As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a class at a small art studio where we learned to paint icons. The proper term for it is actually writing an icon as opposed to painting. And icons have been used in spiritual practice since the time of early Christianity.
I do not know if you have ever examined an icon, but one major thing you will notice when you do is that the perspective is unusual. We are used to pictures and paintings and our field of vision to be in 3-D. Where the things in the background appear farther away appear smaller. We are therefore more apt to be near sighted, or better said, near-focused.
We focus on the things closest to us and are less focused on those things in the distance. In an icon, the dimensions and our focus are backwards. The things in the foreground appear to be pushed forward by the background. So it is as if the object in the icon is being pushed towards us. Icons therefore emphasize that the channel of vision to God, to heaven, is a two-way channel. We look to God, and God looks to us.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes that:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
If you think about it, Jesus is an icon of his father. Jesus is not icon of paint written on a block of wood. No Jesus is the word, and his glance is living and active, sharper than any two-edge sword. He looks into creation from eternity and sees right into your soul. So what does he see? How do you appear to him?
I therefore want to begin with the rich young man that we hear about in the Gospel of Mark. You can tell that he has been thinking a lot about his life and his God. And he has been doing so since he was a child, trying his best to be the good person God wants him to be. And so in his zealousness to be a good person, he runs up to Jesus, kneels at his feet, and asks what must I do to get to heaven?
He tells Jesus that since my youth, I have obeyed the commandments. I haven’t murdered anyone. I respect my mother and father. I don’t lie and cheat anyone. Clearly he is hoping, perhaps expecting, that Jesus will say “attaboy—you’re doing great! I will see you in heaven.”
But that is not what happens. Instead we hear that Jesus, the one who can see into our very souls and knows the true state of our heart, offers him a challenge—you are rich, give up all you have and follow me. And this is devastating to our young friend. Because the gospel is clear. He has a lot of riches. And so this challenge is too much for him. And he goes away in sorrow.
He chooses things of this world over the things of heaven. He was looking at the light of the glory of God in the face of his Lord. But then that light is shaded over by the fog of his riches on this earth. And this poor man trudges away bearing the weight of his treasures.
And so Jesus looks down at him with eyes of compassion and love. Compassion and love that can heal a lot of sin. I like to believe that the glance of Christ, came from eyes that were perhaps also hopeful. I picture that Jesus eyes were sparkling with the love of a Father as he looks at his little children, watching as his children try to do their best in the world.
I therefore wish that the young man had stuck around a little longer to hear the words of hope that his actions inspired. Because it is out of his sad situation that Jesus took the opportunity to tell us that it may be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And he emphasizes for the crowd “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven!” But then, Jesus adds those marvelous words, that apply beyond riches. Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
So while this poor young man may not have had it in his power to remove the burden of the treasure that weighed down his soul, Jesus reminds us that there is someone who can. And for the rest of us, whatever the thing is that we cannot give up, the thing that continues to come between us and our Lord, the thing that he sees in us as the weight of our soul, the sins that seem to forever haunt us and test us, Jesus reminds us, that He can and has relieved our burdens as well.
That young man ran up there that day to see Jesus, thinking that he was a first-place finisher. But he left with his head down and shoulders slumped realizing that he may actually be in last place. That there was no way he was going to win this race. He felt the full weight of the burden of his riches, and the truth of his sin, and this filled his heart with sorrow.
But Jesus had some good news. Jesus is looking for last place finishers. As many of you know, when my husband Scott was in high school and college, he was a national level swimmer. I, on the other hand, was not. I figured out this week that although he is MUCH older than I, he and I however, probably swam on the same swim team in Vestavia.
For those of you swim team parents, you are well aware that in each heat, each child gets a ribbon for their finishing place. I believe they went from first place to 6th place. And I believe the 6th place ribbons were pink.
I had a lot of pink ribbons. But that’s okay. Because our Lord loves last place finishers especially. If we are a little slow on the uptake. If it takes us awhile to come around to his way of thinking and doing things. If it takes us a while to see our need for his saving grace, He is great with that! He celebrates us! And when we each get to heaven, the celebration will be just as loud and just as joyous as the celebrations for those first-place saints that finished before us.