He said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him…
Both Job and the man from this Gospel story feel confident that they have been good; they have kept all the commandments since their youth. Job is so confident he is going to give God a piece of his mind for God’s lack of mercy. There is nothing in either the story of Job or the story of this man who desires to have eternal life that would suggest they are lying.
It makes me wonder about the story of the woman caught in adultery. Would she have copped the first stone from either Job or this man if they had been present? Clearly Job’s story is told to help us reflect on why bad things happen to good people. So we’ll leave it to one side but the man seeking to inherit eternal life is very important for us to reflect on.
Mark’s is a relentless Gospel, which seems not so much to invite to faith as to prove again and again the impossibility of faith. A few times that pattern is broken — we will all be really relieved to meet blind Bartimaeus in a few weeks’ time. But today’s [portion of Mark’s Gospel] is killer. So we have to manage it.
She offers a lot of ways people have tried to “Manage” this little story. For instance:
Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, but only to him. It makes no claim on anyone else, being but an object lesson on acquisitiveness.
She lists about ten ways to manage the story, all of which leave you feeling good but not a hundred percent convinced. I guess we will have to wrestle with the story. We may not end feeling good but perhaps the great power of the Gospel will be brought into focus.
Let’s begin with the mirror Jesus holds up to the man. ‘You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ (Mark 10:19) Most of us have enough self-awareness to recognise that we are far from perfect. At least we have that self-awareness on a good day. But we have bad days. Sometimes we feel more like the psalmist when we have really messed up.
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
Usually the next day we have a bit of perspective on whatever we had done or failed to do and feel human again. But there are times when life seems to grind us down. All we see in the mirror is an ugly worm and we truly believe that everybody despises us. Mental illness or grief or a series of unfortunate events can take us into that space. What we see in the mirror is not reality but it feels like it. We often hurt the people we love the most in that space.
One of my friends told me yesterday how his life fell apart when the stress at work completely overwhelmed him, alongside his marriage falling apart and then finally losing his children in the court case. He had a complete breakdown and need help and time to recover.
So sometimes we look in the mirror and we see a healthy person who is sinner and saint combined. Other times we look in the mirror and we see just a miserable sinner. It’s a jaded perspective that seems very real. What about a third alternative when we look in the mirror and see a saint.
I am not sure what makes some people see themselves as wonderful with little or no humility. When I was teaching RE to year 5s on Thursday I tried to tell them that humility was an important ingredient for forgiveness. It is harder to forgive others when you don’t feel you have ever hurt anybody. Jesus would have been in trouble on the day that the woman was caught in adultery if one of these saints had been present. Their view of themselves is equally distorted just as those who see the worthless worm in the mirror. But it is a distortion that creates self-righteousness. It was Paul’s sense of self-righteousness as a Jew that made him confident enough stand by and watch St Steven stoned to death.
When we have the distorted view of ourselves we can be very harsh judges. A fellow parishioner or colleague at work only has to step out of line and we verbally stone them. We might do it to their face and leave them wondering what hit them. Or we do it behind their back creating a whirlwind of pain.
Now in a mirror it is our own stuff that we see, god, bad, or a mixture of both. I love Jesus’ response to the man. Jesus, looking at him, loved him… Mark 10:21 Jesus’ gaze is not distorted he can see the good in us. He can see how we mess up and hurt others. Never-the-less he loves us.
I know the sentence doesn’t stop there but it is good to hear and absorb these words. Regardless of what we see in the mirror, Jesus looks and he loves us. St John calls Jesus the word made flesh. That reading from Hebrews tells us the word of God is like a two edged sword.
It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
Jesus’ love has the capacity to cut through our distortions. Jesus says to the man, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
To gain eternal life under our own steam we have to do the impossible. We might as well try to thread a camel through the eye of a needle. If we sell everything we will make ourselves naked before God and that would be a good thing but God’s love already has that capacity anyway. Jesus looks at us and loves us.
So does that mean it is OK for some of us to be thoroughly miserable believing we are worms and everybody despises us. And is it OK for others to feel OK in their rightness that they can tear strips off anyone who does something wrong. Yes! And no! Yes because God will still love you as you are. And you may not believe it but many of us will continue to love you as you are.
Now the “no” comes not because God won’t love you but those who don’t yet know God will accuse the church of being hypocritical which of course we are. We embrace angry people, we embrace miserable people, and we embrace sinners and saints. The beauty of belonging to a messy community of good and bad followers of Jesus is that bit by bit we knock some of the rough edges of each other. The messy gathering of Christians is like a marriage. The more you enter into it you become transformed. You then begin to discover love with real forgiveness and grace. As the messy gathering discovers more and more love it becomes attractive to more sinners and saints. The whole process starts again.
So my invitation for you all as we hear the Gospel is to pray, Lord, help me to see myself as you see me, and to know your gracious love. And Lord, help me to see others with your eyes. Help me to begin to love them as you do.
Finally pray, Lord I too desire to inherit eternal life, help me to know your grace is sufficient.