Jesus finally made it out of Galilee this past Sunday on his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. The setting is bleak in Judea beyond the Jordan. I think it looks worse now, thanks to global warming and excessive farming, but it was always “the wilderness,” which was a designation of desolation. There are and were oases that could support small communities. There were also those, such as the Essenes, that chose a more bleak situation. And yet, there are still crowds and children following Jesus. But that’s the point: they followed him here; they were not here otherwise. And one of those that followed him was a rich man.
The rich man had done everything right. He believed the proverbs, that good things happened to good people, so he followed all of the law. And it paid off. He was successful and rich and he got all the things that being successful and rich have always gotten people: power and status. Everyone believes the proverbs, that people who have things are worth something. But the rich man followed Jesus out there to the middle of nowhere, to the place where there are no things, because he wanted something more than what all that do-gooding got him; he wanted eternal life.
There were many views of the afterlife among the Jews of 1st century Palestine, but the resurrection of the dead was a popular one. In particular and for perhaps obvious reasons, the righteous would be resurrected to be reunited with their family, their nation, and God. That was their inheritance as God’s people and, of course, the most deserving of God’s people were the ones who did all the right things. It’s quite possible that the rich man thought he was already plenty righteous and expected Jesus to simply say, “You’re good. You got this.” Jesus did not say that; instead, Jesus told him to sell everything he had and follow him.
As a quick detour, it is always interesting to see what parts of the Bible people choose to universalize, to claim their necessary application in all times and places. There are those who take Paul’s prohibitions on women speaking in church or wearing jewelry as universal precepts of the faith. Gay stuff is bad, but shrimp are okay. Loving one another is for everyone, as long as you don’t love the wrong person in the wrong way. But almost no one tries to universalize this very clear statement made by Jesus. I’m not going to, either, but I find it interesting.
I’m not going to universalize it because I do think it misses the point. (To be fair, I’m reluctant to universalize anything.) The rich man wasn’t just faced with giving up his possessions. Those things were not just material, I don’t think. I think they were his identity. Following the law was thought to accumulate the wealth, so it was a sign of his righteousness and his righteousness gave him prestige and power. And, to be fair to him, he probably was a good person. The wealthy of the day were expected to contribute to civic projects and charity; the archaeological record bears this out. Also, I’ve never talked to anyone who has been to the Middle East who hasn’t found anyone, whether Arab or Jew, anything other than welcoming and charitable. People who have little will give it up for a stranger; people have a lot do, too. So I don’t imagine him as a cruel miser. If he’s following the law, he can’t be. But if he gives up all his money, who is he?
Each of us has a thing like that, a thing that we think makes us who we are, that gives us our value. Like this story, we are sandwiched between childhood and the knowledge of our inevitable deaths. As we grow up, the fear of death and the wounds of relationships grow, too. We develop coping mechanisms, defenses against these shadows. Over time, they take over. We no longer know that’s not who we really are. We forget about the breath of God, that divine light within. When he asks for eternal life, he’s asking for a never-ending future, but eternity runs in all directions. We are always and have always been wrapped up in the life of God, if we can only remember it.
Sometimes we can’t. This story ends with the rich man going away sad, but, like any good parable, it leaves us with more questions than answers. How does the story really end? Does he go away sad because he is going to sell everything? Maybe he’s just grieving the loss of identity. No matter was is our thing to give up, the thing we have to let die, we still can and should grieve that loss. Does he go away sad because he knows he can’t do it, so he’s giving up his hope for eternal life? Maybe he goes away sad, but it’s the little break in his identity that he needs, the crack where the light gets in. Maybe he doesn’t sell everything immediately, but maybe he asks what more he could do.
Each of us has a thing – probably a lot of things – that we need to give up, but sometimes we can’t. The first step, naming it, is not the last step. I like to think that the rich man learned to have compassion for himself in this moment of grief. If we can have compassion for ourselves, we are connecting to that light within. It will also enable us to have compassion for others. We all know that most of our complaints about others are really judgments about ourselves. And the more we have compassion for ourselves and compassion for others, the more cracks there will be in that shell of identity. Eventually, more and more of that light within will shine out. Maybe it will crack open someone else, so we see their light, too. As I sit here writing in the afternoon sun, I think a world where everyone’s light shines is a rich and beautiful place to be.