Proper 23 Year B
October 11, 2009
St. James’s Episcopal Church
There is an old joke about diamond expert who happened to be seated on an airplane next to a woman with a huge diamond on her finger. After several hours of staring at the diamond out of the corner of his eye, the man finally introduced himself and said, “I couldn’t help but notice your beautiful diamond. I am an expert on precious stones. If you wouldn’t mind would you please tell me about your ring.” The woman replied, “That is the famous Klopman diamond, one of the largest in the world. Isn’t it beautiful? I’ve worn it almost my entire married life. But, you know, there is a strange curse that comes with it.” Now the diamond expert was interested. He asked, “Really, what’s the curse?” As he waited for what must be a dramatic tale, the woman simply turned away and said, “It’s Mr. Klopman.”
Jesus knew that the true curse of any kind of valuable possession is its capacity to steal our hearts and souls, its power to take us prisoner. That was the problem Jesus pointed out to the young man in our gospel for this morning. Yes, this young man obeyed the commandments. He was a good man, a religious man, but that wasn’t enough because his wealth had him trapped. It was too important to him, he couldn’t let it go, and so it became a curse rather than the blessing it was intended to be.
It’s like the old African parable about the monkey and the golden ring. A man wanted to catch a monkey. So he took a coconut. He carved a hole in it, just big enough for a monkey to reach his unclenched hand through. And then he put a shiny golden ring inside the coconut. So a monkey comes along sees the shiny ring and wants it. He reaches in and grabs it . . . but his clenched fist is too big to get out of the coconut. All he’s got to do is let go of the ring and he’ll be free again. But he thinks the ring is something he must have, the ring is too important, and so he won’t let go . . . and he’s caught, he’s trapped. Jesus knew the rich young man was trapped by his wealth and he knows that many of us are trapped as well.
Several years ago I read a great book entitled, Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides. It’s the amazing true story of 121 Army Rangers who in 1945 slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines, marched 30 miles, and pulled off a daring raid on a Japanese prison camp to save 513 American and British POW’s who had spent 3 years starving to death at the hands of the Japanese Army. It’s an incredible tale of risk, daring, and intricate planning. In fact, large sections of the book go into great detail about the elaborate plans intended to safeguard the POW’s and increase the odds of the mission’s success. These brave soldiers tried to plan for everything; they wanted nothing left to chance that might get their imprisoned buddies killed. Interestingly enough, the one thing they didn’t plan for was the reaction of the POW’s themselves, once they were set free.
The rescue mission was almost flawless. The Rangers completely surprised the Japanese and overran the camp with very few Allied casualties. But the prisoners were so mentally and physically brittle from years of harsh captivity that many of them failed to understand what was happening or refused to believe they were really being liberated. Instead of running toward the Rangers who were there to save them, they ran away from the Americans looking for any place to hide. The POW’s thought it was a trick, some other cruel tactic used by their captors to torture them. As a result, the Rangers found themselves not only battling the Japanese, but also having to convince their comrades they were there to help them and not hurt them. “C’mon, we’re here to save you,” one of the Rangers shouted, “Run for the gate.” But the POW wouldn’t move. “What’s wrong with you?” the Ranger asked. “Don’t you want to be free?”
“Don’t you want to be free?” This it seems to me could easily be the catch phrase for Jesus’ entire ministry. As our liberator sent from God to show us the way home, the way out of captivity to sin and death, Jesus spent his entire ministry trying to convince those around him that if they would just listen to him then he could indeed set them free. But like the traumatized POW’s, many of those who heard Jesus refused to believe that he was actually speaking truth. They felt too trapped by the world that surrounded them. Moreover, this new “Kingdom of God” Jesus described seemed too outlandish to be real. How could it be that in God’s eyes the poor are really blessed? How could it be that the way to gain wealth is to give our wealth away? How could it be that to love one’s enemies is the way to find peace? How could it be that the way of the cross is really the way to life? Even the rich young man, who knew and followed Moses’ commandments, couldn’t fathom that he might actually be better off if he were not so beholden to the power of his own possessions.
And so it goes today. You and I are like the monkey with his hand stuck in the coconut. We are the POW’s too afraid to run for the gate to freedom. We keep hearing Jesus words proclaimed to us, we keep hearing the truth about our condition, but very few of us actually listen. Every Sunday our Savior, our Liberator, tells us (by way of the Gospels) that we can be free if we will just listen and follow him. But most of the time we refuse. Like the prisoners too traumatized to believe there was anything beyond their prison, we believe you can’t really follow Jesus and live in the “real” world. What we fail to see is that our “real” world is actually more like a prison and Jesus’ Kingdom is the place where true freedom is to be found.
The good news this morning is that Jesus loved the young man in spite of the fact that he was imprisoned by his own wealth. Jesus really loved him . . . and he pitied him. He loved him because he was a lovable, good guy. He pitied him because he couldn’t let go of that which caused him the greatest ill. His money held him captive. Jesus said the only way he’d find a life of real health would be to let go of his great wealth. I wonder: What holds you and me captive? It’s probably different for each of us. Although, I suspect ALL of us are held captive by money in some way. It’s why Jesus talks about money so much. It’s why he tells us over and over again that we need to give some of it (really a lot of it) away if we ever want to be truly healthy.
The invitation of Jesus to the wealthy young man was a call to freedom, a call to unclench his grip on the golden ring, to give up the “religion of money” that had kept him in chains, – in exchange for the “religion of Jesus” that would set him free. That same call to freedom is constantly being offered to all of us. Our liberator has come. Whatever it is that holds you captive, ask God to give you the wisdom to recognize it and the strength to let it go. Amen.