By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff
***Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published in 2018***
As the Rolling Stones once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.” That’s certainly the case for this man with many possessions who runs to Jesus and kneels asking how to inherit eternal life. He leaves grieving after being told to give away all his possessions while Jesus continues on with the disciples, warning them of the spiritual risk that comes with wealth. This man does not hear what he wanted and expected, but he does get something much needed: an invitation to travel with Christ.
I wonder what this man wanted from Jesus and why he approached him. Why did he need Jesus to confirm he was doing the right thing if he already knew the commandments and had been keeping them since his youth? Is this an example of humble-bragging? Is he hoping Jesus to praise his efforts in front of the crowd and disciples? Perhaps he is simply an anxious personality looking for encouragement, hoping to be told he’s doing everything right and just keep doing what he’s doing. Whatever the motivation, his encounter with Jesus confronts him with a dilemma and leaves him shaken to the core (as encounters with the Holy usually do).
I know many people (myself included) who have been like this; running to Jesus (or church) filled with excitement and enthusiasm, only to be left in shocked surprise when we find the reality is quite different. But following Jesus is not easy, and as any 5-year-old can tell you, life isn’t fair. We don’t get what we deserve (at least not in this world).
One of the most unattractive parts of faith is that it doesn’t make life easier. In fact, committing yourself to a life of faith will likely make things far more difficult. Following Christ means possessions and relationships will always be at risk. We commit ourselves to speaking truth and following Christ even when he takes us somewhere we don’t want to go.
It’s doubly difficult for clergy who serve at the pleasure of their congregation; it’s one thing to talk about following Jesus in an abstract way but it’s quite another when you risk your career and your family’s income. We all come to a point where we have to decide how far on the journey we can go, with the understanding that as long as we remain on this side of heaven, we aren’t likely to see the outcome. Prosperity is not the result of faithfulness, just as cancer is not the result of sin. Our behavior may influence it, but spiritual justice is not a kind of science that operates through cause and effect. Decades of hard work and faithful living might leave us aged and impoverished with nothing to show for it, but no sacrifice is forgotten in the heart of God, and if you’re in the Christian life to get material security, then you’re in the wrong place. Baptism is not a contract which guarantees an easy life without struggle.
If prosperity was always the result of hard work, then immigrant laborers who work 12-14 hours a day 7 days a week would be millionaires and a single mother holding down three jobs while raising her kids wouldn’t have to worry about having enough to cover the bills this month. The Disciples gave everything away and were persecuted for it. They spent their lives as homeless wanderers, and most of them ended up dying painfully, but they followed regardless. They continued on with Jesus even when, like James and John, it meant leaving family behind (Matthew 4:2). Jesus tells the young man with many possessions to give it all away, and he walks away shocked and grieving. Perhaps he left because he was overly attached to his possessions and he couldn’t leave them to follow Christ, but I can’t help but wonder if he might also be grieving a long-held belief about how the world works. By telling him to give away all his possessions, Jesus may really be telling him that prosperity was not the result of keeping all the commandments since childhood. Perhaps what this man grieves isn’t just the loss of material wealth, but also years of believing that his possessions were proof of his faithfulness. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, he may have just lost his entire world view and how he has related to it, but that’s the risk we run by approaching Christ; the answer he gives us might not be what we want to hear and might leave us shaken.
That is the price of Discipleship.