I’m excited to welcome my friend, Ed Cyzewski over to my place today. Ed has been an online pal for years now. He’s one of those rare guys who is able to be funny without being mean and is wise in the ways of our Jesus without being preachy or weird. His new book is coming out soon and I am honoured to make a bit of room here to celebrate it.
Have you ever looked at your bank account balance, a troubled relationship, or a job situation and wondered, “God, where are you right now?”
I’m not the first person to make my life circumstances the measuring stick of God’s presence or blessings. I certainly won’t be the last.
Over the past four years I’ve grown weary of constantly watching our bank account balance as the end of the month nears. We carefully pay off our essential bills and manage day to day expenses while leaving enough money to cover unexpected bills that come up.
I think about money way more than I’d like.
If there’s one story that a writer living from pay check to pay check doesn’t want to read, it’s the story of the rich young ruler. Nevertheless, my latest book project, Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from Those Who Doubted Jesus, required that I study it. While I started this project because of the ways I related to the Pharisees and their heavy-handed use of scripture to divide and conquer, my investigation of the “unfollowers” in the Gospels led right to my least favorite Gospel story of all time.
Doesn’t Jesus appear rather unreasonable with the rich young ruler? Sell everything? Really?
No, thank you, Jesus. “Unfollow!”
We’re trying to just make ends meet each month. I find it hard to relate to both the ruler and Jesus in this story.
It’s tempting to explain away the sharper points of this story, to minimize their impact in my life. How do we encounter the full force of this story today without turning our family into homeless vagabonds?
As I struggled with this story, I was reminded of my four years living in a small Vermont town, and it added a bit of insight into what Jesus was trying to do.
While living in the southwest corner of Vermont, I rubbed shoulders with a bunch of people from New York City who retired in lavish homes throughout the countryside. They made their fortunes early in life and were finally reaping the “rewards” of their abundance.
I could sense the attractiveness of their comfort and affluence. A friend of mine lived in a modest home surrounded by larger vacation homes, and he said that he often struggled with comparing himself to the wealthy people around him. I too caught myself coveting a larger, fancier home filled with fine artwork. Let’s toss in a small swimming pond while we’re at it too—that’s what most of the wealthy folks would do.
There is something about being around large amounts of money that proved difficult, if not destructive to my mental health. I always craved more possessions. When we moved away from that town, I sensed a huge relief in my spirit. I wasn’t comparing myself to others or spending imaginary money I didn’t have.
I felt greater freedom by just getting away from affluent people.
Money changes us, and whether we want to admit it or not, it can often change us for the worst.
As I imagine the rich young ruler approaching Jesus, he simply wanted Jesus to affirm his existing decisions and to welcome him as a disciple according to his own terms. He didn’t think that his money could have changed him all that much. He was fully committed to the law after all. What more could Jesus ask him to do?
While preaching on this passage one Sunday, my pastor suggested that Jesus may have been offering this particular man the only path to freedom left for him. He had to learn how to live with nothing if he wanted to experience the fullness of life with Jesus.
In other words, having less is not necessarily a punishment. Owning less can be more of an advantage than we expect. Some days I’d rather believe that financial abundance equals blessing.
I know that the good Sunday school answer is that we should be content with Jesus and Jesus alone. But let’s be honest: If you’re a parent, you don’t want to risk losing your home or running out of money for food. The weight of Jesus telling this man to leave ALL of his possessions behind hits parents especially where it hurts.
I don’t think that this story is necessarily a template for how to live. There’s no way that Jesus called all of his disciples to sell all of his possessions. After all, he was supported financially by a band of wealthy women. He entrusted his mother into the home of John. Followers of Jesus in the early church owned homes that were used for church meetings.
We need to stop reading this story with white knuckle grips on our laptops, furniture, and cars.
This is a story about what can hold us back from Jesus. We shouldn’t approach this story asking “how much am I allowed to own?” That misses the point. We should approach this story asking, “What would keep me from following Jesus?” This is a story about finding freedom from the control of money and possessions, not about living in condemnation because of what we own.
Do you own something that distracts you from Jesus?
Is there something in your home that makes it hard to pray?
Would you find it easier to seek first the Kingdom of God if you could change one thing?
Do you measure God’s approval or blessings according to your bank account?
Do you trust in your work or financial goals for security or fulfillment?
This is a story that can lead us to conviction and freedom rather than condemnation and isolation.
For some of us, the cost will be steep. For others, the cost may only be a dramatic change to how we see the world.
Sometimes it really hurts to let go of financial security or standards we use to measure our personal worth. Some days I don’t buy into the “freedom” offered in this passage. I want security that I can hold and control.
This story upends our standards and narratives about wealth, blessings, and “financial independence.” Jesus defines freedom in terms of having less.
It’s hard to admit that right now I may have the most freedom I’ve ever experienced.
Learn more about what we can learn from the Rich Young Ruler and the other “unfollowers” of Jesus in Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus.
Ed Cyzewski is the co-author of Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus and The Good News of Revelation. He shares his imperfect/sarcastic thoughts on following Jesus at In A Mirror Dimly and lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and son.