RCL Year B, Proper 23 (Alternate Readings)
Amos 5:6-7 and 10-15, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Saint Mark 10:17-31

If Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew are heroes, along with the other disciples, then perhaps the Rich Young Ruler in today’s Gospel qualifies as an anti-hero. You remember that Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew immediately drop what they are doing and follow Jesus when he commands them. The fishermen drop their nets, and Matthew leaves his tax booth immediately.

Not so the Rich Young Ruler. After he declares he keeps the commandments, Jesus raises the bar by telling him he lacks one thing: “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”[1] “When he heard this,” the Gospel says, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”[2]

Some anti-heroes change and grow. They develop the qualities they originally lack, and they become their truer selves, performing heroically. Nicodemus is like this. Originally he fails to understand Jesus, but in the end he takes Jesus’ body down from the cross and helps to bury him with myrrh and aloes.

The Rich Young Ruler does not return to the Gospels. This is his only appearance, and we do not know what happens to him. Nicodemus grows to some extent, but we cannot be sure about the Rich Young Ruler. His possessions have ensnared him, preventing him from following Jesus. But, is he gone with hope of turning around, or is he far gone without hope of returning? Where exactly is he on the slippery slope?

He reminds me of Mike Campbell in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” “‘Two ways,’ Mike said. ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’…‘I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.’”[3]

If the Rich Young Ruler is going spiritually bankrupt, is he still in the gradual phase, where there would be a possibility of repenting? Or, is that opportunity past?

“For God all things are possible,”[4] Jesus declares. In the Old Testament, wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Think of Abraham and all his flocks and herds; think of Job and all his riches. But Jesus rejects the Rich Young Ruler’s wealth and the sense of false security it may give him. God may bestow salvation on him, but surely God will not override his will in the matter. It is up to him to determine his path and to direct his steps accordingly. Words from the First Lesson come to mind: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.”[5]

[1] Saint Mark 10:21.

[2] Saint Mark 10:22.

[3] Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, (1926; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), page 136.

[4] Saint Mark 10:27.

[5] Amos 5:14.