The Reverend Kathleen Killian
Proper 23 Year B
Crazy Wisdom Love
Jesus, looking at him, loved him. For a moment, imagine with me that you are standing face to face with Jesus. He is looking you straight in the eye, as he did the rich young man in our gospel, with an intensity of attention that is both assuring and unsettling.
Imagine standing face to face with Jesus, his gaze penetrating the entirety of your being, his brown eyes embracing you with the fullness of his love. Would I be able to keep looking back? I don’t know, I think I might have to avert my eyes, too shy to see and be seen; for as we read in Hebrews: Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. What does Jesus see? What do you see? What did the rich young man see?
Whatever we may imagine and see, we all heard the same words: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and follow me. Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. For mortals it is impossible. No-one is good, only God.
As they have been for weeks now, Jesus’ teachings are rigorous if not crazy wisdom—a camel going through the eye of a needle? No-one is good—no-one?—not even Jesus? Selling everything and giving it to the poor leads to hidden treasure? And all of these clues or signs are impossible for us “mortals” to comprehend anyway? Yet it is through these koan-like teachings that Jesus issues yet another call and invitation to follow him, once again asserting the priority—or is it the privilege?—of humility and becoming “children,” the least and the last.
But then as now, most of us would rather become the biggest and the first, and certainly the richest not than the poorest. So in understandable perplexity the disciples respond: who then can be saved?!
Jesus looks them straight in the eye, and admits: it is impossible for you mortals, but not for God. I can see an exasperated Peter throwing up his hands in the air and shouting: look! we have given up everything to follow you—our jobs, our homes, even our families—what else do you want? What are we to do?
His gaze still direct, clear, and unwavering, Jesus assures Peter and all his disciples of their just reward—and just when we thought we were getting our due—also of our fair share of persecutions. So, here we are, stuck as it were in the eye of the needle, between what seems to us right and good—those things we work hard for and the sacrifices we make—and what is good in the eyes of God.
Commentary on this gospel passage nearly always assumes that the rich young man was shocked and went away grieving because he couldn’t sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, becoming impoverished himself, and then follow Jesus. But what if the rich young man went away with a heavy heart precisely because he was going to go and sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, essentially becoming poor himself, and follow Jesus.
As Jesus has said, how hard it is to let go of our riches; to empty ourselves of idols, attachments, addictions and distractions for the sake of the cross and the unseen kingdom of which it is entry.
Most everyone has given up or given away a possession, maybe many, or left a home or place, and even beloved companions and felt its subsequent liberation or loss or both. In being called to follow Jesus, I certainly have experienced this giving up and leaving behind, which hasn’t always been easy, and if I’m honest, with some regret at times. Why did I give that away? Maybe I should have kept it. Why did I leave? Maybe I should have stayed. Like the rich young man in our gospel, I have been unsure about what is good in the eyes of God, and what isn’t good in my own eyes or the collective eye of the culture.
There is no question that in our world money and wealth hold tremendous power. Their pursuit is often all consuming and we are often possessed by our possessions—trusting in their profane persuasion rather than divine possibility. But, isn’t it also true that money is neither intrinsically good or bad? In the right hands, riches feed the poor, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. I think, however, hat we could be shortchanging the gospel to mitigate Jesus’ teaching, either by neutralizing money—it’s neither good or bad—or by letting ourselves off the hook of our “mortal impossibility”—or by averting our eyes from the truth and looking but not seeing.
There’s no pat answer to these conundrums of truth and crazy wisdom teachings, and we will continue to wrestle with them throughout our discipleship. But to follow Jesus, we indeed must change, turn, and convert, and do it all over again, in hope of becoming unencumbered by anything that gets in the way of our life in Christ. But when we are given the key, as we have been this morning, will we unlock the door of our captivity?
The good news, the redemptive news, is that we don’t have to become camels to fit through the keyhole or eye of the needle. But we do need to become “small” or “poor” or humble, so that in our poverty of spirt we are forever beginning again, down where nothingness widens itself to unrestricted freedom (Carl Jung).
The medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart tells us that God—the wholeness and fullness of life—is not attained by a process of addition to the soul but by a process of subtraction. I think we know this in our gut—that life is a continual process of letting go until the final release of our flesh and bones. We leave this world as we came into it, with nothing but our soul and the love and light therein, for love and light are immortal. If we have not truly loved here, then perhaps neither can we in eternity.
As Jesus tells us, we will never be able to fully bear the immeasurable possibility of the divine life. But by grace, we are moved from impossibility to possibility and its promise and hope. As we prayed first thing this morning, Lord, may your grace always precede and follow us, our lives bookended by grace.
As we began, so let us end, imagining for a moment the beautiful eyes of Jesus gazing upon us and plying the soul with light, embracing you and me, and all of us—the poor and the prosperous—with God’s love. We are ever looked upon with eyes of love and always seen by our Lord. When the appointed time comes to return home to the Holy One, we will be a vessel emptied of all possessions—even the self as we know it now—a vessel waiting to be filled with the radiant brightness of new and everlasting life.
As pastor and author Frederick Buechner writes: A Christian is one who points at Christ and says: I can’t prove a thing but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carried his head, his hands, the way he carries his cross - the way he carries me.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him. Jesus, looking at her, loved her.
Jesus looking at us, loves us.