Even now, two thousand years later, you can almost hear the man’s sigh of relief when Jesus reminds him of the basic commandments. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got all of that covered,” says the man. (“I’ve got eternal life in the bag,” he thinks.)
And you can almost see the look of concern slowly settle on his face as he realizes Jesus is not done talking. Jesus looks at him with love and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
And so we read that, “When the young man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
The Greek word used here for grieving is a serious, heavy word–it’s what the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would be killed; it’s what they felt when Jesus said one of them would betray him; it’s what Jesus felt when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This young, wealthy, good, religious man was grieving as he left Jesus.
Any time we lose something, there is grief involved, and this man who came to Jesus was grieving because he has lost something. With these few words from Jesus, the man has lost the entire future life he imagined for himself. Thus far, he has been holding to his wealth and possessions while he followed the commandments. He has envisioned a future in which he has prosperity, power, prestige–and eternal life.
Jesus says that’s not how it works. If this guy wants to be perfect, he’s got to give up his possessions. And thus, if he keeps his possessions, he will have to give up his aspirations of perfection–his view of himself as a devoted, faithful person. He was grieving because his idea of how life works had been shattered.
This man’s conversation with Jesus did not go quite as he had hoped. This thing Jesus told him to do was difficult–perhaps too difficult. So the young man went away grieving. He went back to his McMansion, snuggled down in his Lazy Boy, and flipped on the big screen TV, never to see Jesus again.
That’s the story we’ve heard, right? Not exactly.
We only know that the man goes–which is actually what Jesus tells him to do: “Go, sell your possessions.”
And we know that he is grieving.
We tend to assume he is grieving because he is not willing to sell his possessions, which means that he will not gain eternal life after all.
But it is also possible that he is grieving because he’s really going to miss that TV. He was so enjoying the new surround sound stereo system that he got for Christmas.
The story simply does not say. None of the three versions in the gospels say whether the man went and kept his possessions or went and sold his possessions. The text says only that he went away grieving.
It is interesting to me that there is such a broad belief that he rejects Jesus’ instructions. Some scholars even refer to this as a “failed call narrative.” We fill in the end of this story in our heads without even realizing we are doing it.
Why? Why do we all fill in this story automatically? And why do we all imagine the same ending?
Is it because that’s how our story would end?
*This post is adapted from a sermon on Matthew 19:16-30, a parallel passage to this week’s Lectionary reading from Mark 10:17-31.
*You can find a family liturgy based on Mark 10:17-31 at Practicing Families.