The Rich Young Ruler
Ordinary Sunday 28: 14 October, 2012
Fr Philip Gill
Assitant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain
Many of the people Jesus encountered had barriers to a childlike acceptance of the grace of God. Some of them were so hard-hearted they couldn't or wouldn't see that in front of them was the one we believe to be the Son of God. And as the Gospel story unfolds we know that there were some who worked for the demise of Jesus and hoped for the dissolution of his band of disciples.
We know of several people who saw something out of the ordinary in Jesus and struggled to understand what his presence in the world meant. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea were fearful, secret disciples. Members of Jesus' own family thought him mad. Even the disciples ran hot and cold in their level of understanding — highlighted by the differing paths taken by Judas and Peter.
The Gospel today (Mark 10.17-31) is one of those great encounters between Jesus and someone grasping to understand. The dialogue between Jesus and the man we know as the Rich Young Ruler is a classic struggle between the priorities of God and the temptations of the world. This struggle is something each of us faces every day.
Perhaps this story is really only a vehicle to get listeners to the punch-line. Discipleship has its benefits: intimate relationships, prosperity in proper perspective and eternal life. But the fact that this story is intended as an illustration for teaching may be a blessing in disguise. With the editor's eye on the story's climax he may have not been too concerned to dot the evangelistic "i's" or cross the missiological "t's". We may have in this encounter an impression of the historical Jesus who feels deeply for those who cannot let go of the things that prevent them from responding to that deep, deep longing to know God.
What I'm trying to get at here can be illustrated by comparing this version of the story in Mark with those in Matthew and Luke. In Mark's version, understood as the earliest, the man declares that he has kept the commandments from his youth. In response Jesus, "...looked at him and loved him". This expression of emotion does not appear in either Matthew or Luke though in other respects they follow Mark's narrative pretty closely. In Luke Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and in John he weeps at news of the death of Lazarus — but a display of love towards someone who doesn't get it, even though he is in deep turmoil, may have been too much for those later writers.
This meeting between the wealthy and morally-upright man and Jesus stuck in the minds of the disciples with good reason. In what possible way could he have failed to make the grade? In those days — and I think to some extent for many today — wealth was thought to signify the blessing of God. People in Jesus' time undoubtedly experienced shysters and charlatans who were wealthy, but if it was true that this man was wealthy and righteous what could the problem be? The problem was that something was still gnawing at him. He seemed to be experiencing something of what the existentialist psychotherapist Rollo May termed "religious tension". He felt a profound difference between the way he experienced life and how it could or should be. All his righteous acts, all his moral integrity and even all his wealth could not take away his anxiety. That would take radical surgery: "One thing you lack, sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow me."
Then comes the twist that is useful for the Gospel writer looking for an introduction for teaching about the traps of wealth, but it has an unhappy ending for the young man, and it seems it was a painful conclusion for Jesus as well. He turns away — and what would be the fate of that man but to wallow in his wealth while sinking further into the depths of his despair?
I think the question for us is the same as the one faced by the young man — assuming that very few of us have reached the point of peace and tranquillity that the young man was seeking. What is it that keeps us from accepting God's grace? Whereas he was consumed by his wealth what is it for us? Maybe we feel too sophisticated to believe in a loving God. Maybe we let other priorities crowd out God's agenda. Perhaps some of us are in danger of worshipping our achievements at work. We have a wealth of choice and yet we may still be unsettled by own religious tensions.
Come to think of it I have a pretty good dose of religious tension right now. I work with prisoners, and I often have the feeling that things are not right and much more could be done to enable those involved with the justice system to work towards more positive ways of living. They are not always helped by our justice system that has not yet got right the balance between punishment, restitution and rehabilitation.
So too working among the homeless I quickly get a feeling that things are not right. As the inaugural Lazarus Centre Chaplain I can now focus on ministry to the homeless. I would urge you in your moments of religious tension to consider the ministry our parish offers through the Lazarus Centre. One reason I accepted this role is that I know and have come to respect and trust those involved in the Lazarus Centre. In a week I have already learnt a couple of important things. The first is the importance of the work. Through the hospitality we provide people do find places to lay their heads that are not park benches, squats, rooming houses or the couches of family and friends — it does happen. Secondly we provide a place where members of the health professions can reach out to those in need. Last week there was a nurse from Doutta Galla Health Services mixing with the participants at the Friday BBQ. Through word of mouth she heard that one of the clients had developed bad ulcers on his leg. She sought him out, asked him about his leg and then dressed his wound. Many of those we work amongst are so discouraged they will not or cannot make their own medical appointments.
Participating, witnessing, encouraging and giving voice to such acts of healing is one part of the Lazarus Chaplain's brief. The other part is, together with the steering committee set up for this ministry, to envision further ways to offer care for the homeless. In 2011 the Melbourne City Council published a report entitled Pathways: City of Melbourne Homelessness Strategy 2011-2013. The report states that the Council intends to build partnerships with groups seeking to care for the homeless and to find adequate homes for them. We will be seeking to work with others who want to make a difference in the lives of those facing homelessness.
There is another snippet included in Mark's version of the Rich Young Ruler that is not in Matthew or Luke. In the very beginning of the story, the man comes to Jesus and kneels before him. We might interpret this action as an act of devotion toward the one we understand as the Son of God; but it would have been unthinkable for a wealthy man to kneel before an itinerant preacher from Nazareth. This act would have been as unthinkable as any of the unsettling encounters in the gospels — think of the woman at the well, meals with tax collectors, telling the grown ups they must become like children. Such was the unsettling nature of the rich man's predicament; such is the unsettling nature of the Gospel.
The situation of the rich man is our situation. We experience that temptation to unseat God and put ourselves in God's place. We may, Rollo May suggests, experience religious tension — a feeling that something is wrong, something is incomplete, something is missing. It may be our wealth or our pride or our ambition or our stubbornness or myriad other things that might make us turn away from Christ in great sadness. But we do not have to take that path — we can accept the path of discipleship, or be renewed in it, and enjoy those blessings that well up to eternal life.
- Kurt Aland, ed., Synopsis of the Four Gospels, English Edition, (United Bible Society: 1982 revised printing 1985), 218.
- Rollo May, The Art of Counselling, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1939, 1967 18th printing 1980), 67-74.
- From the Doutta Galla Community Health website:
Doutta Galla provides high quality, culturally appropriate and accessible primary, community and mental health services with a particular focus on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the cities of Melbourne and Moonee Valley.
- Homeless Strategy 2011-2013
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.