The richest man in town

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Delivered as a sermon at Sage Chapel,
Cornell University, April 9th, 2006

Jesus of Nazareth was in town, and the word spread quickly. Whispers moved through the marketplace and were carried on the winds of gossip and rumor. The exciting young rabbi from Galilee was in Judea, and not only in Judea but in their own village. Soon people were moving toward the town well. Some wanted to see Jesus and others were swept along by the inertia of the event and just wanted to see what was happening.

Everyone had heard of Jesus and of his wonderful teaching and miracles, but his outward appearance was a surprise to most of them. He was a rough and strong man who wore very simple clothing. His shoulders were broad, his laugh was deep and full, and his hands were the rough instruments of a man who had known hard labor.

Even more surprising were those who were with him. His disciples, it seemed, were mostly common people. A good number of them were fishermen, or so people said. Also tradesmen and farmers. There was even a rumor that a tax collector and an ex-prostitute were among them. Some who were at the well that day wondered how these people were able to tramp around the countryside with this man. Did they not have families? Did they not have jobs? How did they find the time? What did they do for money and food? Many were suspicious of the whole thing and stood at a distance with their arms crossed and frowns on their faces. Occasionally they leaned to the right or the left to get a better view.

Jesus and his friends stayed at the well for the better part of the day. People came and went. Some stayed to hear him speak or tell one of his famous stories. Others hoped to receive a healing or perhaps witness one. There were a number of passionate arguments about the Torah, and the local scholars and rabbis asked him some very direct questions. His answers and opinions were offered with a bold confidence. It was clear to everyone present that Jesus was a brilliant scholar and a very charismatic man.

In the late afternoon, just as the crowds were beginning to thin, a man named Solomon ran up to Jesus, breathing hard and full of excitement. Solomon and his family were well-known and loved by the local people. His father Jacob had been the richest man in town and the most popular. After he died Solomon had stepped right into his sandals, you might say. He was very generous and gave large amounts of money to the synagogue each year. He was devout in his religion, and at Passover it was known that he provided sacrificial animals to poor families who were struggling and without much money. His servants and slaves were well cared for and counted themselves lucky to have such a master.

As Solomon approached Jesus, a number of people who had been ready to leave turned instead and pressed in close around Jesus and his disciples. They were eager to see what Solomon thought of the young rabbi and perhaps to see what the young rabbi thought of Solomon. To everyone’s surprise, Solomon dropped to one knee in front of Jesus and bowed his head.

People leaned toward each other and whispered. Even the disciples of Jesus, who had been laughing and talking, grew silent and paid attention. They could tell by his clothing that Solomon was a wealthy and influential man, and they sensed the respect that the people had for him.

And then Solomon spoke.

Most honored rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, it is such an honor for you to come to our little village. Word of your marvelous wisdom and knowledge has reached us. In particular I have spoken with a number of scholars and scribes about the things you are reported to have said and done. It is clear that you are a man of God, perhaps even a prophet sent to Abraham’s children in these hard times.

Jesus turned his head a little to one side and dipped it respectfully, keeping his eyes on Solomon who looked back at him with a bright smile. He was obviously thrilled to meet Jesus in person.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would like to ask you. I know you are busy, so I have only one question. However, it is the most important question I have. I beg that you hear me and help me find the answer.

Jesus waited in silence, so Solomon continued.

Good teacher, what must I do to find favor with God and to receive the joyous, timeless kind of life that comes with that favor?

It was the perfect question to ask, and everyone was very impressed. Of course, the townspeople expected no less from Solomon. He was known for the passion of his convictions and for the careful way that he kept the law of Moses. He was a good man, serious and merciful and always seeking to please God.

Jesus was the only one who didn’t seem impressed. Fine clothing and a good reputation meant very little to him. He had met many rich men with fancy clothes and reputations they had purchased or earned with outward shows of piety. He said nothing but only looked at Solomon, whose eyes remained focused on the ground before him. Then he laughed and said, Why do you call ME good? You and I both know that only God is truly good. Or have you forgotten your first lessons from synagogue school? Jesus’ disciples chuckled and exchanged knowing looks. Jesus often had a little fun at the expense of pompous rich men. They expected Solomon to be indignant. Rich men were used to deferential treatment. They were used to their questions being taken very seriously. They were certainly not accustomed to being laughed at.

But Solomon didn’t move or speak. If he heard the laughing, he didn’t show it. He raised his head to look at Jesus, and he had the innocent face of a child. There was no pride in him. He smiled. Honored rabbi, of course you are correct. Only God is truly good. I meant it out of respect for you. I do hope you’ll answer my question, though. I have tried so hard to please God, and I long to know if I am doing the right things. Sometimes I worry about my life. Sometimes I am afraid that I might be missing something important.

The smile disappeared from Jesus’ face. He looked carefully at Solomon, then he nodded slowly.

Okay, fair enough. Solomon, isn’t it?

Yes.

Jesus bowed his head, this time lowering it until he broke eye contact and looked at the ground.

I meet a lot of people, Solomon. And in my experience, rich men are often not seeking answers. What they want is justification for their lives. But you have asked honestly, so I will answer you with honesty. You know the commandments. Obey them. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Put no other god or thing before Him. Honor your parents; be faithful to your wife; do not take or desire what belongs to others; and bear only a truthful witness about your neighbors.

The crowd leaned forward, expecting more, but Jesus was apparently done. He looked around at the people and then down at Solomon who was still on his knees. Then he spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear.

That’s all. You have been given the law of Moses. Know the law and live accordingly. There are no secrets or shortcuts. There is no magic here. What was good for Moses is certainly good enough for us.

Then Jesus turned around and began speaking quietly to his disciples. Some in the crowd shrugged and turned away. A good number were a little disappointed with his response. For a famous rabbi, Jesus certainly gave ordinary answers. Everyone knew about keeping the law of Moses.

Solomon rose to his feet and looked at the back of Jesus with a puzzled expression on his face. He turned around to leave, but then he stopped and stood motionless for a few seconds, as if he was struggling with something inside himself. Then he whirled around, walked over to Jesus, and touched him lightly on the elbow. Jesus turned around and looked at him, and Solomon immediately dropped to his knee again.

Good rabbi, uh I mean rabbi Jesus, please allow me to talk with you for a moment longer. Certainly I know the commandments and love them. And I tell you truly that I have tried to keep them faithfully since I was a boy. I have not succeeded perfectly, of course, for I am only a sinful man. But I have given the best of myself to the law of Moses. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Something is missing.

Solomon paused, shaking his head as if he was looking for words that were hard for him to find. He was fidgeting and excited.

You see, I love what I find in the writings of the great prophet Jeremiah. He said that someday we would all know God intimately, the youngest and the oldest of us, because the law of God would be written on our hearts, and not just obeyed with our bodies.

I– I don’t know how to say this, but I want that. I want what Jeremiah wrote about, although I must admit I don’t know exactly what it means. I want more. I want to go farther in my love of God, but I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how to make it happen.

While Solomon was speaking, Jesus’ face softened and his eyes became wet with tears. He got down on his knees with Solomon and put his hand on Solomon’s shoulder.

Forgive me, Solomon. For now I see that you are a serious and genuine seeker. I see your heart, and it is a heart that loves God. And because of that I love you, my brother in faith.

Jesus stood and pulled Solomon to his feet as well. He looked deeply into his eyes, smiling. Then his head cocked a little to one side and he stroked his beard, thinking.

Will you wait here just a moment?

Solomon nodded.

Jesus made a motion with his hands and his disciples gathered around him. He began talking passionately to them, though no one else could hear what he was saying. Some of them turned and looked at Solomon while they listened. There was some discussion and vigorous nods of approval. When Jesus turned back to Solomon, the disciples turned as well. They all had broad smiles on their faces.

Jesus said, Solomon, you are right. There is one thing missing from your life. And I can help you find what it is that you seek. We will be in this area for two or three more weeks. That will give you time to put your affairs in order. Then come; join us; be one of us. Sell your home and your possessions. You won’t need them, and in time you won’t even want them. Give the money to the poor and find joy in that goodness. Then, when I come back through town, you will be ready, and you can go with us. I have twelve close disciples. I rather liked the number twelve – tradition you know – but it’s not that important. You can be number thirteen.

Jesus stretched his hand out toward Solomon as if he wanted to shake hands. And then he turned his hand until his palm was facing upward.

Come, brother. Come and be set free. We eat only what comes to us, but we do not starve. We wear only simple clothing, but we are not naked or cold. And the adventures we shall have together will be rich beyond your wildest dreams. Come and be with us, my friend. Come and find food for your soul.

Solomon’s mouth fell open, and he stood staring at Jesus for a moment or two, saying nothing. In all of his searching, reading, and praying, it had never occurred to him that he might be asked to leave his home and his comfortable life. He looked at Jesus and his friends. He could see their passion for living and their excitement at being part of something new.

Certainly these were the sort of people he longed to know. For a moment he allowed himself the luxury of imagining what it would be like if he were to join them. Sleeping under the open skies, visiting towns and cities all over Judea and Galilee, soaking up the wonderful words and wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth. It seemed too good to be true. Surely it could not be possible that such a thing was his for the taking.

And then he thought of his house and his clothing and his friendships in town. He thought about his bedroom and the comfort and privacy he had there. He thought about the local food that he loved so much, and about his sister and her children. Someday he hoped to have children himself. And he thought about their synagogue with its delightful collection of scrolls and sacred writings.

And down inside he became a little afraid. He was afraid that his life would be lacking without these things that he loved. He was afraid that if he went with Jesus he might regret it later, but it would be too late because his possessions and his home would be gone.

Solomon looked at Jesus who stood there waiting with his hand outstretched. For a moment he thought he would pay any price for the chance to travel with Jesus and learn from him. Just for a moment, before he came to his senses.

Solomon walked toward Jesus. He grasped the hand that Jesus offered in both of his own hands and shook it up and down. He was all smiles.

Delightful and wise rabbi Jesus, how grateful I am for such a generous invitation. And I assure you that if it were at ALL possible, I would love to join you.

Unfortunately, I have many responsibilities.

And of course selling our family land and home is clearly out of the question.

He paused, waiting for Jesus to let him know that he understood the truth of his situation. He waited for Jesus to let him off the hook.

But Jesus said nothing. Solomon let go of Jesus’ hand and took a step back. A short laugh burst from his lips.

Well, surely you weren’t serious? It would be highly irresponsible for me to –

He faltered and looked at the gathering of men and women around Jesus. They looked back at him calmly. All he could see were fishermen, tradesmen, even the tax collector and the prostitute, those who had left their lives behind to follow the rabbi from Nazareth.

Solomon took another step backwards. He shook his head.

No, I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible. Of course I can’t sell these things. I mean, people count on me to be here for them. What of my servants and their children? What of my responsibilities in the synagogue?

Even as he spoke, a deep sadness began to form in the bottom of Solomon’s soul. It was like the sadness a man feels when he realizes that the woman of his dreams was his until he let her go. It was like the sadness of discovering that a hasty decision has destroyed all hope for a wondrous joy that might have been but will never be. It was a regretful, coward-like sadness. Solomon’s voice changed, and it sounded a little desperate.

Rabbi, be reasonable. A man such as myself has many obligations. Perhaps when you’re in the area I might attend some of your lectures or whatever you call them. Uh, talks or sermons, yes?

Jesus had held his hand out for the entire time. Now he dropped it to his side. He looked at Solomon sadly and sighed.

I’m sorry Solomon, but I don’t give scheduled lectures or talks. I just can’t keep a schedule, you see? I never know where I will be or what I might be doing. You just have to be there with me when it happens. It’s the only way, really.

They stood looking at each other. Then Jesus lifted the palm of his right hand quickly and put it back down. It might have been a little wave or it might have been a weak shrug. The sun was setting and people were beginning to go home. Jesus and his friends left the well and walked toward the north end of town. As they walked, Peter said, For a moment there I thought he might do it.

Jesus shook his head. No, he wasn’t even close to coming with us. It is a very hard thing to be rich, my friends. Very hard and very dangerous. In fact, it’s harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Wow! said Thaddaeus. It makes you wonder how ANYONE could make it. He turned around for one last look at Solomon, who was still standing by the well. Too bad. He seemed like a nice guy.

Jesus turned with Thaddaeus and looked at Solomon in the distance. Be comforted, Thaddaeus. Always remember that what is impossible for us is certainly possible for God.

Solomon stood by the well and watched them until they were out of sight. Then he shook his head as if he could shake away the feeling of dread that was creeping into his stomach.

The man was completely unreasonable, he said to no one in particular. What did he expect me to do? Really, I ask you.

Postscript:

History records what happened to Jesus and his friends. They roamed the countryside of Galilee and Judea. They had many adventures and saw many things, some good and some bad. Later, after the terrible events in Jerusalem, the friends of Jesus founded the Christian Church, carrying his teachings and wisdom around the world. Their influence stretched from the eastern edge of the Roman Empire to the mysterious lands to the west.

They were the leaders of arguably the single most important and influential movement in the history of human civilization. They turned the world upside down, and their words are still being read and discussed today. Their fame grew, and two thousand years later their names are still the most popular names we give to our children.

As for Solomon, he lived to be a very old man. He was a good person in every way. And he died the richest man in his little Judean village.

rlp

Mark 10:17-27

Note: I got the interpretive idea behind this story from Walter Rauschenbusch, who suggested that the key to understanding this story is to concentrate not on what the man was asked to give up, but instead to consider the incredible opportunity he gave up.

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