Last evening, while doing a devotional with my children, Allison and I chuckled at an interaction with our daughter, Clementine. Never one to mince words (or to stop talking), she succinctly summed up what most of us (albeit subconsciously) feel on the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler (Mt. 19:16-30).
Quick summary of the parable: a rich young man/ruler comes to Jesus and asks the million dollar question about what it takes to enter the kingdom of God. The man lists off his credentials (character, obedience, virtue) and waits for Jesus to usher him in to the heavenly realm. The man stands perplexed and dismayed when Jesus responds, “Sell all that you have and come back to me then.” The story ends rather depressingly with the man walking away with nothing to really show from his time with Jesus.
Enter my living room last night:
Me: “What is the story about?”
Clementine: “Helping people who don’t have what we have.”
Me: “How can we help people?”
Clementine: “By giving some of our stuff away.”
Me: “Does Jesus really want us to sell all of our stuff to help people?”
Clementine: “If we give all of our stuff, then we’ll be just like them.”
Before you either distance yourself from this little girl’s truth bomb or chuckle/giggle and disregard, let me remind you that her innocence revealed the anxiety that haunts many of us when it comes to helping the “least of these.” We either give from a position of moral/spiritual/financial superiority whereby we do not identify with our neighbors in need, or, all too often, we avoid places of need because we choose the comfort and security of not having to identify with “those” people.
Even my sentence ending with “neighbors in need” is one of superiority. I determine the need in the word created by such a speech act. I see others as needy and myself as removed. In the end, we are left desperately wanting to identify with Jesus and only able to identify with the despondent rich young man. Many of us don’t help those in need around us because we’ve bought the American lie that we were never in need and that we pulled ourselves up by the proverbial “boot straps.”
Not a single person reading this created their own world. You’re not that smart, resourceful or ambitious. It’s impossible. Somebody helped you get a leg up. At some point you had to die to your pride and allow a neighbor to help you in a moment of “need.”
Maybe the anxiety that we feel in this story is just what my daughter was getting at in her six-year-old innocence. Maybe we prop up our lives politically and spiritually to avoid the haunting reality that in a nation convinced it invented itself, that we’ve all failed that national standard. We couldn’t do it on our own and there is a deep-seeded ambivalence that we speak from when we lash out on social media. Maybe this parable is also an allegory where Jesus remains God and the rich young ruler is you and me who tick off the list of things we did forgetting that this whole thing was more than a numbers and lists game.
Maybe we are invited to identify with our neighbors because it keeps us humble, tethered and civil. What if the rich young man forgot the fundamental truth that you and I are human beings not human doings? The only way to “be” is to have a source. Our only source, from the time of the rich young ruler to the present, is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In his eyes, we are all “neighbors in need” and he asks us to identify with his suffering and service.