The Gospel story tells us he was a rich man, a man with “many possessions.” He was also a man proud of the fact that he had kept all of God’s commandments since his youth. Yet he came to Jesus wanting to know what more he should to inherit eternal life. Jesus loved the man. But recognizing that something was missing in the rich man’s life, he told him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Then the man should come and follow him. Hearing this, the rich man’s face fell, and he went away sorrowful.
We have here the only story in the Gospels in which someone comes to Jesus for help and leaves in sorrow. The rich man turned away from Jesus--sorrowful.
The simple question for us this morning is: Does the story have anything to say to us? Most likely not, we may think at first. After all, few of us would consider ourselves wealthy. And as for the command to sell everything we own and give it to the poor—well, come on, this makes no practical sense unless you want to be a monk or a beggar.
But maybe we should take another look. I suspect this story has something to say to each of us personally about how we use our own resources. But I think it speaks even more directly to us as a nation. We are a nation in the middle of a terrible pandemic. At the same time, we are becoming increasingly aware of our need for fundamental changes in our society: changes in our justice system, changes in our health care system, changes in the way we relate to one another as a people of different races, ethnicities, gender, and backgrounds. And not least among the changes we need are changes in our national economy.
Whoa! You might say. Isn’t this a big stretch: going from a little story about a rich man seeking advice from Jesus, to talk about our national economy? Well, maybe it is a big stretch. But maybe big stretches of our faith and imagination are just what we need in a time of painful national crises.
Suppose we ask what this Gospel story means if it is not only about a rich man but also about a rich nation? How then might it be God’s Word for us here and now? What light would it shed on the changes we need in our national life and our national economy? Now I am not suggesting we should ask the story to give us a detailed program about how our national economy should be run, any more than it gives us a detailed blueprint about how each of us should manage our household economy. But Jesus’ diagnosis of what this wealthy man lacks has everything to do with the fundamental values that should mark the economies of our own household, our community, and not least our nation. At least it does if we truly aspire as a people to be just, peaceful. and joyous.
So let’s consider three important lessons in this story. First, Jesus asks this wealthy man to stop thinking about his possessions and start caring about people, and especially poor people. Is it too much of a stretch to see in this Gospel story a call for a fundamental change in our national economy from prioritizing possessions and profits to caring about persons? We dwell in a time of out-of-control-pandemic, the illness and death of many thousands, and a massive wealth gap between the rich and the poor. We are the wealthiest country in the world, and yet we are a people with a public health system that leaves millions uninsured and faced with financial disaster if they get sick; an educational system that abandons millions of poor kids to schools with inadequate funding and serious understaffing; a nation in which millions of families are left chronically food insecure, and now in the middle of a pandemic, millions of people, even those once called middle class folk, join the poor to wait in lines extending many blocks for a badly needed bag of food.
Jesus asks the rich man to undergo a conversion-- from pursuing possessions to caring about people, all the people. That’s a wake-up call for us as a nation. Can we hear in this Gospel story a call for a transformation of our national economy from an idolatry of possessions and profits to a concern for the wellbeing of all persons? Transformation of the life of a person or a nation does not come easily. As the story tells us, when rich man heard what Jesus asked him to do, he went away sorrowful.
Consider, second, that in our Gospel story Jesus is asking the rich man not to let greed control his life, but instead to embrace a life of generosity. Surely this is relevant to how our national economy should work. Let’s speak frankly: The strongest engine running the economic system in this country is greed. In the middle of a pandemic, the wealthiest are gratified that the stock market keeps going up and keeps delivering handsome profits; Congress quarrels over whether too much assistance is being given to unemployed people and their families; giant corporations grow fatter and many CEOs manage to arrange for huge salary increases; meanwhile, Mom and Pop stores are forced to close their doors, millions are without means to put food on the family table, and minority groups are disproportionately affected by the plague and the loss of jobs. Our prevailing economic wisdom is that self-interest is the name of the game; that worrying over much about the common good is economically unproductive, at least for those who, like the rich man, have “many possessions.” One highly respected economist writes that “The cult of selfishness is killing America.”
Can one square a way of life driven by greed instead of generosity with the teaching and ministry of Jesus? Many Americans like to think of our nation as a Christian nation. Have we forgotten that the Christian gospel speaks of the outpouring of God’s life and love for all God’s children? Have we forgotten that the abundant grace of God summons us to take part in God’s way of generosity and strengthens us to act graciously toward all our neighbors, all our brothers and sisters?
So yes, Jesus’ words to the man with many possessions point to the need of a conversion in our economic ways, a conversion from greed to generosity as the mark that should distinguish our life together as a people. If we proclaim that the sharing of life and love is God’s way of being, then the church must raise a prophetic voice even and perhaps especially on the working of our national economy. It does not have to be a war of all against all, a war whose inevitable result is the brutal separation of people in a widening gulf between rich and poor.
Now let me be clear: we are not God, and whatever economy we construct, it will never be one that would make it unnecessary any longer to pray: “Thy kingdom come!” But our economy can be a sign, a kind of living parable that concern for the common good, a readiness to share the goods of the earth so that the needs of all are met, is the true way to fullness of life for all as intended by God.
The rich man, we are told, had “many possessions,” and Jesus tried to direct him from a life consumed by greed to a life empowered by the spirit of generosity. But when the rich man heard this, he went away sorrowful.
Third and finally, the story tells us that the rich man went away sorrowful because Jesus had called him to a life of solidarity with others. We are in turn asked by this story whether we as a people have chosen to go the way of sorrow rather than solidarity. Are we happy as a people having an economy that prioritizes possessions over people, and greed over generosity? Well, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. Many Americans seem less and less happy living by a philosophy that says: in the world of economy, you’re either a winner or a loser, and who wants to be a loser? And where has this view of life left us? Hasn’t It increasingly made us as a people, especially a people in the middle of a pandemic, anxious, high strung, defensive, many falling into depression, and many others full of rage? As one writer puts it, “Our nation’s fabric has frayed, and we are all at one another’s throats.”
What happens to a people when they reject a life of solidarity, when they lose their sense of responsibility to others in addition to themselves and abandon their commitment to the common good? What happens is what the story tells us happens. The rich man goes away sorrowful. In like manner, any nation whose management of its economy maximizes possessions and is driven by the principle of greed will lead to inevitable conflict which in turn will just as inevitably bring great sorrow: a harvest of sorrow not only for the poor but for everyone.
When Jesus said my yoke is easy, and my burden is light, he was talking about the joy that comes from a life lived in love and service of God and love toward and in solidarity with our neighbors.
The story says that Jesus loved the wealthy man. But the man went away sorrowful because he was hooked by his possessions. He could not get free of them. Greed for his possessions blinded him to the joy of solidarity and chained him to a life of sorrow. This story is one of the most painful Gospel stories to read or hear, not only because the rich man went away sorrowful, but also because Jesus loved the man, and told him he could, if only he chose to, begin anew.
There’s a postscript to this Gospel story. Jesus tells his disciples that it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In astonishment, the disciples say, if a rich man can’t enter the Kingdom, then who can? And Jesus replies: It is impossible for human beings; but for God all things are possible.
From worrying about possessions to concern about people, and especially poor people; from greed that shrivels your spirit to generosity that refreshes and enlarges your life and the life of others; from the sorrow that comes from spending your life guarding your possessions to the joy that comes in love of God and solidarity with your neighbors. Is all this a pipedream? An Impossiblity? No, a new way was possible for the rich man, and is possible for us . . . and for our nation and its economy. Possible because Jesus loved that rich man even as he loves each and all of us, and the love of God embodied in Jesus makes impossible things possible.