Proper 23, Year B, Church of Our Saviour, Gallatin

“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’*(Mk 10:21).

“Tough love”: I guess we’re familiar with the concept from exposure to the Recovery Movement, where “tough love” is exercised with folks who are dealing with addiction. In Twelve-Step processes people are encouraged to hold each other accountable, to the tougher measure of what is called for by sobriety rather than the short term need of the addict. Or perhaps we’ve seen the ads, “Be a parent not a peer”, where adults are encouraged to set boundaries for their children even though children may resent them. “Tough love” focuses on the good of the person even though the result may be a disconcerting clash between the expressed need and the response, a disappointing failure to meet expectations.

Our Gospel reading today bears on this subject of “tough love”. The story is common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but our version from Mark’s Gospel has a significant detail not included in the others. In each Gospel, there is an exchange about what must be done in order to inherit eternal life. In each, there is a rehearsal of the commandments that must be followed. In each, the man tells Jesus that he has followed all these commandments, and Jesus tells him that he must now go and sell all that he has and give it to the poor. But it is only in Mark’s version that we’re told that Jesus looked at him and loved him.

It’s a tremendous detail to be included here: tremendously significant for the man in the story, of course, but also tremendously significant for us, as we think about the relationship we have with the Lord Jesus Christ. In the case of Jesus’ interaction with the man who questions him, it makes clear that Jesus’ teaching is not an abstract application of principles to a particular circumstance (something human beings do all the time in the ordinary course of living their lives), but that the teaching is rooted in relationship, one of affection and esteem.

Here we get a glimpse of Jesus as pastor, Mark’s version of the “Good Shepherd” in the Gospel of John. There is no denying the loving heart that Jesus displays here. No trap has been laid for the man who’s asked the question; unlike the exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees, there is no adversarial relationship here. Jesus simply loves him, even though the thing that man lacks is difficult for him. “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” (Mk 10:21-22).

The notion of “tough love” helps us to make sense of Jesus’ response. Jesus does not tell the man what he wants to hear, but he tells him what he needs to hear. It’s a case of what St. Paul talks about when he says, “Speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

But here we must make a careful distinction. The man in the Gospel today is not an addict; he’s not a child, nor is he a criminal. “Tough love” is a tool we use in the face of manipulation. I don’t think the man in the Gospel is trying to manipulate Jesus. What ails the man is the human condition, and nothing else.

Jesus calls us to go beyond what we already are. Jesus calls us to follow him, which means getting up and moving on. It’s a basic Gospel principle. The man in our Gospel today is the epitome of the good citizen and the upright religious believer. What more does he really need? He observes the law; he’s even Jesus’ friend. What more can we really ask of this righteous man?

But that’s the point: Jesus loves him, and calls him to go beyond who he is and what he’s already accomplished. This something more than we already are is what we were made for. Love calls for more than validation; in this case it cuts to the heart of things in calling the man to be something more than he is by following Christ.

If this is a basic Gospel principle, it’s also a basic pastoral principle of the church. Each time we gather, we’re called by Word and Sacrament to be more than we already are. We’re called to follow Jesus, which means getting up and moving on. In baptism we put on the life of Christ, and in confirmation we reaffirm our identity as Jesus’ followers. The Christian life is a continual calling to renew our identity in Christ. Each time we come to the altar rail to receive Christ’s Body and Blood, the signs of his life, we reaffirm that identity. We’re not seeking validation but transformation. The Good News is that Jesus loves us and calls us to new life, to the something more that we were made for.

– The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee