante? Despite what Mark says, this looks less like love than calculated rejection. Turning the telescope to see the story from Christ’s viewpoint, however, we gain an altogether different understanding of what’s going on.

Jesus knows He’s asking too much. That’s why He asks it. If the man can’t part with his riches now, he’ll never be free of them. Holding on to them will become a bigger hurdle the older he gets, causing his desire to please God to fade. In Matthew 13.22, Jesus explains this syndrome in His parable of a man sowing seed, some of which lands in thorny patches: “The seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” In telling the rich young man to sacrifice his wealth for the good of others, Jesus is really asking him to clear the thorny patch that will destroy his potential for spiritual productivity. The young man doesn’t get it, but if we extend our empathy beyond feeling sorry for his sadness, we understand he and Jesus aren’t on the same page from the start.

Asking What We Need

The rich young man asks to inherit eternal life. Either he’s too proud or self-sufficient to accept it as a gift. In a way, he wants to buy God’s favor with works the same way he buys earthly advantages with money. Jesus shrewdly adopts the man’s mindset and opens the bid at an affordable price. When the young man assumes it’s a done deal, Jesus raises the bid to include the one thing he lacks—spiritual foresight. He tells the man to stop looking at his bank balance here and invest his treasure in Heaven. This demand isn't unique to the rich young man; it's a recurrent theme in Christ's ministry. Very early in the Sermon on the Mount, He warns us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.19-21)

Our hearts lay with our treasures. If what we value most is limited to this life, then we’re not free to follow Jesus as He commands. He asks we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, to love our neighbors with the same mercy and acceptance we ask for us. Anything that prevents us from honoring Christ’s principles—whether actual wealth or relationships, ambitions, attitudes, or habits—will eventually become too thorny for successful growth. It’s hard not to think the rich young man’s heart doesn’t realize Christ wants him to turn his worldview upside down. When we come to Christ, He requires no less of us. We lay our prized possessions before Him to offer Him our hearts. If, like the rich young man, we can’t raise our understanding of why we must do this, we’ll walk away sad. But if we truly desire to lead productive lives, we’ll follow Jesus’s direction. We’ll understand He’s not asking too much. He’s asking what we need.

If what we value most is limited to this life, then we’re not free to follow Jesus as He commands.

(Tomorrow: Dew Point)


Gary Lewis said...

Growing up Catholic, at least by my parents' standards, I always knew about tithing as a concept. As an adult, attending the off and on attendance at a Catholic Mass, Baptist or Lutheran service, I never seemed to have that kind of money handy when the baskets came my way.

One thing I have always done, is give. My wife Michele and I have had one garage sale in ten years. Every year we collect everything that *could* be sold in the driveway and give it to the Salvation Army, St. Paul, Purple Heart. Thousands of dollars in clothing and toys, and we have never put it on our taxes. We do it because it is the right thing to do. If our close friends can't use it, someone just below us on the economic front can take the break.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, we sent 11 plastic tubs of clothing, 44 pair of shoes, and over 100 books down to the 9th Ward. Our son Chance said it wasn't enough and raised another $100 with a Katrina-Ade stand at the end of the road.

It's what people should do. If you have it, share it. There is nothing more simple than looking out for your neighbor, or a stranger. The old "You can't take it with you" should be on as many bumper stickers as "Hang up and drive!"

Tim said...

Gary, one the greatest lessons this story teaches, I think, is that giving is a matter of heart. The willingness to give--even when it's not in our pockets--is bigger than any amount we give.

The compassion you and your family show is what Jesus was looking for in the rich young man; could he get over his security (and insecurity) in his own wealth to let it all go? That you've set such an example to inspire your son to give more thrills me. Children today have been so conditioned to ask rather than give, it's a tribute to you and your wife that your son was spared this.

What's most wonderful about it, I think, is that what we learn by giving is much greater than financial sacrifice. We learn that we can let go of anything we should give (or give up) for our improvement. My parents did with me exactly as your doing with Chace, and it instilled in me an understanding that giving is a much more rewarding and assured way to live than trying to hang on to everything we have. It makes room for more!

Thanks so much for this. You're sending me off to sleep with a big smile.


Tim said...

Oops. Misspelled Chance's name--typing too fast for my own good! Sorry, Gary.

Fran said...

Grace is a challenge for many of us at various points in our lives. God initiates all - we are to respond. Our way can't be earned as you illustrate here, simply received, then reciprocated.

It is antithetical to all that we understand in culture and society.

Tim said...

Fran, been traveling and meeting since your comment came in. But you're so right--grace must be received and then passed on. We are God's conduits, not His investment bankers; His blessings flow through us to others, not into storehouses and foundations.

It's a story older than time and proven without fail to work effectively, in a very mysterious manner--because when we give our all, we always manage to have more than enough for ourselves.

Our human understanding of kindness and mercy is, by comparison, relatively new and unproven to work effectively. What God asks turns our world upside down--to help us stand rightside up!

Blessings my dear friend! And thanks for this!