This is a story that has come to mean a great deal to me. I used to think that what I lacked in my life was a direct challenge from God; that if like some first century martyr I was thrown into a place where the choices were simple, black and white and irrevocable, I would be OK. It was the endless uncertainty and struggling to have the faintest idea what God intended me for that was the problem.
However, increasingly I’ve been drawn to this story. Here’s a young man who gets exactly that. Jesus himself offers him a direct black and white choice – sell all you have and follow me, or don’t. And he doesn’t.
I have found myself looking increasingly hard at how I would have done in that situation. Not that Im a millionaire or anything; but I have a stable job, I can afford to live in a nice flat, by myself, in a nice area; I can go out a lot, to nice places, with my nice friends; as the prevalence of that hideous word ‘nice’ suggests, I’m very comfortable. And I like it; or to be more accurate, I strongly dislike the idea of losing it. Actually, to be more brutally honest, I am deeply afraid of losing it. Not in the sense of lying awake at night worrying about being made redundant – in some ways redundancy would be a relief, forcing a change of direction. But whenever I contemplate doing the bunjee jump; voluntarily throwing myself over the edge, abandoning my security and comfort; well, I get a serious case of cold feet.
I can’t help but wonder whether that was the case for the rich young man too. Was it really greed – or fear? There’s something very moving about the story; the young man knows there is something that he lacks, that what he has, what he is doing isn’t enough. He knows who can tell him what he should do, too. He even has the courage to ask. And Jesus looks on him, and loves him (God bless Mark for including that bit), and tells him what he needs to do. And he goes away sadly; that’s always struck me as tremendously significant. He isn’t angry or resentful; he isn’t challenging Jesus’ diagnosis. The sadness suggests he accepts it. Jesus has asked for something he lacks the courage to give.
That’s when I see myself; kneeling in Church, asking for God to show me how I can serve him, resolving to actually mean it when I say I dedicate my life to him. And I wonder whether I don’t hear anything because I have already shut my ears to protect myself from hearing anything I don’t want to hear; and I go away sadly, because I am very comfortable, and very uncourageous. Would it really make any difference if I had Jesus physically standing there and asking the question?
It’s not necessarily about money, either. I’m not the best person in the world at interacting with other human beings, and whenever I get the slightest sense that it might be my duty to get involved I go cold to my very heart with fear. I wonder if one of those men on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho passed by on the other side not from pride or contempt or disdain, but because he was afraid; afraid to go outside his own comfortable world and deal with the pain and hurt outside it, interacting with strangers, people whose reactions and behaviour he could not count on. God help me, I’ve done that. And I wonder if there will be a third category on the last day, the cattle, who will cry out “Lord, we saw you hungry and we knew you, and we did not feed you; we saw you thirsty and we knew you, and we did not give you a drink; we saw you homeless and naked and we knew you, and we did not take you in or clothe you; we saw you sick and in prison and we knew you and we did not visit you. For we were comfortable, and afraid.”
That’s why I choose to live in a nice area; it shelters me off from dealing with people in situations which will be uncomfortable. That’s why my friendship circle remains the same group of people from school and university; people I am comfortable with, people like me with similar thoughts and prejudices and ways of behaving. It’s why I seek out a church filled with people like me, and even there I try to hide away, at the back, not to interact. It’s so that as far as possible I can insulate myself from ever being uncomfortable.
If it’s not too heretical, a paraphrase:
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the comfortable to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a comfortable man to enter the kingdom of God’
The disciples were even more amazed and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’
Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’
A bit of hope there, perhaps. Perhaps that rich young man came back, one day, and managed it. I hope so.