Every third year, on Proper 23B, we hear the story of Jesus and the rich young man. You are probably familiar with the story, but as a reminder, a young man approaches Jesus wishing to become a disciple. After a brief back-and-forth on what that actually means, Jesus invites him to sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The young man leaves disheartened; Mark tells us it is because “he had many possessions.” Every third year, on Proper 23B, preachers wring their hands about whether or not this requirement was specific to that which was holding this particular person back or the more frightening option, that Jesus was thinking this was a requirement of everyone who followed him.
The latter can easily be argued based on how Jesus’ disciples are called in Mark’s Gospel. Andrew, Simon Peter, James, John, and Levi all drop everything: job, family, inheritance, and presumably wealth; in order to follow him. The former often gets argued based on gut feeling – a feeling that often aligns with the American Dream of getting money and buying stuff, which is less than convincing in the Kingdom politics. As one who lives in a comfortable home, drives a comfortable car, and enjoys the comforts of good food, decent clothes, and the occasional Apple product, all while giving more than tithe to the building of the Kingdom, I find myself stuck in the dissonance between these two arguments. I want to think that I’ve dropped everything to follow Jesus, but I know that there is some decent justification happening on the side.
That is, until this morning. As I read Paul’s great love poem from 1 Corinthians 13, I noticed something I had never seen before. Paul begins his great sonnet by listing the extremes of the faith life: speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels; understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge; having all faith; giving up all possessions; and handing over the body. Paul writes that he could take the life of discipleship to its farthest extremes, but without love, it would be useless. Giving up all possessions makes that list of extremes, which leads me to think that this type of living was being discussed in Paul’s day. Some must have been suggesting that all disciples called to sell everything and give it to the poor, while others, presumably those who were beginning to realize that Jesus probably wasn’t coming back tomorrow and plans had to be made to sustain the fledgling community that was following the Way, were arguing for a more modest stewardship plan.
Paul suggests that even those who live at the extremes of the life of faith, if they don’t have love, their fruit is rotten. By including it on this list, the call to sell everything seems to fall into the category of optional observances. That is to say, it isn’t the rule of faith, but rather the exception. The rule of faith, at least as Paul sees it here in 1 Corinthians 13, is the extreme of love, about which I will write more in the days to come.