The rich young man is doing all the right stuff, following all the commandments, checking all the boxes, crossing off all the to-do list items until he comes to the one thing he cannot part with - his wealth. It’s funny, we often think that with money we would find freedom and joy -- the kind personal benefactor who pays our salary no matter what we do would finally give us freedom, right, to do the things we love to do? But this rich young man reminds us that money can be the exact thing that blocks our freedom and joy. To be more specific, our clinging to money can be what keeps us from embracing freedom and chasing joy. This rich young man is doing all the hard stuff - staying faithful with his word and deed, treating others with respect, following every commandment - but he has given away his power to his wealth.
We let money mean all kinds of things to us. We let it mean security: through access to health care, reliable and independent transportation, private and consistent housing, all kinds of insurance, retirement savings. Since we’ve designed a society in which these things add up to security, and we’ve designed a system in which money buys all these things, money really does mean security to us.
I think that’s why Jesus comes up with this phrase “treasure in heaven.” He’s trying to use what matters to the rich young man to offer him a new future. Treasure matters, stocking up on treasure makes this man feel safe and good, so Jesus offers him a way to imagine that giving away his worldly possessions will still give him a treasure stockpile somewhere. And we humans are driven by reward – we have jobs to contribute to the world, teach students, heat houses, and so forth, but the paycheck matters too. We assume people are motivated more the more money they get, that the more we get paid the harder we work. That’s true in some cases, but overall people work hardest when they can see tangible, satisfying results of their work.
So this passage from Mark is tricky for many of us to read because we’re not comfortable doing good works in the world so we can have the biggest treasure chest in heaven. It just doesn’t fit most Christians’ (definitely not most Brethrens’) ethical viewpoint. We do good in this world because it is good to do, because our faith teaches us to, because it serves the world - not because we get paid for it later. I remember playing the game Generosity with my grandma - have you heard of it? It’s like the game of Life, but the cards have scripture on them and instead of earning money in the bank, you’re earning money in your heavenly treasure chest. It made me really uncomfortable and I thought I should keep it a secret from my parents because I had some sneaking suspicion that they would disapprove. I was right, they were rather scandalized by the game and for good reason. The game of Life and the game of Generosity are totally individualistic. Yes, you can put pink and blue pegs in your car game piece, but you’re still moving through the game world for yourself, acquiring as much wealth as possible. Whether you put it in your bank account or your heavenly treasure chest really doesn’t matter.... Jesus knows the rich young man leads a faithful life in nearly every way, but he wants the man’s life to be worth more to him than his money. Since the man’s faith is in his money, Jesus tries to speak in a language the man will understand, promising true riches in heaven. Jesus isn’t saying that gold or money are actually worth anything, or that we should treasure them on earth or in heaven. Jesus simply wants to shake up this young rich man’s faith in money, so that he can put his faith in something real instead.
What do you have faith in that isn’t real? Most of us have the same struggle as this rich young man. Money seems pretty real, you can occasionally hold it in your hand, or representations of it like bills and cards. Can you hold God in your hand? Jesus? The Holy Spirit? You faith community? The love of your family and friends? Prayer? Hope? Peace? Isn’t it funny how pretty much all of the most important things in life are impossible to hold in our hands?
When that makes us nervous, we’re vulnerable, we want something to hold on to. We reach for money for reassurance, we reach for food for comfort, we reach for the remote for distraction, we reach for the internet for companionship, we reach for guns for security, we reach for stereotypes to build our own self-esteem. You can hold your wallet, a donut, the TV remote, your computer, a gun, you can’t hold God, faith, hope, love, peace.
So we find tokens, because we need something to hold on to some days. We give birthday presents and wear wedding rings and write love letters and send sympathy cards to hold love in our hands.
We carry rosaries or wear crosses around our necks to hold our faith in our hands.
What does real mean, after all? Real can mean true, and real can mean tangible. But they’re not always the same thing. Love and faith aren’t tangible, but they are real.
We can’t hold God in our hands. We can’t even hold the divine human Jesus in our hands, though he is a tangible expression of God. We held the Body of Christ in our hands last Sunday, but we also hold the Body of Christ in our hands when we touch one another. As we gather in Jesus’ name, he is here, the Body of Christ remembered in this room.
So we have to hold each other, because we hold love, faith, God in our hands when we hold one another...."