Long before teenagers and pre-retirees spent blessed evenings together staring into glowing pieces of glass, the infamous transcendentalist, Thoreau, saw in civilization the threat of enslavement. He realized that work itself--the great American effort at making money, providing for your progeny, moving up the economic food chain--was a noose around the neck of his fellow continental compatriots, in a way that was unique from their European counterparts.
But even much longer before old Henry David set up his shack by old Walden Pond in 19th century Massachusetts, a first century wisdom teacher/roving philosopher/rabble rouser/Messiah saw it call coming. Saw that which was meant to set us free would only chain us down. And we've been tripping over his words ever since.
All of this started to become clear to me when our TRIBE gathering worked through the infamous "Rich Young Ruler" passage in the Gospel of Mark. The night was wrought with (as I often call it) lyrics with no music, soundbytes from sermons we didn't heed, but whose words we can't shake, nonetheless. For some it was the old guilt and pressure of giving it all away to the poor that plagued them (a dastardly mistranslation of the text) for others it was doubling down on the counter-programming that well-meaning pastors had passed down where the rich man's wealth was keeping him from relationships because Jesus is... of course... all about relationships. (This passage is in no explicit way about relationships.) And like is often the case when a bunch of people get in a room to study Scripture, we spent as much time grappling with what we'd been told the text said than what it actually said.
I find this to be the joy of good Bible study. The Bible, when we allow it to, forces us to address the prevailing narrative in our head. When we slow down and double-check the words and the meaning of those words, we are forced to interlinear our own ideas against the texts, seeing where the gap stands. It is in this gap that the Holy Spirit swoops in like the wind, drawing us from one way of life to the next. It is usually in the unsettledness of this drawing that study participants start grasping for their favorite dogmas to steady themselves over the windswept ravine between where they are and where they could be.
It is in the humble facing of the text that we realize the only thing standing between us and our full citizenship in the Kingdom is our comfort zone. Comfort zone--a phrase in modern parlance meant to imply this squishy space around us that keeps us from getting too bruised by the unfamiliar--is nothing of the sort. It is an entrapment of razor thin wire, holding us down until we succumb to the stasis of a life unable to change. The passage of the Rich Young Ruler (poorly titled) is difficult not only on its own but because it follows other difficult passages like Jesus' so-called teaching on divorce (not a teaching on divorce at all), Jesus' teaching on who goes to hell (you'll be surprised!) and Jesus' coming down from the holy mountain only to ask His disciples to take up their cross. These four passages sections in sequence--what I have come to describe as the dynamai discourses for all the times the Greek word is used in the section (and subsequently translated out by the NIV guys - Thanks NIV guys!)--take Jesus' students on a critical journey from awareness (You are the Messiah!) to surrender. This journey through the first four stages of the spiritual journey (Longing, Placement, Deconstruction, Engagement) is preparing them for the most important stage: Grief. They are about to enter Jerusalem ready for war, only to find that the only way to win is to lose and the only way to gain heaven is to go through hell.
Up against this three-dimensional context, is it likely that Mark is bringing in the story of the rich man to mark down Jesus' base teaching on money and wealth? No, of course not. In fact, the passage talks none of money at all. It talks a lot about land (when you understand the Greek inferences into a first century Jewish world view), the power of choice, idolatry, and in the end it lays down the melody for the harmonic inference which Thoreau would eventually pick up: what we own ends up owning us. We are tools of our tools.
The man in the story owns some land he's likely inherited. It is a tool for wealth. And like all inheritances in the Bible, it was meant to be a tool to bless people but it seems he's missing that point. Jesus leads him to the mirror to see that the land is not controlled by him, it's controlling him. And the only way to have it release its grip on his life is for him to release his grip on it. This is not a moral admonition for poverty nor is it about the war of classes against those with economic power. Quite the contrary. Jesus calls the man to sell his inheritance and be generous to those who bow down to him (the literal word for "poor") in the passage. And, of course, the reason why this is the only man ever told to sell his inheritance for the benefit of others, is because he's the one who won't. The thing he was given that was intended to be a tool for generosity, ended up being a tool for torture--locking him in a cave of ego and self-preseravation.
So it is with us.
We are slaves to the inheritance. In modern parlance, we live to work because we must work to live. The toil of our hands controls us, no matter how fruitful it becomes.
And so it was for the man who sought out Jesus. In search of the ultimate land grant of God's rule through Israel's eternal kingdom, the man's longing took him past the abundance of his current inheritance.
It wasn't enough. And it never is. And that's the point. The ego is never satiated. All our efforts to perform and produce, to use the powers God has given us to make good, only make us hungry for more. The Problem of the Good(s) plagues as much as the Problem of Evil, because it is the good in our life which we find so difficult to hold loosely. The good of our powers, our abilities, our unearned wealth of skill, genetic prowess... instead of humbling surrendering these to the work of the Spirit, we persist under them, slaves to the crowds reaction to our goods. Wondering who we might be able to impress next.
Jesus finishes the passage by teaching his disciples about what it will take to rise to the road of the spiritual journey they are on. It will take an ongoing and never-ending process of release and receive, release and receive. The journey to wholeness is designed to release us from the imprisonment of what we can have, to discover the liberty of what we can become. Along the way we pass the Landmarks of a Transforming Life:
And back again to the beginning. As modernists and even post-modernists we are grasping for the rules of cause and effect of Jesus' teaching. "He means that if you let go and let God then all will be well!" When of course He doesn't mean anything of the sort. He means that in this life you will have the opportunity to relinquish one journey for the next. One small pen of security for the next wider field of growth and development. It means that human beings only grow when faced with empty space. And as long as all our spaces are filled there's nowhere for us to grow.
So it was for the man. All his spaces were filled. He held so tightly to the trapeze bar of inheritance he had that he couldn't face the open air gap to the next wrung of Kingdom inheritance he was being offered. The disciples held fast to the sacrifices already made, planning on them being enough. As we know where the story goes... It wasn't enough and it never is.
So it is with us.
As long as we are in the business of filling all our spaces: with our stuff, with our abilities, with our rights, with our comforts, with our moral superiority, with our sense of personal loss, we cannot take hold of a life which won't be contained.
This is, of course, the ultimate definition of the Kingdom abundance that Jesus lived, taught and invited His students to join: a life within God's rule so expansive of love, hope, faith and joy that to attempt to fill it permanently would be like squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle. Impossible. To enter the eternal country we must follow His way of a timeless releasing and being held. Disowning so we can be set free.
As civilization has made our lives more complicated, so too is our application of the beautiful story of the Landowner in Search of a Greater Inheritance. What we "own", the tools which make tools of us are more complex and more subtle. They are our social media presence, the positive perception of our friends, the esteem of our colleagues. They are the righteous feelings of recognition within our religious sect, the superiority of our losses up against the comforts of others. Our psychic strongholds have diversified, but their hold on us no less as strong. It has been said that it took one night to get the Hebrews out of slavery and 40 years in the desert to the slavery out of the Hebrews.
So it is with us.
May we let loose the safe boundaries of our inheritance so that we may be freed to receive the endless hills of the life with God.
For a word-by-word rethinking of the Rich Young Ruler in context, as seen through the lens of 1st Century Judaism (so basically to read it in a way closer to the original music and lyrics) take a dive into: Liberating a Rich Man.