It sometimes seems to me that we hear as many misquotations of the Bible as accurate quotations.
There’s the ghastly false platitude “God doesn’t give us more than we can bear,” which is a misquotation of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (Quite a difference, isn’t there?)
There’s “The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” which misquotes Isaiah 11:6, but at least retains its spirit: “The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.”
And then there’s “Money is the root of all evil.” By shortening what 1 Timothy 6:10 actually says – “The love of money is the root of all evil” – that particular misquotation seriously misses the point of what the author of the epistle is trying to tell us.
And that brings us to the gospel reading for today.
It’s one of the most poignant stories in the gospels. A righteous, rich young man, who has always lived his life according to the precepts of the Law, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus looks into the man’s heart and sees his goodness. He tells him, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”
The rich young man is shocked by the very idea. He can’t bear to part with his possessions; he is too attached to his money and his belongings and his position in the world. He goes away, grieving, and Jesus tells the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
St. Francis of Assisi, who was a rich young man himself, took this seriously. When we think about him – as on his just-observed his feast day – we usually think about his recognition of animals as our fellow creatures, and the gift that they are to us.
But long before he became a bird bath model or spoke of “Brother Wolf,” Francis lived large, drinking, playing sports, and going off as a soldier. After his spiritual awakening, he nursed lepers and gave all his money to beggars. When his father denounced him to the authorities, he stood in front of the bishop and everybody, renounced his inheritance and returned even the clothes that he wore, then went off to live in extreme poverty. Francis truly lived Jesus’s words.
Such capacity for sacrifice is given to few of us. I don’t think that kind of sacrifice is asked of most of us.
As in 1 Timothy, I also don’t think it’s the money per se that’s the real problem. Jesus had disciples who were well-to-do; those included, notably, that closet disciple the Pharisee Nicodemus, who was also a member of the powerful Sanhedrin, and the much-slandered-by-posterity Mary Magdalene, who was not a prostitute but a woman of substance who helped to support Jesus and the disciples with her wealth.
In the case of the rich young man, the real problem is his overwhelming love of money, and the love of the perks attached to money: comfort, recognition, the ability to do as you want when you want. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? As the noted St. Louis-based philosopher Mary Engelbreit has observed, “It’s good to be Queen.”
Other people are more attached to other things. The love of power often attaches itself to the love of money, but not always: We see the urge to control at every level, in every aspect of the human condition. That particular urge has nothing to do with wealth. It exists among the homeless; it’s all too present in religious communities.
Some people become obsessed with other things: with their collections, or with their cars, or with their online games, or with their pets, or with sports, or with food, or sex, or exercise.
In most cases, the problem is not in their wealth, or in their cheering for the Cardinals, or in their interest in restoring vintage Mustangs, or in collecting political memorabilia or English porcelain, or in running. The real problem is that we can become so intent on those things that we forget to lift our eyes to God.
I suspect that God wants us to hold all these things lightly. Indeed, Peter – typically – starts to point out to Jesus that the disciples who follow him have walked away from their homes and families and trades. Jesus knows where he’s going with that, though, and interrupts: “No matter what you’ve given up, you will receive much more, along with eternal life.”
This is the season of stewardship. Every autumn, with the turning of the leaves, we’re asked to give of our treasure – and, if the stewardship campaign is being run properly, of our time and talent as well – to support the Church, so that the Church will be here to support us. That makes this a particularly good time to ponder the implications of this gospel reading.
Chapter 20 of Exodus lays out the Ten Commandments. The very first one is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of bondage; you shall have no other gods before me.” The danger is that our wealth, or our hobbies, or our passions will put us back into bondage, will become other gods for us.
So we can enjoy what we have, but always remember to share it. We can give guidance where it’s needed, but not try to play the dictator. We can follow our interests, but remember that there’s more to claim our attention.
In that way, we won’t be chained to those things; they will serve us, instead of the other way around. In that way, we can be free, free to go when Christ says, “Follow me.”
Lord, help us to hold the things of this world lightly, and bring us in time to your heavenly realm, remembering that “In God, all things are possible.” Amen.
– Sarah Bryan Miller