Two Men, Two Tales, Two Choices
Text: Luke 18-19
This is the story of two men who make two very different choices. I admit upfront that I am not sure which man I am or which choice I would make. I know which one I would want to make, but I’m not sure which one I would actually make. Or perhaps I have already made it and don’t want to admit it.
One tale is the story of a respected and accepted leader in a devout religious community. He was apparently well known for his piety. Indeed, he was an obedient and dedicated servant of God through submission to the law. He could claim to have never committed adultery or stolen or lied. He would have probably been singled out as one of the most devout, dedicated and religious people in his synagogue. He was respected and loved. He recognized Jesus as a good man who could offer guidance for his life. He sought out Jesus to ask him a sincere question.
The other tale is the story of a well-known figure but infamously so. He was part of a dishonored and ostracized community. He was classed among the “sinners,” consorted with prostitutes, pursued the seedy side of life, and identified with Roman oppressors. No doubt he had exploited people and abused his position. He had cheated (stolen) people out of their money. His sexual lifestyle was no doubt adulterous. He exploited people. He was feared rather than respected; hated rather than loved.
Both men in these two tales are rulers. One rules, presumably, a synagogue—he’s probably one of the elders. The other rules the equivalent of a district office of the IRS—he is the ruling (chief) tax collector. They were societal leaders—public people, well-known in the community. They were both powerful people.
Both men are wealthy. Presumably the one was wealthy through hard work and/or inheritance, but the other was wealthy through exploitation and theft. But they were both known for their wealth. They both lived at the upper end of the economic scale and enjoyed the luxuries of wealth and power.
And both encountered Jesus, but with two very different results. As modern readers we expect the results as they are given in the stories, but Jesus’ contemporaries were scandalized by how these tales turned out.
The background of these stories, of course, is the whole course of the Gospel of Luke to this point. The kingdom of God is breaking into the world and it reverses all expectations, social standards and cultural norms. The last become first and the first become last. The king of the Jews eats with sinners and touches lepers. The kingdom call is to prioritize the kingdom (seek it first) and eliminate our worry about “stuff.” Indeed, the kingdom call is to sell our possessions and give it to the poor (Luke 12:32-33) so as to lay up treasure in the kingdom of God rather than in the kingdoms of this world.
The kingdom journey anticipates the twists and turns of these two stories, but they are still troublesome, challenging and shocking.
The rich, devout synagogue ruler refuses to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. The sinful and exploitative tax-collector volunteers to give half of what he owns to the poor and restore four-fold what he has stolen (twice what the law prescribes as a principle of restorative justice).
This is a reversal of the most dramatic kind. The disciples are scandalized by Jesus’ demand and his assumption that wealth is a barrier or hindrance to salvation (e.g., experiencing the fullness of life in the kingdom of God). “Who, then, can be saved?,” they ask.
The crowd, no doubt including his own disciples, are scandalized by Jesus’ insistence (he “must” go to the tax collector’s house) on the hospitality of a tax collector. “Why does Jesus go to the house of a ‘sinner’?,” they ask.
The world is turned upside down. The rich are lost and the tax collectors are saved. The devout synagogue ruler loves his wealth and the tax collector is willing to let it go for the sake of the kingdom. The devout ruler of the synagogue refuses to divest himself of his wealth and a sinful tax collector impoverishes himself for the sake of the poor, for the sake of the kingdom of God.
This tale is not, however, about them. Oh, yes, these are “their stories.” But they are told for our sakes.
In particular, who am I? Am I the rich young ruler –the respected leader within a religious community who has sought to follow God all his life but who lives in luxury with hardly a thought about the poor (or perhaps a nod on occasion through a small gift)? Or am I the sinner who is willing to give half of my possessions to the poor because I’ve caught the kingdom vision and embrace the mission of Jesus to the poor?
I fear that I look too much like the former rather than latter. I fear that my wealth betrays me and I am too tied to it, too dependent upon it, to even think about giving half of my possessions to the poor.
We too easily domesticate the story of the rich young ruler. We spiritualize it, allegorize it and recontextualize it so that Jesus does not really mean for us to sell our possessions and give them to the poor. But the kingdom demand is not just made of this particular person. Rather, it is the mode of kingdom living itself. Don’ worry, Jesus says, and sell your possessions and give to the poor. It is a discipleship demand; it is for all disciples (Luke 12:32-33).
I know who I should be; I know the tale I should tell. But my own sadness (along with my self-justifications) reveals that I am too much like the rich young ruler than I would care to admit. I enjoy my status in the religious community. I enjoy my wealth. I want to keep it. But I also want to follow Jesus. I’m caught in the mix, and I struggle with how to live faithfully with this wealth (or without it) and how I might and whether I can divest myself of the wealth for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m afraid. I struggle. I agonize. It is good to struggle. The struggle means that I’m still alive, still trying to live under the kingdom demand. We don’t have a set of prescriptions to follow (e.g., only 20% of your income on housing). Rather, we have a story that we embrace and seek to life out. We follow Jesus. It is no easy task. Indeed, it cost us our lives.
Jesus, I want to follow you. Give me the courage, boldness and strength to love you more than my money.
Jesus, lover of souls, be merciful to me, a sinner.