In 1900, Frank L Baum gave the world his timeless story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As you all know, it is here that we meet for the first time Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. It is here that we also meet the Wizard himself, the great Oz, who lives in the Emerald City and who is believed to be the only one with the wisdom and the power to get Dorothy and Toto back to Kansas as well as give their three companions what they want as well. Of course, one of the great plot twists of the story is the revelation that Oz is really not a Wizard or all powerful but only a man named Oscar from Nebraska, of all places, who for years had hidden behind a curtain while fooling everyone with his trickery and slight of hand lest his real identity be found out. In truth Oscar, as the classic line in the book points out, was a “very good man, but a very bad wizard”.
I think of Oscar in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when I think of the man that we meet in our text for today from Mark. Truth be told, he is a man who is introduced to us in three of the four gospels as his story is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew and Mark we learn that he was wealthy and young. In Luke’s telling, we are made aware that he was also a ruler of some type. Think about that for a moment. In the imagery of Oz, here was a man who had three curtains he could stand behind, youth or good health, wealth or possessions and power. Any of these on their own and all of them together could easily give him a false sense of his true identity.
Before we go any further with his story, we must pause for a moment here and admit that we are all a lot like this young man. What three aspects of the life do we lean into more than these three too? Our youthfulness and health, our financial well being and our place of power are also equally potent and dangerous elixirs in our lives as they were in his. As long as we have our health, have plenty of money in the bank and are someone of importance, what else could we need? Often any one of these gives us a false sense of who we are but when we have all three, it becomes amazingly difficult in this life to recognize our authentic need for God or to recognize that when the curtains behind which we hide fall down, they will also expose us as nothing but an ordinary people with little if any security left. When the curtain falls, our health, possessions or status goes away, suddenly, we are seen as only Oscar from Nebraska too and we realize that we have leaned into ourselves and not into God.
But, the Rich, Young, Ruler’s story isn’t simply about the triple challenge that he faced in seeing his real humanity and real needs, but, most specifically, it is about the challenges that he faced when it came to his possessions.
Now we must admit, he really seems to have been someone who wanted to do better. He kept the commandments and he ran toward Jesus with what appeared to be a sincere desire to do better and to be better which comes out in his question, “What must I do to get eternal life?”. When he asks Jesus what else he must do, I think he was sincere and earnest. Jesus, of course, answers with his classic statement that the man’s greatest challenge, or the biggest thing between him and the Kingdom of God, was his possessions. His wealth was the bigger god in his life. Evidently the he had accumulated provided him his peace, drove his energies and consumed his time. Jesus said this was his biggest challenge and then Jesus offers an equally big solution which was for the man to sell his possessions and give everything to the poor.
Now, lest you think differently, I am not suggesting nor do I believe that the take away here is for us to divest ourselves of everything that we own and become penniless in order to truly become who God wants us to be. That is not the interpretation that has generally been given to this text over the years. Yet, it is just as challenging of a word for us as it was for this rich, young, ruler who found in Jesus’ words a command that he simply could not follow. The challenge of course is to honestly ask ourselves do our possessions possess us? Do our possessions ultimately determine our sense of peace and well being? Do our possessions and our accumulation of wealth drive our energies? Do our possessions consume our thoughts? And, do our possessions require the majority of our available time? If we answer yes to any of these questions then we have work to do if we are to learn from the Rich, Young, Ruler’s story and put our possessions in the right place in our lives.
Having said that, there is one final note here that is very important. The Rich, Young, Ruler is challenged to use his possessions to do good. It is fascinating that Jesus doesn’t simply invite the young ruler to find a healthy way of feeling about his possessions. Instead, he ultimately invites him to find a healthier way of using his possessions. He wants him to use what he has to do good in the world.
What we must understand and what this story helps remind us of is the fact that Faith is never just about having the right thoughts or feelings. Faith must also, always be about doing the right things and we must approach our possessions in exactly same way.
One of my favorite stories in ministry is one some of you have heard before. If you let me hang around these parts a while longer, you’ll probably hear it again. It is a true story about a little boy in a previous congregation at a children’s event one night where the local Habitat for Humanity director was sharing with the children about their organization. As she talked, the little boy got up walked up to where she was standing, took a dollar bill out of his pocket and put it on the podium, turned around and went back to his seat. Surprised and a little confused, the director stopped her presentation, looked at the little boy and asked him what the dollar was for. He responded as if she was the most clueless person in the room. “What’s if for? Why, it’s for those houses you keep talking about”.
At such a young age, that little boy understood what we often miss. The presentation that night was simply about information it was about the need for action. Even as a first or second grader, he understood that.
This is our challenge. We are called to not only understand in our mind and our hearts how God wants us to feel about possessions, we are to allow that new understanding to reach our hands and our feet. Amen.