Lately, Barrett and I have been getting a little ruthless about giving things away. Clothes, books, toys, you name it. Maybe it’s the fact that Adam is getting bigger and we don’t plan on having any more kids, so there is no reason to save the clothes and toys he outgrows. You know, apart from the one or two “Can you believe you used to be this tiny?” outfits.
Maybe I was inspired by a friend on Facebook who shared how she helped her children pare their wardrobes down to 5 piece of each kind of clothing—5 short sleeves, 5 long sleeves, 5 pants, 5 dresses… and when I envisioned that for myself and my kids, it felt liberating, you know, under the layers of panic and anxiety about what I would keep and how I would make the decisions.
Maybe I was shocked into action when I sorted big-girl toys from little-boy toys and realized that at only 15 months old, Adam already had an over-flowing toy-box worth of toys—and most of them were not toys he inherited from Susanna, but toys given specifically to him.
Maybe it was the realization that we literally did not have enough book shelves to hold all the books in our house. Regardless of where this impulse is coming from, I found myself identifying with this unnamed man in our gospel lesson as I read it this week.
He came to Jesus—ran to Jesus—interrupting Jesus’ travels so he could kneel at Jesus’ feet. Now, most of the people who kneel in front of Jesus in Mark’s gospel, are people seeking healing—people begging for Jesus to make them well, or whole. I doubt this man is any different. When he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” he is not testing Jesus, like the Pharisees were last week. And this is also more than intellectual curiosity.
This man comes to Jesus with a question that touches the heart of his longings—how do I get involved with God? How do I participate in God’s kingdom, how do I live a life that has eternal significance? And he comes expecting a real answer—one that will transform his life.
At first Jesus simply recites the ten-commandments in abbreviated form. It’s as if he’s saying, “If you need a place to start, start with the basics.” The man persists: “I’ve been doing those things all,” and what is not spoken is the implication, “it’s not enough. Following those rules is not enough to help me feel truly alive. I need help. Help me.”
And Jesus loves him. That’s what it says—in that moment, Jesus looks at this broken man in front of him, and loves him.
Jesus loves him, and the next words flow out of that love. “Well then, there is only one thing you are lacking.
I imagine this man’s heart thumping—here it comes, the answer to everything—“Go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
And this is where the story really hit me this week, because I’ve heard that little voice whispering in my ear—the stuff is not enough. The stuff gets in the way. The stuff is meant to share—give it away. And my reaction? Pretty much like the man in our story—grief.
It is hard to give stuff up! Even when we want to! Even when, in the depths of our souls and with all our rational faculties , we know it would be good for us, know it would feel liberating, even so, it is hard to let go.
And I’m just weeding out—paring down. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to attempt what Jesus suggests for this man—to sell it all, and not even keep the profit—to give all that money to the poor, and then walk away—to relinquish even control over what the poor person does with my money—with the money, because it wouldn’t be mine, anymore.
I would grieve, too. Maybe I would grieve because it feels too hard, and I’m not sure I could do it. We like to give small amounts of extra money to organizations we believe will handle the money responsibly, but to give it all away—to people who may not use it in ways we approve of? Yeah, that’s a big challenge.
Maybe I would grieve because even if I do it, it will hurt—at least at first. My experience lately has been that I just want it over—kind of like pulling off a bandaid—I want to sort out what stuff is leaving our house, and get it over with.
Maybe I would grieve the stuff, because, let’s face it—we like stuff. The little outfit that doesn’t fit Adam anymore was so cute, or it was a gift from a friend. The toy that never gets used was the one I picked out when I was still pregnant. The blouse that got a small stain on the sleeve used to belong to my mom. We attach sentimental value to things, and it makes it harder to part with them.
So, I’ve found myself wondering what Jesus meant when he told the man, “You have one thing lacking.” What was lacking? What was missing? Because Jesus’ next instructions do not define what is gained—the instructions are all about what goes—what is given, or sold. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor. That sounds more like the man had too much of something, not a lack, or a gap. So, what is that lack? Or, a different way of asking the question is, what did the man gain, or would the man have gained by following Jesus’ instructions to sell everything?
Maybe he would have gained freedom to follow Jesus without worrying about the stuff back home. Maybe he would have gained awareness of how God provides—something we have trouble seeing when we are surrounded by more than enough stuff. Maybe he would have gained trust that God will provide. Maybe he would have gained space—heart space, or head space to focus his attention more fully on God.
Whatever it is, I want to find out. I want to know more. I have an itch. I feel the ache. I want to lay myself out at Jesus feet and ask him, “What about me? What do I lack? What can I gain? What must I do to live more fully, to live a life of meaning and purpose—one that has eternal significance?” And I feel the grief—the heartache and challenge of it.
No one said following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes it feels like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. Honestly—if my stuff is in the way of my finding true fulfillment in God, then the process of letting go of all that stuff, either physically, or emotionally, or both—seems about as impossible as squeezing a zoo animal through a needle’s eye. Just beginning to pare down the stuff is a huge challenge.
And maybe that’s not the challenge for everyone. Maybe for some of us, what is holding us back is the stuff, but maybe for others of us, it is relationships—abusive or controlling relationships that keep us from living life fully and freely, or maybe for some of us it is jobs or roles that we have assumed—needing to be the one in charge, or the one with the answers or the one others rely on. And those are just as hard to leave behind—just as hard to let go of. No one said following Jesus would be easy.
But Jesus also ends by telling his disciples that what is impossible for humans is not impossible for God. For God all things are possible.
This story doesn’t tell us whether the man followed Jesus’ instructions or not. It tells us that he walked away grieving, but he would have to walk away from Jesus if he was going to go sell his things and give the money to the poor. Was he grieving because Jesus asked him to do something he did not feel able, or willing to do? Or was he grieving because he knew it would hurt before it got better?
I like to think it got better. I like to think that even while he grieved, he knew that he wanted God more—he wanted a chance at a deeper, fuller life, and discovered within himself strength and resolve he didn’t know he possessed. Maybe that’s what he was lacking—the ability to see the that the true riches in his life were not his possessions, but his character, his integrity, his desire for God and desire to follow Jesus. I wish we knew the end of his story, but maybe it’s better that it is left open-ended. Maybe that will make it easier for us to make it our own story—to make our own ending, as we figure out, day to day, what it means for us to follow Jesus.