Monday, April 15, 2013

When We Are All the Rich Young Man

The story of the rich young man is found in all three of the earliest Gospels. The event must have made a great impression upon those who witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus. Indeed, it challenges us into the present day. Money represents power, authority, and success in this culture. Because of this, it is often difficult for wealthy people to realize that they are powerless to save themselves.
And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Every day, we are bombarded by messages that teach us that we have a right to be self-important and self-involved. Advertisement reinforces the idea that we’re the center of our own private universe. Today, we have more choices than ever before, as though an abundance of material things can cure all that ails us. Even now, when our economy is still relatively weak, our list of distractions is nevertheless vast.

It is difficult for anyone with privilege, we are told, to get into the Kingdom of God. The greater the privilege, the more challenging are the circumstances. But we're not off the hook, either. Those of us raised middle class and well-educated can easily fall into this same pit. We have most of our basic physical needs met. We believe we are entirely capable of being self-reliant. When we feel empty, we can always buy something new to dull the pain. Abundance can become damaging.

Some theologians have proposed that pain is supposed to drive us to God. Assuming this is the truth, the primary idol that pulls us away from the Divine is our single-minded devotion to things and possessions. Some people I know have resorted to a kind of hip aestheticism, seeking to live more simply. I count Peace Corps alumni among my friends. Others make a conscious effort to shop only at thrift stores in their own individual protest against materialism. It’s quite trendy these days to make do with less.

Without meaning to demean the selfless service of those I’ve mentioned, I need to draw a severe distinction here. Regardless of what we believe, we cannot save ourselves through good deeds alone. I live in Washington, DC, surrounded by the rank and file believers in an expansive network of non-profits and government agencies. They are indebted to the twin virtues of hard work and big ideas. It’s easy for me to be cynical that effort alone will never be enough. In a bureaucratic city, The Law of Rules is in charge. Its believers, like the Pharisees before them, must satisfy a thousand requirements great and small.

As it is written, some of these blind guides are careful to strain out a tiny gnat, but they swallow a camel instead. Small sins and transgressions are magnified, but the major offenses go unchecked and unchallenged. A separate form might need to be filled out perfectly before the gears begin to turn, but the systemic problems underlying it are never fixed. That is the paradox of working within the system. One either finds a way to live with it, or leaves in protest.    

Regardless of how much time and energy we give, the end point will be the same. Would we be less frantic to achieve if we knew that every life, no matter what we do, is full of great successes and great failures? Our reliance upon God could show us how to make crucial distinctions. Looks, as the saying goes, can be deceiving. Centering ourselves on a very different standard altogether will provide a badly needed perspective. Without it, we struggle to find the Light, taking twists and turns down lonely, dark paths. God provides us eternal company much as the eternal life that rich young man wanted so desperately.

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