Everything that you lack!
October 10th, 2021
What you have.....and what you don’t.
Who can tell you what you have and what you lack? Family members – up to and including your children - can be depended on for that as, I suppose, can line managers or bank managers or your physician.
What do you have? What do you lack? I suspect that I’m looking at a fairly impressive group of people this morning. In the main, interesting people. Acts of kindness are exhibited here at All Saints’. Great discussions. Interesting encounters.
The bishop has asked me on one or two occasions if I’m happy here and I’ve said that yes – I am inasmuch as I’ve ever been happy anywhere or for that matter if happiness is something more important than purpose or direction or vocation. Of what importance is that given that there are better priests than me doing hard graft for the Kingdom of God in tough parishes that don’t make them particularly happy.
I’m a hard guy to ask a simple question to. I overthink things.
But yes, I said, I am happy here and it’s not so much the city and the style of worship and the stimulation of what comes across my desk, it has something to do with the people here at All Saints’ who have rather a lot going for them – there are positive attributes to our church members – things they have done and do currently, the sorts of thoughts and reflections they have, the experience of church in other places which they bring here, an aesthetic sense which I appreciate, an ability to get along with people of different valences and persuasions without dividing into factions. It’s not bad. “Ce n’est pas mauvais” as a highly complimentary Frenchman might say. So yes, thank you for asking, Bishop.
Enough about you, though. Let’s talk about our Gospel reading.
Oversimplifying a bit: There are travel narratives in each of the first three Gospels. Jesus leaves the Galilee and transits through Judea to Jerusalem. There’s a long transit in Luke – chapter 10 to chapter 18, a shorter one in Matthew, from chapter 19 to 21 and a much shorter version in Mark which takes place primarily in chapter 10 – our chapter this morning. While Jesus’ debut in his hometown of Nazareth had been fractious, Jesus has been ministering quite successfully mostly on his new home turf between Capernaum and Bethsaida at the north end of the Sea of Galilee and now he leaves that constructed comfort for the journey which will culminate later in the Gospels with his entry into Jerusalem. Fewer miracles and more teaching stories and teaching events – slowly increasing conflict with Pharisees and other religious leaders, leading to the eventual fatal juxtaposition of the Kingdom of God and the dark powers – religious and political - of the day.
In the midst of this journey – in Judea – a young man run up to Jesus and is effusive in his willingness to treat the occasion of Jesus’ visit as an opportunity. An opportunity for the young man and an opportunity – a bully pulpit if he will accept it – for Jesus. In Luke’s version of the story this capable and well-heeled young man is furthermore described as a “ruler” – one of the elite. Not so described in Mark, although there is a gentility about the young man even here. He is an important person; he is apparently a loveable young fellow and his willingness to run up to a wandering rabbi from another part of the country and kneel before him shows him to be serious as he opens his mouth and asks his question. Everything is in place for an event and that event will include the fact that Jesus is not just speaking to anyone.
In this meeting between important people – renowned itinerant rabbi and eager young Turk from a good background – you might expect something very pithy and special. The young man has taken the first step – lowered himself literally in the presence of a religious teacher – he might expect something special – special handling, a personal connection – the very sentiment which the Gospel ascribes to Jesus as he looks at this young man with genuine love and affection. Thank you for asking, Bishop, these are exactly the sort of encounters which must surely lead to good things. We must sweep the steps. Can you come up with some word which matches the occasion? Surely, there must be some word which hasn’t yet been shared in the other villages and with other less attractive interlocuters – Jesus might have used this occasion to tell him something which he had been working on but hadn’t yet figured in other sermons in village squares or on hillsides. How to inherit eternal life in fifty words – the latest version shared with a godly young man of considerable means who opened the door wide for Jesus in a way that the other classes might do well to emulate. Here you are – in exchange for being a swell fellow - something nobody else knows yet. But no.
Jesus voids the young man’s flattery in a single sentence. Why do you call me good, only God is good? What do you know of the commandments? And Jesus lists off those commandments which appear on the so called “Second Tablet” of the Law – the commandments which govern our relationships with other people. The commandments which are known to all from the front of the synagogue to the back and even out on the street – which are common - which are self-evident to any Jew – which are memorized by the great and the good at the hands of their tutors and are taught to the children of any Judean or Galilean peasant by their grandparents. Things accessible to all – things written in large letters. Back to you, young man. What do you know of these?
The young man’s response is instant. Of course. I know them all. I’ve always kept them. And Jesus does what Jesus often does next – especially when faced with a “yes of course” statement. He pushes the question farther, into the heart of the law and not only its surface. One thing you lack, he says, and this time with an expression of genuine affection: Sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me. One thing you lack? An additional thing to law keeping or something which somehow relates to these commandments which the young man says that he knows like the back of his hand?
We could unpack it a little.
Do you know on whose back your income is earned? Do you know on whose land you now live and how it came into your possession or that of your family? Who do you pass on your way to work? Is that person’s estate in life a result of good looks, education and hard work or is it an accident of birth?
Are you not both living in an occupied land where the fruits of the earth, free to all, have been marshalled as tax revenue for Caesar back in Rome? Are you not in some ways both equal? What are the issues of health and income security in your town? What do you servants fear or suffer under? Are the structures of your society – the schools, the local synagogues and whatever organs of charity profiting from your largesse?
There is more to the commandments on the so called second tablet of the Law than something to which you can accurately say – Yeah, yeah. I got it nailed. Piece of cake. I’ve been commandment keeping since I was a boy. That’s last year’s exam, tell me more, Jesus.
Your initial question, young man, indicated that you lacked something.
That was your opportunity. That could have been the admission of need but you seem to think you lack nothing or that if you lack it is the special sort of lacking that lesser men and women cannot fathom. Still – you asked so I will tell you that you lack an understanding of what the positive application of these negative commandments might be. It is not enough not to defraud or not to steal. The heart of the commandment is that you would placate poverty, heal the wounds of those who have been disenfranchised and marginalized. Do good. Do not merely avoid evil. And even that is not enough if it leads you inevitably to a new point of being sufficient unto yourself and then suspect that you still lack nothing.
So come and follow me.
It is self-sufficiency which lands you in bother, it appears to me, when you speak to Jesus about belonging and righteousness. And here we find ourselves in a bind because self-sufficiency has been expected of us and self-sufficiency what we desire for those we love. Our sons and daughters must depend on nobody. But righteousness and belonging – basic goodness and that status of being one of God’s people. Who or what does that depend on?
The New Testament is filled with this tension in Jesus’ discussions with the righteous of his day. The religious leader who says that he thanks God that he has been good, unlike this publican in the back row of the synagogue who wails over his sin. It is the publican who goes home justified before God and not the righteous man. This woman taken in adultery is accused rightly – and yet she walks away in the sight of her accusers. God can raise up sons of Abraham from these stones and yet you say “I belong”. I belong to the community of God’s faithful, to the community of the righteous, to the crowd which is in and not out because I have earned it. I have been insulated from the temptations common to other people, I have not mingled with the unrighteous as they are forced to do by virtue perhaps even of their employment.
God sent his son to bridge the gap. If you are wondering how the "gap" applies to you, just ask. He will explain it to you – if you ask. He will oblige. He will overcome your objections that all is passably well or even excellent. He will breach the defense you set up for yourself to express to yourself and to those around you and even to him that, in fact, you’re okay. That the need is someone else’s need, and that his effort would best be expended on another crowd.
It’s you – he says – you have no idea what you lack and that the righteousness you crave is given and not earned and comes from a wellspring of God’s love and not from those ducks you think are arranged in such am aesthetically pleasing manner. They are not attributes to you. They are a part of the problem.
So ask the question – what do I lack? Ask it with humility, knowing that you lack more than you think. Ask the question as if you were part of humanity and not one of its princes.
Ask the question as if you mean it.