‘You lack one thing’, Jesus tells the young man who has come to ask how he might inherit eternal life. For the young man it was his wealth, his possessions. We might breathe a sigh of relief and think, ‘well I’m OK then’ – I’m not wealthy’. But this young man’s wealth wasn’t stocks and shares or investments – offshore or not; his wealth would have been his home and his land – this was how wealth worked in Jesus’ time. What Jesus asks is that the young man leaves these behind in order to follow him, just as the other disciples have. He went away disappointed – this was too much to ask. Home, land, family – this is what Jesus asked this young man to relinquish. How would we feel if we were asked to relinquish this one thing?
Our faith demands the same question of us today. What one thing do we lack? What one thing holds us back from a true and full faith in God? We too are most likely ‘good people’ like the young man – kind, considerate, generous, trustworthy. He was all these things – it was as if he’d got to the end of morality and obedience and found that it wasn’t enough. There was something stopping his faith from flourishing; in his case it was wealth, perhaps especially the security it brought. It may be that he didn’t need to trust, to have faith, because he was safe, comfortable, secure. Although we only have to look at Job to see that this security can be very transient – Job was wealthy and devout. He lost everything, and then had to wrestle with what his faith in God looked like from a place of sorrow and poverty. It was a long, long struggle.
It’s easy to believe when you feel blessed, but maybe a bit more difficult when you’re stricken down by tragedy and loss. For some, such things destroy faith – and who are we to judge? For others, faith is a solid foundation in times of trouble and distress. What would, or indeed does, your faith look like in hard times? Such times can hone and refine our faith – make it vivid and deep.
Today’s world offers many diversions and distractions; opportunities for us to use our time and energy in many different ways. There are many, many more possibilities now than there were for the wealthy young man. We might consider ourselves blessed in this: the opportunity to go out for a meal, go to a musical or a football match, buy lottery tickets, watch the TV, or to treat yourself or indulge in a bit of luxury.
None of these things are bad in themselves, although some luxuries feel inappropriate these days – diamond studded pet collars, £500 bottles of wine or madly expensive luxury cars seem unjustified to most of us. What we have to watch is what these things do to our faith, our trust in God. Do these things lull us into a false sense of security, thus putting God firmly in the back seat? Do the ‘things’ of our lives distract us from what is of central importance?
This picture caught my eye, because it made me think of both ‘pinch points’ in life and of God’s judgement. We will probably all come to points in our lives where choices and opportunities narrow and we have to lose things in order to cope: there is no way that that camel is going to be able to carry that large load though that small gap. It’s going to have to offload – shed some stuff in order to continue its journey. And so for us, pinch points make us think about what really matters – what is true, abiding, worthy – and about what is superfluous – what can be left behind. These pinch points are the hard times in life: losing loved ones, losing your job, being ill, watching a loved one suffer. At such times, things come sharply into focus: we see clearly what matters and what doesn’t.
In a way such times are mini versions of God’s judgement. Each of us must stand in God’s gaze, one day. I have a feeling that God won’t need to ask what our ‘stuff’ is: we will know. We will know what was a distraction, what was fluff or dross, and what had abiding value and truth. To enter God’s Kingdom – both now and then – we need to stop and consider what to ditch.
There have been Christians who have pursued their faith with singleness of mind, and so left behind the world and all its distractions in order to experience God in ways which most of us will never achieve – almost as if they experienced judgement and salvation in their lives as well as their deaths. These were the Desert Fathers and Mothers who went out into the wilderness to live in caves with no possessions, no certainty of food, and sometimes not even any clothes. In solitude and poverty they experienced God in intensely fearful and joyful ways. Then there were the mystics and monastics of medieval times who followed in the same way of poverty – St Francis, for instance, gave away all his possessions and took to life on the road, living on only what was given to him and sharing the very little he had. The interesting thing is that many of these great abstainers from the material world found that the world came back to them shot through with wonder and joy. They had learned to see the true value of things, and that these were God’s gifts, beautiful and holy.
Perhaps, this is the reason that Jesus says that it is impossible for rich people to enter the Kingdom (though all things are possible for God). The more comfortable and cushioned you are, the less you’ve had to consider the true value of things, although no-one is guaranteed exemption from suffering; back to Job again.
Worth isn’t truly expressed in pounds or dollars. Those who are poor, including those who have faced tragedy and loss, have had time and opportunity to think about the important things in life, true essentials. If you’ve lost someone, you know the worth of love. If you’ve faced serious illness, you know the true worth of family and friends, and of people who truly care. If you have lived through depression or mental illness, you know the value of the things that bring joy – more than raucous, hollow laughter, but deep and abiding joy. If you live in poverty you know the true worth of food and warmth and a roof over your head. If you’ve skated over life in privilege and with ease, you may well still be using the wrong measuring tools.
All of us will have to face these questions. It’s good to consider them now – this equips us for hard times, and for the day when we stand in God’s gaze and see how much of our time and energy we spent on things of no worth. What one thing is yours to leave behind?