Scripture: Mark 10:17-22
Last year, I received an invitation to participate in an academic conference at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in February. I jumped at the opportunity. And why not?
I’m Scottish on my mother’s side, a proud descendent of Clan Gordon. The conference fell during the law school’s winter break, so Lisa and I could make an extended holiday of it. And I thought it testified to the hardiness of Michiganders that we wanted to go to Scotland in February for the weather.
I may be part Scot but, as my last name suggests, my father was German. For better or worse, he bequeathed to me a stereotypically Teutonic obsession with structure and orderliness. I put that compulsiveness to work on our trip to Scotland, conferring with our friend and professional travel agent, Nancy, to plan out every minute of every day.
An elaborate agenda emerged detailing where we would stay, which sights we would take in, where we would eat, and how we would get around. If I could have done so, I would have phoned ahead to tell the Loch Ness monster when we would be driving by so she could pop up on cue. The only thing I omitted from my plan was the purchase of a kilt and some bagpipes, a forbearance that should leave all of you deeply grateful.
When we arrived in Scotland, we learned that we had a problem. Even in the best of times February is off-season for tourism there, and these weren’t the best of times. Scotland’s famous remoteness had delayed the arrival of COVID, so cases had just started spiking. Visitors to Scotland were few, lots of service workers were unexpectedly quarantined, and some resorts, restaurants, and destination points had therefore limited their hours or even closed altogether, leaving my carefully designed plans in wreckage.
I was thinking about those events the other day when a surprising connection occurred to me. I realized that—in its swift, decisive, and merciless trashing—my Scottish travel itinerary bore a striking resemblance to something else. It looked a lot like the various New Year’s resolutions I’ve made over the years.
In the past, here’s how things have generally played out for me. I greet January 1st with a detailed plan for systematically achieving as much intellectual, physical, and spiritual betterment as I can muster in the course of the coming year. I write up my list, I check it twice, and I pledge with grim determination to honor it without complaint or compromise.
That steely, firm resolve of mine typically lasts for less than twenty-four hours. Despite all my noble plans, by the evening of New Year’s Day I have distracted myself with multiple forms of puerile entertainment, eaten chili dogs and whole bags of potato chips and tubs of French onion dip, and spent more time thinking about college football than about the Kingdom of God.
The spectacular and consistent failure of my grand aspirations always reminds me of that insightful quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Of what use to make heroic vows of amendment, if the same old lawbreaker is to keep them?”
That quotation brings me to our gospel passage for today, the familiar story of the rich young man who wants to make “heroic vows of amendment” of his own. Spoiler alert. It doesn’t go well.
This story appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. The various renditions of the story are remarkably similar, although there are some differences. I’ve focused on Mark’s version because it’s the earliest written among them and it includes the endearing little detail that Jesus spoke to the rich young man lovingly.
It’s a wonderful story that lends itself to a hundred different interpretations. You’ll be relieved to know that, for purposes of this sermon, I’m going to put 98 of them aside. In my time with you this morning, I’m going to focus on two just two ideas—two things that you might not have noticed about this deeply intriguing gospel passage.
First, I want you to see how the rich young man’s approach to his faith resembles the way that many of us approach the arrival of the New Year and the making of resolutions. Second, I want to suggest to you that we tend to read this story much too narrowly and, as a consequence, we drain it of its central meaning. Indeed, I hope to persuade you that a different—and, in my view, much better—understanding of the story might help us greet 2023 with a fresh sense of clarity, mission, hope, and inner peace.
Okay, let’s look at that first idea first.
I think that the rich young man’s approach to faith resembles our making of New Year’s resolutions in three ways. First, like us, he eagerly aspires to be a better person and is full of good intentions. Second—again, like us—he wants a specific plan guaranteed to transform him into that new-and-improved human being he has in mind. Finally—also like us, or at least like me—his “heroic vows of amendment” finally come to nothing.
The fact that he’s making the wrong decision in rejecting the instruction offered by Jesus doesn’t occur to him at some later point when he’s had a chance to reflect and has acquired additional wisdom. To the contrary, the text tells us that he knows he’s making the wrong decision even while he’s in the midst of making it. I suspect that many of us might say: “Been there, done that.”
Indeed, I feel a deep kinship with the rich young man in this respect. His failure in commitment happens in the same knowing way, and at the same breakneck pace, that generally characterize my own. Mark Twain said that New Year’s Day is “the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” The rich young man and I, speaking on behalf of screwups everywhere, proudly declare: “Hey, who needs to wait a whole week?”
Viewed through this lens, the story seems like a simple one about human weakness and about pride taking its inevitable fall. The young man brags that he follows all the commandments and needs a bigger challenge. But when Jesus tells him that to be truly and deeply good he’ll have to sell all of his belongings and give them to the poor, the rich young man takes off down the road. It sounds like a pretty harsh verdict on the capacity of human beings to move beyond that “same old lawbreaker” place where we started.
When we talk about this passage in church, we often avoid this problem by approaching the story as if it isn’t about us—as if it’s about rich young hotshots who have fallen in love with their toys. At first blush, this seems like a sensible interpretation. After all, immediately after his encounter with the young man Jesus declares that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Those lines seem to provide a moral to the story.
Thinking about the text that way takes the sting out of the story for many of us. It reduces Jesus’s message to a narrow one about the problems of the rich and famous. It permits those of us who aren’t wealthy and spoiled—or at least who don’t view ourselves as wealthy and spoiled—to shrug off the passage as if it were talking about the faults of other people.
In a famous exchange, F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly said to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway is said to have answered: “Yes. They have more money.” We often read this gospel passage as if it says: “Yeah, and it’s harder for the rich to be good.”
Many years ago, Lisa and I toured the grounds of a “great camp” in the Adirondacks region of New York that was owned by the spectacularly wealthy friend of a friend of a friend. I laughed when we turned a corner on a garden path and discovered a metal sculpture of a giant needle with a camel effortlessly passing through it. I thought to myself: Clearly, this guy takes the story about the rich young man very personally and wants us to understand that if you’re sufficiently wealthy you can just buy a big enough needle.
There’s a problem, however, with thinking that this story is about riches and the people who have them. It suggests that Jesus told the story so we would say to ourselves: “Thank heavens I’m better than THOSE RICH PEOPLE who will NEVER make it into the Kingdom of God.” But if there’s anything that Jesus makes abundantly clear, it’s that he never, ever wants us to talk about the speck in someone else’s eye while we’re squinting through the log in our own.
In my view, Jesus’s stories are always about us, about all of us, about every last one of us. We therefore have to ask: How might we understand this story more broadly? If it isn’t really about the troubles of rich young men, then what is it about?
Well, again, there may be a hundred answers to that question, but here’s the one I want to offer you today. I think this is a story about burdens. Especially those burdens—those things that we carry—that separate us from the Kingdom of God. Wealth may be an example of such a burden. But, surely, it’s not the only one or even the most common one.
From this perspective, Jesus’s advice to the rich young man doesn’t just shock him because it suggests he give up his Rolex, his Lamborghini, and his villa in the south of France. It shocks the rich young man because it asks him to think about his faith in an entirely different and unfamiliar way. It destabilizes his whole understanding of the practices that can help us move toward the Kingdom of God.
Remember how the story goes: The rich young man keeps asking Jesus for a next step, an instruction, a travel itinerary for his life. He clearly thinks Jesus will give him another commandment, another rule to follow, another thing to take on—another resolution to adopt, if you will. But, instead, Jesus gives him a way toward freedom, a way toward liberation, a way toward unencumbering himself. Jesus invites him into a giving up instead of a taking on—an exercise not in resolution, but in dissolution.
Think of the power that this message holds for us if we understand it broadly—not as a message about wealth, but as message about all the things that can burden us, distract us, get in our way as we try to grow into the Kingdom of God. The inventory of possibilities seems endless.
We can imagine Jesus telling us to give up and give away all manner of things: Our anger. Our resentment. Our jealousy. Our self-loathing. Our fear. Our selfishness. A grudge. An unhealthy dependency. An addiction. A toxic relationship. The anxieties that go with feeling alone, or unloved, or forgotten, or misunderstood. All the things—all the things—that can weigh us down and keep us from the peace and joy that live in that sacred and redeeming place where Christ lives.
Several years ago, on a New Year’s day, I started recording in a small, lined journal a list of short Bible verses that speak to me. My resolution was to enter at least one verse into the journal per week. By now, you’ve probably figured out that I didn’t stick with it very well.
Still, I’ve come back to the project from time to time, and the journal now contains a few dozen verses that I’ve managed to record there. The very first one that I wrote into the journal is this: “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Whenever I turn back to this journal, it’s always the first thing I see. It’s where I start. I seem to need to start there a lot. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s just how Jesus wants it.
So, here’s what happened after we arrived in Scotland. On Nancy’s always excellent advice, we had arranged for a driver to help us get around from St. Andrews to Edinburgh to Inverness to Loch Lomond to Glasgow. I had suggested that perhaps I could handle the driving myself, but Nancy waved me off that idea. I think she wisely recognized that navigating Scotland’s endless roundabouts—and with a manual transmission and on the left side of the road, no less—demanded more patience than God had given me. A professional driver would preserve my sanity, our marriage, and the safety of the Scottish highways.
It turned out that our driver was a tall, warm, distinguished, dark-suited, white-haired gentleman by the name of Jim Johnston. He ushered us into the back of his car and off we went. A student of Scottish history and traditions, he told endless stories and recited the poems of Robert Burns as he sailed effortlessly through the cities and around the highlands, spontaneously reworking our trashed itinerary as we went.
In the end, we enjoyed a vastly better tour of Scotland than the one I’d planned. You see, Jim knew lots of things I didn’t. He understood how his world worked. He could see which paths and which detours and which adventures would be best for us and which ones to avoid. And every mile of the way he watched out for us, bobbing and weaving and improvising as events threw him one challenge after another.
After the first day or so in Jim’s care, I grasped a simple and obvious truth: All I needed to do was to let go. To cast off my carefully wrought plan. To stop trying to force my will on the universe. To discard my list and cease looking for things to check off of it. To put myself in the hands of one whose understanding surpassed my own in ways I could scarcely comprehend.
I recall coming out of a magnificent castle that had not been on my itinerary but that Jim had insisted we see. There he was, waiting in the parking lot, grinning from ear to ear, a twinkle in his eye that said: “There now. Didn’t I show you something amazing?” And I recall thinking to myself: “Jim Johnston, you, you my friend, you will preach.”
So, here’s where I’d like to leave you on this fine New Year’s Day. By all means, feel free to make resolutions if that floats your boat. If it feeds your happiness, then go right ahead and commit to reading from the Bible every day, to getting to the gym more often, to taking regular walks, to shedding a few pounds, and to cutting back on egg nog—especially when it’s not hard to do so, like in July and August.
But, in light of the central meaning of the story of the rich young man as I’ve proposed it to you today, please also consider this modest proposal. Maybe this year you don’t need resolutions as much as you need dissolutions. Maybe your soul’s flourishing depends less on holding tight and more on letting go. Maybe the spiritual secret for this trip around the sun lies not in what you pack but in what you leave behind.
Maybe, just maybe, you need to stop pretending you’re in the driver’s seat. Maybe you should settle in comfortably and let someone else do more of the piloting and navigating—someone whose wisdom is infinitely greater than your own, someone whose peace passes all understanding, someone whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.
Who knows what you might learn?
Who knows what you might see?
Who knows where you might go?
Who knows when a voice might come to you saying: “There now. Didn’t I show you something amazing?”
Praise God that it is so.
And the people said: Amen.