Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing …” (Mark 10)
So we have today a young man who comes to Jesus, seeking to know the path to eternal life. For a story out of Mark’s gospel, this episode has an unusual number of details. Usually, Mark is barebones, giving us only the essentials. But in this story he lingers over every element, as if to signal that something really important is going on in this man’s encounter with Jesus.
One detail we aren’t given the man’s name. We know only that he is a person who has led a truly exemplary life: as he tells Jesus, he has faithfully followed all the commandments. And yet, his coming to kneel before Jesus indicates that he still feels a deep insecurity that despite all his efforts, something is missing. He doesn’t feel complete, somehow it doesn’t all add up. He is like one of those college applicants who has perfect SAT scores, a 4. GPA, is valedictorian of the class, captain of the football team … and yet, doesn’t get admitted to the college of his choice. Something essential is missing.
Jesus is clearly touched by the man’s earnestness, for Mark tells us that looking at him, Jesus loves him. Yet sensing this underlying feeling of incompleteness, Jesus sees that his strict observance of the commandments hasn’t produced any real depth of spirit. It’s like the story of the rabbinical student who came to his teacher, excitedly proclaiming that in his studies he had been through the entire Torah three times! “Yes,” his teacher replied, “but has any of it been through you?”
Considering what might be wrong, Jesus intuits that perhaps it has to with his relationship to his possessions. And so, Jesus advises him that what he needs to do is to sell what he owns, and give his money to the poor. At that, the man turns and goes away, shocked and grieving, for he was, as Mark tells us, a man “who had many possessions.”
Now, this story is often interpreted as a warning against the dangers of wealth. And at some level, I suppose it is. And since most of us, by any measurable standard, are actually quite wealthy compared to most of the world, I suppose we should hear the warning as given to us.
But I personally don’t find that a very satisfying reading, because it glosses over many of the details that Mark provides, which suggest that something deeper is going on. To tell a story only about a rich man who was blocked from true relationship with God because of his wealth could have been done much more simply.
So what other clues does Mark give us to a deeper meaning? Well, the most obvious is Jesus’ own comment to his disciples after the man has departed. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he says, “than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, some of you may be aware, though some of you may not, that the reference here is not to a sewing needle, but rather to a side gate in the city wall of Jerusalem that was known as “the eye of the needle.” It had that name because it was so narrow, being intended only for people to pass through, one at a time. A camel, being a beast of burden, would first have to be unloaded before it could enter the gate.
So in making this illusion, Jesus seems to be saying that in order to enter in God’s kingdom, something has to be unloaded, some baggage laid aside—like a camel trying to go through this gate. And the particular baggage of the wealthy (that is, of us), is that wealth has a tendency to make us feel so self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-contained, and self-absorbed, that we think we have no need of God. If I have wealth, it is by my own hard work. If I am materially successful, it is a sign of my own cleverness and wise investment.
Yet like the rich young man of today’s gospel, at some point we find that that story is not sufficient to our inmost self. It fails us, because it cannot account for the simplest and greatest fact of all: that we have life at all. Our life is not of our own making, not of our own achievement, but something that is given to us. It’s only when we begin to take that into account, that we are led beyond the limitations of our wealth to a greater sense of the mystery of our being.
And how does that happen? Well, again Jesus gives us a clue. When he advises the man to sell what he has a give the money to the poor, I think he is not just asking the man to make a generous charitable donation, and thereby to feel better about himself. Rather, Jesus is aiming at something more significant: for the man to admit to himself his own interior emptiness so that he might allow the space to be created for a true empathy to emerge, an awareness of his own need for true relationship both with God, and with his fellow human beings.
Emptiness is, after all, in some way at the heart of every spiritual tradition. There is, for example, a concept in Jewish mysticism known as Tsim Tsum, which holds that in order to create the world, God first had to pull the divine presence back far enough to allow room for creation to come into being. Even for God, emptiness was the required precursor to the act of creation.
Echoing that creation itself is the result of an antecedent emptiness in God, the Christian monk Thomas Merton, reflecting upon himself, once wrote that, “I am the utter poverty of God. I am His emptiness, littleness, nothingness, lostness. [Yet] the self-emptying of God in me is the fullness of grace.”
So the deeper problem of the rich mans’ wealth in our story today, is that it is a sign that he has no room, no empty space, where he might inwardly encounter the true God—rather than just outwardly obey the commandments. You might say that his spiritual life is choked by his own success, much like that physical feeling you get when you’ve eaten just a bit too much at a big meal: there is simply no room left to take in anything more. He has filled his life with everything, except for a true inward spirituality.
And at this more profound level, the story points us toward one of those paradoxical yet inescapable mysteries of the spiritual life: that the one who created all things, and who is in all things, whose Word was made flesh, is nevertheless to be most vividly encountered in a place of emptiness and silence, lying beyond words. Perhaps the lack of emptiness is what Jesus meant when said the rich man lacked one thing: he had no interior place, where God could enter in. And as Jesus did for him, God also points us away from our own encumbrances (whatever they may be), toward places of poverty and emptiness, not to leave us helpless there, but finally to have room to fill us with the divine presence and grace. Amen.