It breaks our hearts to see this man turn around and walk away from Jesus. We read this story and we think, “Why didn’t Jesus go after this man?” After all, this was a good man, full of energy and enthusiasm. He clearly wants to follow Jesus, to inherit eternal life. So, why did Jesus make it so hard for this man? When Jesus called the other disciples, all he said was, “Come follow me.” But, for this man, Jesus adds an extra burden to the call. “Sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me.” Jesus should have gone after this man and said, “Hey I was just kidding. You don’t have to do any of that other stuff. Just follow me.” But, Jesus doesn’t go after this man. He gives this man the freedom to walk away. And, it turns out that freedom is what this passage is all about. And freedom is what this man was lacking.
“You know the commandments,” Jesus said to the man. “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus adds an extra commandment, “love you neighbor as yourself.” So this man, he looks at his list. He’s a collector. He collects commandments, like people collect coins or little figurines. So, as Jesus is talking, this man is looking through his list. “Ok, I’ve got that one and that one. I’ve got them all. All of these I have kept,” he said. “What do I still need in order to make my set complete.”
So, Jesus tells the man what he needs to do in order to complete his collection. “You’re only missing one thing,” Jesus said to the man. “If you want to complete your collection then sell everything you have, give it to the poor and then come follow me.” In that moment, the truth hit this man like a ton of bricks, and the truth had nothing to do with whether or not this man was a good man. He was a good man. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this man and loved him. But, the truth was more than this man could accept, which was the fact this this man was not free to inherit eternal life.
It would be easy for us to assume that when this man turned and walked away from Jesus, that he was turning his back on heaven. Heaven was the last thing that this man was thinking about. For that matter, heaven was the last thing that Jesus was thinking about as well. Heaven was a separate issue. This man was thinking about the Kingdom of God, and Jesus was asking this man if he had the freedom to be part of God’s Kingdom. Like every good Jew of his day, this man believed that the day was coming when God would finally set everything right, that the will of God would be done on earth, as it is already being done in heaven. This age to come, when it finally came, was going to be a time when everything would be new, fresh, and free from corruption, evil, pain, fear and even death. Of course, that was just the beginning.
This coming age would be filled with new possibilities and opportunities, new joys and delights. And, it would come about when God finally ruled the world with his saving power. Well, when Jesus began his ministry, he announced that the Kingdom of God is here. That future age to come was beginning right now through Jesus’ ministry. So, this young man wants to know how he can be a part of it. If the age to come is happening right now, this young man wants to know how he can live in it, how he can participate in it. He wants to know how he can inherit it, how he can make it his own. He wasn’t asking about going to heaven when he died. He was asking about living in the Kingdom of God, right now.
This is extremely important to understand. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he is talking about what God is doing right now in the midst of human history. Jesus is saying that God is on the move. God is taking action in order for God’s purposes to be accomplished. Jesus wants us to be part of that Kingdom movement where, God’s will is done on earth, just as it is already being done in heaven. The problem for this man is that while he says that he wants to be part of this Kingdom movement, he is not ready because he is unwilling to let go of his wealth. His wealth is getting in the way of his freedom to be part of this Kingdom movement. Let me give you an analogy to help explain this.
Did you know that if you want to catch a monkey, there is an easy way to do it? You take a clay pot, one that has an opening that is just large enough for the monkey to reach in with his paw. Now, put a piece of fruit into that pot. When the monkey reaches into the pot, he will grab hold of that piece of fruit, but, with his paw firmly wrapped around that piece of fruit, he won’t be able to pull it out of the pot. He will be stuck, and so long as he holds onto that piece of fruit and is unwilling to let it go, he will remain trapped. This man was trapped. He was trapped by his wealth, and he wasn’t willing to let it go. He wasn’t free to be part of God’s Kingdom movement, which begs the question for us. Are we free to be part of God’s Kingdom movement? The answer depends on whether or not our hand stuck in the clay pot? In order to be part of God’s Kingdom movement, we just might have to give up something. For this young man, it was his wealth, and it might be the same for some of us, but for others of us, it might be something different. We might have to let go of something else in order to pull your hand out of the jar. If there is one universal truth that we can take away from this passage it is this, we cannot freely serve God until we are free to serve God. Let me say that again. We cannot freely serve God until we are free to serve God. If we are holding on to something, if we are clutching something and allowing it to come between us and God, then we are not free, not free to take part in what God is doing right now in our midst. So, how do we find that freedom to be part of what God is doing right now in our midst? Last week, I talked about grace and how God’s grace is available to us every day and that every day we need only collect our daily supply of God’s grace. Like asking for our daily bread, we can ask for our daily grace. But, that grace can come in different forms.
In the context of last week’s sermon about sin and temptation, the grace that we can ask for is the grace to be the person God is calling us to be, the person who loves God with all or heart, soul, mind and strength, the person who loves our neighbor as ourselves, despite the fact that we are sinners. But, this isn’t the only grace we can seek from God.
Given our lesson this morning, we can ask for the grace to let go of whatever it is that is keeping us trapped, like the monkey’s paw in the clay pot. It could be anything. Maybe like the rich, young ruler, it could be a money issue. But, it could also be something else like our obsession with power and control. How about the hurts from our past that we will not let go of, or the forgiveness that we will not extend to someone else because we just will not let go of it? We could be trapped by our fears, or we could be so preoccupied with ourselves that we completely miss what God is up to in our midst.
In spirituality, we talk about interior freedom, the freedom not to be so attached to something that it gets in the way of our relationship with God, or our relationships with others. That is how it was for the man in this story. He was so attached to his wealth, that he lacked the freedom to let go of it. And, so he wasn’t ready to be part of God’s Kingdom, to love God with his whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. He wasn’t ready to love his neighbor as himself. He wasn’t ready to say to God, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Now, it would be easy for us to think, “Well, how can any of us be that ready?” That is the point. On our own, we will never be that ready. We need our daily grace, and in this particular case, we need the grace of interior freedom. When this young man came up to Jesus, he was so full of energy and enthusiasm. In his mind, he was so ready to be part of God’s Kingdom movement. As it turns out, however, this man wasn’t ready. He would not let go of his wealth. He was allowing it to come between himself and God’s Kingdom movement, and until he let go of it, he was not free to take part in what God was doing. So, what about us? Are we free to take part in what God is doing? The answer depends upon whether our hand is stuck in the clay pot, or whether we have let go. When we let go, then we will be free to serve God, and the grace we need in order to let go is there for the asking.