My default way of processing thoughts and emotions is by making food. Because of this, I have this theory that the taste of whatever I bake is somehow affected by my attitude. Like, cookies I make when I’m happy taste better, or muffins made in the midst of a theological discussion end up with a rich, complex taste.
(I am fully aware that this is really strange and probably not possible. Except that sometimes when I’m mad, I forget to check the oven and burn things more often. So there’s that.)
If that’s the case, the Oreo truffles I made after church taste like conviction. (Or maybe that’s just the excessive calories caused by cream cheese and chocolate. Could be that too.)
I came back from a sermon about loving others where something hit me, something very specific about my arrogance and selfishness. And, as one does, I tried to drown it out with chocolate and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which ends with the song “Everything You Ever.”
And I remembered the Bible study questions I’m supposed to be working on and switched to that, because that last song hit a little too close to home—the anthem of a successful man who had everything he ever…well, he did want that…didn’t he? Even if it cost something that…but it was worth it, wasn’t it?
In a surprising twist, Joss Whedon and J. I. Packer were in a conspiracy against me. (This falls under the category of sentences I never knew I wanted to write until I wrote them.) Because the Bible study carried similar themes to that last song.
It was on the story of the rich young man. Yes, him. Matthew 19. My old friend, the one who asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
Good start. Seems reasonable. Keep reading.
“The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
You have to wonder who this guy was, this rich young man who was so sure he had kept all the commandments.
Maybe he was the kid singing songs in church too loudly, and when his sister pointed that out, he responded in holy outrage, quoting “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord” and sniffing in disdain at the heathen sibling who cared more about other’s opinion than praising God. Except, maybe, deep in that kid’s heart, it was less about praising God and more about being heard.
Maybe he was the teenager you could find in the church pretty much every time it was open, the one with all of the right answers, who could say true things beautifully…and knew it. Maybe he performed a monologue about fear and faith and suffering during a program at a homeless shelter. And one of the women came up afterward and said, “You’re so young. Someday. Someday maybe you’ll understand what that story means.” And he wondered what she meant, because he was sure he knew it now. He’d written it himself, hadn’t he? And it was good.
Maybe he was the college student who would use a particular day of the week—say, Monday—to show off his intelligence and deep thinking by asking hard questions. Possibly in the wrong spirit, but at least he wasn’t like those other Christians who didn’t care about what they believe.
Maybe he had always been the kind of person who was competent at nearly everything he set out to do, and who had a particular talent for slipping brags about himself into conversations. Who always dreamed of doing big things for God and checked his blog stats too often and enjoyed being needed and loved others for his own sake rather than theirs.
Maybe he was very much like me.
He hadn’t perfectly kept the commandments, of course. But he was doing pretty good, all things considered.
Except Jesus started the whole conversation off with, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”
Both the rich man and I knew exactly who Jesus was talking about, properly identifying the “one” in Jesus’ statements with the appropriate Sunday School answer: Only God is good.
I am not good.
That is the logical conclusion of Jesus’s opening statement, and I don’t like it. Probably the rich young man didn’t either.
The telling of this story in Mark includes this little detail: after the rich young man asked what he was still missing, Jesus “looked at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’”
There it is. Those are the plot points of a truly tragic story.
Jesus saw him. Jesus loved him. Jesus asked him to do something hard.
And he walked away.
Tragic characters have always been my favorites. I was the kid who cried at the wrong deaths in movies, the teenager who did her Civil War hero project on Robert E. Lee, the college student who wrote about Judas every Good Friday. And from the first time I heard it in elementary school, I loved the story of the rich young man.
Something in me has always known that, but for the grace of God, my story could be his. Some days, the days where I put my own glory before God’s, it is.
There are times when I feel like I’m a reasonably good person, times like before the sermon today. People love me. I can sound really spiritual. Others depend on me, and I follow through. I am hard working and smart and friendly and a good communicator.
When it comes to gaining eternal life, it does not matter. None of it.
“If you want to be perfect….”
Try harder. Do better. Earn more gold stars on your chart of righteousness.
Nope, nope, nope. That’s not what Jesus said. What you do is give up everything you’ve put before God and follow Jesus. Even if your idol is being loved by others. Even if it’s being well thought of or serving the church or doing great things for God.
If any of this sounded familiar, if you struggle with wanting approval more than you want God, remember. Please, please remember: Jesus sees you. Jesus loves you. And Jesus asks you to give up everything you thought you wanted to follow him.
Don’t walk away from that.