If you read through the gospels, it’s clear from the words that Jesus speaks and even the way that he lives that he calls his followers to a life of denial. Utter abandon, really. Leave everything and follow me. Hate your mother and your brother, and enter my kingdom. Sell all you have, then come join me. Take up your cross. Deny yourself. Give it all up for that pearl in the field. My Father spits out the lukewarm. In other words, you’re either all in or not in at all.
It sounds harsh. It sounds difficult, even impossible. Denying comfort and those we love doesn’t seem appealing at all, and in fact it could even seem wrong. So, why? Why does he call us to this impossible, insane life of sacrifice, denial, and suffering? Why do we have to give up everything else just to follow him?
I invite you to dig deeper with me, if you will. Because it’s so easy to pass over what’s really behind the call.
I believe that within each of those “demands,” there lies an invitation. Jesus looked at the rich young ruler with compassion in his eyes, not hot anger or judgment towards the man’s wealth. So why did this man who seemingly had everything need compassion in the first place? Huh. That’s a thought. I mean, he went out genuinely seeking after Jesus—his way, his kingdom. With the truest part of himself he desired to follow him. So much so that he approached the great teacher himself to ask the question—what must I do? Now I think it’s safe to assume that he planned to act on the answer that was given, for why else would he ask with such fervency? Before he said anything, Jesus looked at him, and he had compassion. Because he knew some things about this man. He knew the man’s genuine desire to inherit eternal life, to do the right thing and to follow God. He knew that was real. But he also knew something else. He knew the man had great wealth, and that this great wealth gave this man status, identity, security. In essence, it defined him. The young ruler may not have been aware of this. Actually, before he approached Jesus I would argue that he wasn’t. He was acting on his desire without counting the perceived cost to fulfill that desire.
So Jesus had compassion, because something had a hold on this man, something that kept him from his true identity and desire. And he just wasn’t ready to give it up, because it would change everything, and I’m sure that frightened him. So yes, Jesus’ response was to tell him that he must sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor, then follow him. But this was not a harsh demand. This was the desire of Jesus to see this man freed from his perceived need to be defined by his wealth. Jesus did not control this man, was not unjust or unfair to him; neither was he asking too much. He was speaking to the freedom that the man craved. Sadly, the young ruler chose to return to his life of comfort and wealth, because he had allowed it to control him.
We all have to give something up to follow Jesus, or to respond to his call on our lives. In fact, we are even required to give things up merely to accept the invitation into the depths of his love, or his abundance. And we think that we would do it without hesitation. Because nothing is worth as much as God’s love, or being with him. Nothing, right? Not unless we’re still holding onto something. Or rather, it’s holding onto us. People and things tend to clutch onto us, and we allow it, holding tightly back in response. Because we’re looking for meaning, for security, for acceptance. Constantly. That’s what life is about. This search for validation. And Jesus looks at us and has compassion on us because he knows that all our clinging and searching will keep us from accepting his invitation, which is what our souls are searching for, we just don’t always recognize it.
Just like the young ruler, we’re looking for something we don’t have. But we’re not willing to give up what we do have to get it once we find it. Because we’re insecure. Insecurity keeps us from contentment, too. If we would just invest in and love the things (or people) we have without clinging to them, we would find contentment. I think if the rich young ruler understood this, perhaps Jesus wouldn’t have had to offer such a harsh-sounding demand. Perhaps he could keep what he had (because it didn’t define him, or give him identity) and follow Jesus at the same time. Maybe this is at least partially what Jesus meant when he said those who are faithful with much will be given more. When we’re not looking for that thing to validate us, we can both give freely as well as be open to God’s invitation for more.
Throughout the Scriptures, I believe God is continuously pointing us to the truth that nothing can identify or save us except for him. I think it’s when we embrace this that we find freedom. For example, I used to look for validation by doing the right thing. I sought the approval of others in response to my “good” behavior. But no matter how good I was, I still felt deficient. It was an identity that was very elusive, because it was false and unfulfilling.
There is another parable that I was thinking about recently, and that’s the parable of the wedding feast. The groom sent invitations to his great feast all throughout the land but only received rejections in reply. The people all had seemingly valid reasons for not being able to attend. My father died. I just bought a field that I must tend to. I just got married and must pay attention to my new wife. The groom’s response to these rejections was to send out more invitations, this time to all those on the outskirts, the beggars, the lame and diseased, the outcasts. And they came. Because they understood their lack and what a great opportunity this was. Why do you think Jesus said it would be difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom? Because he has a lot to lose, at least in his perception. I think Paul was onto something when he said that everything he once had he now considers loss for the sake of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus. Because the privilege of following Jesus, of responding to his grand invitation, is really that good.
There’s one more puzzling and yet interesting thing that happens in this parable, and as I read it I found that I couldn’t pass over it or push it to the side. I wanted to understand it. There is one guest that shows up at the great wedding feast without wedding clothes on, and he gets cast out. Now if anything seems harsh, this surely does! I mean, the poor guy probably didn’t own nice clothes, right? He was probably one of those beggars—and dude, give the guy a break, he was merely responding to the invitation! So I dug deeper, and I thought about this in relation to the other parts of the story. And I think perhaps what was going on here was that this guy didn’t realize that he had what he needed. Even though he was poor, he still had something to cling to that would keep him from fully being present at this wedding. He had his old identity to cling to, this person he used to be. And even when everything changed once he got that invitation, he just couldn’t shake this old identity, and so he showed up as that person he perceived himself to be. He wasn’t free. He was still searching for validation even though it was all around him. So he was not fit to be in attendance.
Friends, Jesus wants us to see what he has clothed us in—that we have everything we need in him, that we don’t have to search for our identity elsewhere, or cling to what defined us in the past. We don’t have to make excuses for not following him all the way. Jesus only invites us into denial because he knows what he has to give is so much better. And the thing is, we don’t have to kill our loved ones or throw our wealth to the wind. We merely have to release ourselves from the hold they have on us—from the fear of what would happen if we ever lost them. Then we can be free to give, to live, and to follow the one who possesses the abundance we so desire.