Mark 10.17-31 / Hebrews 4.12-16
John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming.
His muscles were well-toned, and his breathing regulated.
He knew all about how to get off to a winning start, turning at the end of each length and how to pace himself.
But one day John said to his coach, “I know all about these things but still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?”
The coach took a deep breath and said, “Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have to actually get in the water”.
The response Jesus gave to the wealthy man in our Gospel reading was something along the same lines: “You lack one thing … sell what you own … give to the poor … then come, follow me”.
The man had learnt all the rules, practised them, and knew all the rhythms of living his faith.
Yet, he knew something was missing, he knew he still wasn’t getting there, and he turned to Jesus find out why.
So, Jesus looked him in the eye and told him that if he sold everything and gave the money away, he’d finally be swimming.
In other words, he’d be really living the life of faith.
It was a step too far for the young man and the encounter ended in shock and grieving, with Jesus also grieving the loss of someone who just couldn’t take that last step.
In the eyes of many Jews, wealth, power and status were clear signs of God’s favour, even though the Jewish Scriptures didn’t always agree with them.
Hence, the disciples’ amazement at Jesus saying how hard it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
In their eyes rich people would surely be first in line as God’s favourites, and if they couldn’t get in, what hope would there be for anyone else?
Jesus had turned the order of things upside down, making the first last and the last first.
He’d also struck a blow against the young man’s understanding of himself, and it was a hard lesson, though delivered in love.
This is the kind of thing our reading from Hebrews was talking about, when it described the word of God piercing, laying bare and judging, but also Jesus sympathising with our difficulties and offering mercy and grace.
Jesus laid bare the young man’s desire for wealth, but also loved him and offered him the solution.
At the beginning of today’s gospel story, we might identify with the young man.
We might recognise the sense that even though we do our best to follow God’s commandments we’re still missing something.
We might have a niggling uncertainty or an empty place in our hearts that aches and longs for something we can’t fully identify.
Like the young man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for.
Just as he looked at the young man and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on us with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is we need.
His answer to us, though, might not be “go, sell what you own” because it’s not just the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus.
Rather, it’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back.
What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which are difficult to put aside, even for God.
Wealth is a good servant but a bad master, and wealth has become too big a part of who this man is.
The answer Jesus gives to us will be deeply personal.
We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity, over and above our faith and identity in Jesus.
It might be possessions, memories of wrongs done to us, pride in our own abilities, a particular view of ourselves; it might be our job or position in the community; it might be addiction or destructive relationships; it could be any number of things.
We might feel that to let go of whatever it is would just be a step too far, that it means giving up something of who we are.
Then we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly.
But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible.
For the young man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned, and he had to go away bruised and heavy hearted.
But perhaps he thought more about the words of Jesus and struggled with his own reactions.
Perhaps in time, and with God’s help, he did the impossible.
Maybe he came round to seeing that whatever he had to give up would be worth it in terms of what matters in the kingdom of God.
And if we identify with the young man in this story, we can call upon the great high priest who sympathises with us in our weaknesses and offers us mercy and grace.
Then one day, in that mercy and grace, we may well find ourselves doing the impossible and following Jesus with all that we are and all that we own, finding, in the process, who we truly are, and the treasures that really matter.