Our two readings this morning have nothing in common and yet they have everything in common. Job, the man who has become the ancient symbol of human suffering, sits in his misery comforted only by the advice of his friends and a wife who says he should just curse God and die. However, the story in Marks gospel of a rich, young, handsome (I put that part in) ruler who has everything to live for seems very different. He is not only wealthy but a man of good moral character and devoted to his religion. This man has everything, Job has nothing.
Both these stories are essentially about the point and the meaning of life and the value of living by the rules and obedience to a set of moral principles and whether or not such a life brings salvation and wholeness. Both are a kind of parable that draws the listener into a place where he or she must ask questions about their own lives. And neither story gives a simple answer to the dilemmas posed.
The Rich Young Ruler:
Ostensibly this story of the rich young ruler is about wealth:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother."
"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."
If Jesus was looking for a good and upstanding recruit for his band of disciples then this fellow has all the credentials. Or does he? You could say that the old man Job had the right credentials, before calamity overcame him: "There was no man in the east who was more righteous than Job." But he too needed to go through the season of waiting to be made ready for his redemption.
Strangely though, moral uprightness was not the qualification Jesus was looking for among his followers, so he posits a question - a challenge perhaps:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the mans face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
There is no condemnation in Jesus words, no harsh judgement on this mans zealous religious practices. Nevertheless, the words fall hard on this young mans shoulders and his face falls to the ground.
The comedian Bill Cosby was invited to give the valedictory speech at a High School in New York some 20 years ago. The speech was given and the students had the opportunity to ask Cosby a question. One student stood and asked, "Mr Cosby, if you could say one thing to the young people of America, what would it be?" Cosby paused for a time and then answered, "I would say to them, change the object of your desire." Others have said that you become the object of your desire.
Job and his Friends:
As Job sat in his ashen bed, wearing only his grave clothes, having lost everything he loved, what did he desire? Here is where the two stories come together. For the pitiable Job, everything was taken from him. Everything he loved and all that comforted him was torn from his life. He didnt choose this path of self-degradation and poverty, it was thrust upon him. The wealthy young man on the other had was now offered the opportunity to experience what Job had lived through; perhaps without the sores and physical ailments. But nevertheless, a life far different from the one he was living.
Loss is a terrible thing even though it is woven through the fabric of human life and all of life. There is a continual "dance" between holding on and letting go. The friends of Job wanted to give him the best advice they could while they sat with him in his wretchedness. They wanted Job to hold on to the belief that only the wicked suffer and the righteous never do. But Job in his deep wisdom knew that that wasnt so. While he may have suffered terribly, nevertheless, he held to justice rather than reward. And for Job this awful place was a place filled with awe! Job was to let go of his old thinking of cause and effect, the relationship between goodness and reward, and embrace a new and vital way of being whole:
"Even today my complaint is bitter; Gods hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me. Would he vigorously oppose me? No, he would not press charges against me. There the upright can establish their innocence before him
His friends didnt help much in this process . Well thats not quite true. Perhaps they did give him the best gift of all, of which they were unaware; they gave him the gift of their presence. They stayed with him. However, they should have let the silence and the contemplation do its work on Job rather than their advice-giving. It has taken me a long while to learn how to sit with someone who is dying or in great suffering and not feel the need to fill the space with chatter. It is a very natural thing to do because we are all fearful of the great silence created by pain and suffering. But it is really presence that contributes to healing and wholeness.
And Job offers perhaps the wisest words ever spoken about the meaning of life and suffering. He said:
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me. Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.
The Young Rich Man
With vigour and excitement this young man approaches Jesus only to be told that he must change the object of his desire. When you've done everything right, it comes as a shock that you are not going to get what you thought was promised. Think for a moment about this scenario. What did he expect Jesus to say? Did he want to hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your reward? Or was he looking for that "tweak", that little thing, that would get him over the line and into the Kingdom of God? Well, whatever he was looking for, he didnt get it. Instead he got a powerful image of life and wealth that has echoed down through the annals of time:
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
I was having dinner with my daughter Joanne and her husband Michael last week and we were saying "The dessert was a bit overdone" or something like that. Joanne said, "Thats a first world problem!" She went on to explain that her students at MLC had a saying that when someone started complaining about the trivialities of life, they would say, "Thats a first world problem, not something that should be regarded as important." Somehow learning to distinguish between what is of value and what is of less value...
Friends, lets be clear here. "The love of money is the root of all evil and it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." But for me, this story is about a young man who missed the true object that he should have desired. Was it religion he needed? No. Was it a good moral life he needed? No. Was it being a good Christian person? No. What he needed was to embrace life in all its fullness, and for him that meant that money wouldnt be the first thing in his life. Well, so be it.
When I was in Jerusalem I went through the eye of the needle. History and mythology tell us that "the eye of the needle" is a small gate, next to the large gate, that a traveller could use if he arrived after dark at the entrance to Jerusalem. To get through "the eye of the needle" the traveller must bow low and squeeze through the small hole. He must leave all his possessions and his camel outside. I went through the gate (and had my picture taken as I did). It reminded me of the wisdom that is needed to know what is of value in my life and what I must hold fast to, and at the same time the discernment to have the courage to let go of that which hinders and stifles my growth into fullness of life. And that is not an easy process.
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhrs prayer is often quoted in this sense. I am sure many have heard it:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
But there is also a second verse:
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.