“What must I do?” the rich man asks, and we all know the risk of asking questions when you might not like the answer. By his own description, he has already lived what he understands to be a good life, keeping the commandments of his people. But something in Jesus prompts the rich man to ask this question. Is there a sense that he is somehow not doing enough? Does he think there is some other practice he can follow that will be the key to eternal life? Or maybe he hopes that, in asking, he will be affirmed and assured that what he does is already enough. Wouldn’t we all love to hear that?
Instead, Jesus tells him to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor! I don’t know a lot about 1st century Judean society, but what I do know is that that act would have a genuine impact on the lives of others, and also could be incredibly distressing to be told to do. A wealthy person like him likely has a whole social circle of similarly wealthy friends and associates, a whole way of understanding himself and his role in society that is predicated on his riches. For the rich man, to give up the things that make him rich and follow Jesus is to lose his status, strip away his image of himself, and blow up his entire world.
It’s easy for people like me to read this passage, particularly Jesus’ saying about camels and the eye of a needle, and say, “Of course, that is only just.” How can anyone be comfortable being rich while so many others are poor? It’s easy for me to read this passage as only being about condemning excess wealth, something I can use to judge others while I stand apart, safe from such condemnation myself with my graduate student budget.
And yet, what does Jesus say about those who would judge others?
Jesus asked the rich man to sell his possessions and give up the life he has known in order to follow him, and maybe we have little sympathy for his distress. But let’s not forget that Jesus also called fishermen to leave everything behind for his sake too, and they did so. Jesus does not just call on those who have far more than they need; he calls on all of us. I may not be rich, but when I think about what it means to take seriously this idea of worshiping and following a God of love and justice, a God who, through the prophet Amos, urges us to “seek good and not evil,” it seems absurd to act like that should have no effect on how I live my life or use the resources available to me. As a mentor of mine put it: what does love require of us?
If I really believe all humans are made in the image of God, how should I treat others? If I believe God made this world and called it good, how should I act in service of protecting this creation from human damage? If Jesus demands we give up things we hold dear for his sake and for the sake of the good news, how do I actually… do that?
And as we reflect on this, it gets overwhelming. You might be listening to this and thinking, “Oh no, here’s one of those sermons about how I’m not doing enough for God.” Goodness knows we’ll make choices that prioritize our own comfort at times, even if we have the best of intentions. If we can’t be “perfect,” why bother trying at all? Better to not have to worry about the shame of it, right?
And yet, God knows this. God knows how we fail to meet our own standards for ourselves, how we don’t always know the best way to go. As Hebrews puts it, we have a great high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are. God, living as one of us in Jesus, knows what it’s like to feel inclined toward the easy and comfortable. Jesus has costly teaching for how we should live and love, and Jesus also is full of grace because He gets it. Where there is a gap between where we are in our actions and where we want to be, the Scripture shows us that we can ask God for help, and there is no shame in doing so. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Something I love in our tradition is how, in the Baptismal Covenant, we don’t just make our promises with “I will.” We say “I will, with God’s help.” Even Jesus Himself says that mortals cannot save ourselves; we need God’s help. God’s love and our love of God may require much from us, but that just means there is another opportunity for us to invite God’s grace into our lives to be the help we need in living out that love in the world. As Jesus says: for God all things are possible. Maybe that means giving more money to those in need, trusting that you will still have enough to pay your bills. Maybe that means changing your lifestyle in response to climate change, and asking God to help you be satisfied with what you do have. Maybe you already have little, or nothing, and you need to receive before asking God to help find opportunities for you to give. Whatever it might be, God is here and ready to help us live out that love more. Will we be brave enough to try, and will we be brave enough to call out to God when it seems like it’s too much to give? Will we support each other, bearers of the divine image and hands and feet of Jesus that we are?
By the grace and love of our creator who knows how much and how little we can do, I think we can. With God’s help.