There is a famous painting called “Christ and The Rich Young Ruler,” painted in 1889 by the German painter Heinrich Hofmann. In it, Jesus looks at the young man, dressed like an 18th century prince, clearly far more lavishly attired than anyone else in the painting. He looks at him while gesturing to the other people around him who are hardly attired at all, wearing rags, and in a downcast posture. The young prince is looking away. He doesn’t want to see what Jesus shows him. Or his mind is on other things.
I wonder: what happen was happening for this young man before we meet him on the road?
Perhaps his story began with the death of someone he loved. Maybe after that person died, his own life felt empty and alone, and over. So he sought out Jesus as the source of new life. Or maybe he recently achieved some great success in life. Maybe he acquired some land he’d always wanted, or was promoted to a position of authority over his peers. Imagine that happened and he had the experience of feeling empty and unsatisfied in spite of getting what he’d always wanted.
Or perhaps he was overwhelmed with the human need he saw all around him: hunger and disease and the other effects of economic disparity and political oppression present in first-century Palestine. He had heard that Jesus was doing a lot of healing and feeding, and that Jesus’ teaching offered a window into a world ruled by a just and loving God.
We don’t know exactly what our young man was doing before he approached Jesus, but something drove him to his knees.
Down on his knees he asks Jesus the eternal question that has plagued the faithful for centuries: What must I do to be saved? I’m guessing we have all wondered the same thing, and I would venture to say that none of us likes Jesus’ answer to the question any more than the man does.
One thing we know about the young man’s story prior to his appearing in front of Jesus is where he wasn’t. He wasn’t listening to what Jesus has just said. Or, he was there but did not have ears to hear. Just before today’s protagonist appears on the gospel stage, this happened:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear these words about being like a little child, I think: aaahhhh….I can do this. When I hear Jesus tell the young man to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor I think: ugh. I can’t do this. And yet, for me—and perhaps for some of you—it is easier for me to identify with the young man than with the little child.
There is a tension here, the same tension present in the reading we heard a little while ago from the Letter to the Hebrews. On the one hand, the word of God is a sharp judgment that holds our every thought accountable. On the other hand, Jesus sympathizes with our weakness and sits on the throne of grace.
Which is it? Are we saved by God’s grace no matter what, or are we saved by our own engagement in the Kingdom of God?
The answer, of course, is both. But by saying this I don’t mean to resolve the tension. I think we are meant to live in the tension. That’s what it means to be a both/and people. The good news is that we do not have to choose between faith and good works. The difficult news is that we cannot choose one or the other even if we wish to. We need to wrestle with God’s challenges, often presented to us in the form of an impoverished and broken world, and we need to accept God’s extravagant grace.
The young man thinks that eternal life, or salvation—what I sometimes call life lived to the fullest—is the result of a transaction. Tell me what I need to do, so that I can get this thing I want. But salvation is living into the fullness of grace and living into the gospel call to action. Each of us will be more comfortable leaning one way or another. Each of us will struggle within this tension.
Admittedly Hofmann’s “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” is just one painter’s interpretation of the gospel, but when I saw this I thought: the tragedy of this young man is not that he cannot sell everything he has and give to the poor, it is that he cannot see the poor. Jesus wants to show them to him, and he doesn’t want to see them or cannot see them. And if he cannot see them, he cannot be in relationship with them.
The other tragedy is that he doesn’t stick around to be in conversation with Jesus and the disciples. He doesn’t stick around to learn that they, too—Jesus’ inner circle!—struggle with the same things that he struggles with. They are living in the tension we call the cost of discipleship. But they stick around. And that is what we are invited to do.
When we share in the movement, each week, up to this altar and share in this mysterious feast, together at this table, we participate in the new life that the young man seeks. And just as his story did not begin when he ran up to Jesus, so it did not end when he left. Perhaps he came back. Perhaps he’s here, looking for the risen Christ. Stick around.