We have come to the final element in the encounter between the rich young man and Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). It is significant that Jesus, despite – or because of – his love for the young man, does not make an exception for him, does not say, ‘Okay. I like you. I’ll make you a deal. You can keep all your wealth in reserve somewhere. Follow me anyway.’ No. Following Jesus and hoarding wealth are diametrically opposed. The poor have a claim on our material prosperity, according to Jesus (Mk 10: 21). A complete life-change must be undertaken by the wealthy that accommodates itself to others’ needs before a life lived with Jesus can be undertaken.
So: it looks pretty bad for the rich young man, whom I, too, have now begun to love. In losing Jesus he loses everything worth having, and his previously easy life suddenly becomes drenched in sorrow. Mark tells us that his face falls and he ‘goes away sad.’ I am certain that this is true.
But I still wonder: is it as bad as it looks for the rich young man? Is everything really over for him? I think of him reflecting on what he experienced with Jesus. He will not forget this encounter. He will remember it to the end of his life. And this may be his salvation.
Some final thoughts begin to take shape in my mind as I mentally say good-bye to a much-loved young man. I reflect that, ordinarily, the gospels show that some profound sorrow or disease – or both – is actually what opens people up to receive Jesus’ life, his love, his healing, his teaching about the Kingdom. For them, their woundedness, whether physical or moral or spiritual, is an unexpected blessing that enables them to gain the true treasure, which is Jesus.
But for others, the whole thing works in reverse–or it can. In the case of the rich young man, he comes to Jesus ‘nearly perfect,’ not conscious of woundedness or moral failings. When he leaves Jesus he feels much worse than he did when he arrived. He has been afflicted with a profound wound of sorrow. There are many, many untold stories in the gospels. We do not know exactly what happens to the rich young man after he ‘goes away sad.’ We know only that Jesus gives him the gift of a deep sorrow, the likes of which the young man had probably never known before in his life of wealth, comfort and cheer.
But wait. We know something else, too. Jesus gives him another gift to take away–and just as important: a moment of the most perfect human fulfilment. Jesus had been filled with love for him, and had looked at him with love. We are back to the idea with which we began our reflection: Mark’s insistence on Jesus’ look of love. This is of vital importance to Mark and it is even easier now to see why. We are talking about God-made-man looking at the rich young man with love. This look will be deeper and more profoundly moving than anything else he will ever experience. This combination of sorrow and love, it seems to me, is a combination that, given time, cannot fail to have affected the young man, to have opened him up, to have made him rethink his priorities, reconsider his actions. True, there is nothing in Jesus’ loving look to force the young man into acquiescence: he was free to refuse Jesus and he did. But, let’s note that he refused Jesus’ invitation right then. A door remains open to him; Jesus doesn’t stop loving people. There was still a chance to become a Christian later and to be healed of his sorrow and receive the joy of life in Christ. His life after this experience need not be a complete tragedy.
For those of us who may recognise ourselves in this story, who fear we may have lost the love of Christ forever along with our chance to be his follower, I think we can assume that Mark would hold that it doesn’t work like that. Jesus’ look of love lasts forever. The rich young man was eager, open and willing, but unprepared for the cost involved in following Jesus. He needed to grow up, to grow into Jesus’ love. The gift–the ‘package’–of sorrow and of love is powerful. The young man arrived at Jesus’ feet unprepared, he went away both loved and sorrowing. Through this gift, and over time, preparation for life with Christ was possible to him, as it is for anyone. Let’s hope he made that preparation and returned later, maybe after Jesus’ death, to join the growing community of Christians. Shall we join, too?