A few weeks ago in my bible study group, we read and reflected on the story of the rich young man in the gospel of Matthew.
If you’re not familiar with this story, I’ll warn you now, it can be unsettling. Especially for those of you who are, like me, all caught up in our First World problems.
The story goes like this:
Now someone approached [Jesus] and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
I, too, have many possessions.
I may not have as many as my neighbor. Or some of my friends. Or Oprah. But I have many. Clearly, more than I need. (Otherwise why would I have missed blogging last week to have a garage sale?)
So, it’s easy to think that there’s no hope for anyone who has many possessions. But when my group was reading this story in my bible study class, another story came to my mind that I thought had a similar message. It’s a story about my brother, who is a college professor (having grown up with him and his antics, I have to stifle laughter when I say “brother” and “professor” in the same breath, but it’s true!) And he’s a professor who has earned his job through a lot of sacrifice, hard work, and discipline. He’s a professor of graphic design at a distinguished art school and he’s passionate about his work and his teaching. He’s worked long hard hours to hone the skills he both uses and teaches. And like any great teacher, he is also always learning.
For some reason, as I read the story of the rich young man, I remembered this story my brother told me during one of his first years of teaching. It was about a young girl who’d come up to him with a question about the grade she’d received on her project. As my brother began to critique her work and explain to her the ways in which she would need to improve her skills in future projects, she interrupted him with a loud sigh and said (carrying with her a certain attitude and air of having lived a life full of only getting what she wants), “Just tell me what I need to do to get an A!”
My brother looked at her and smiled and said, “Unless you change your attitude, you already can’t get higher than a B.”
My brother’s message to his student, and Jesus’ message to the young man, I think, are one in the same: change your heart. To be an artist you need to be willing to take on the heart of an artist. That means going to the tender, rawest parts of yourself, and offering them up in the form of art to others. It also means exposing yourself to others’ criticism. You must also keep in mind that your work and who you are not necessarily one in the same, but that you will not discover the artist in you unless you make yourself vulnerable to criticism.
In a similar way, as Christians, we are called to take on the heart of Jesus. This means allowing our own hearts to change. We must examine how we feel about ourselves, observe our actions, and examine our possessions. And we must allow God to critique them all.
Just like the girl in my brother’s story, I think it’s easy for us to want to know what we have to do to get the Christian equivalent of an A: eternal life in heaven. And in the essence of the question posed by the girl and the rich young man is the truth of what we’re really asking: what’s the minimum I have to do to get the best grade possible? Or, what’s the minimum amount I need to change in order for me to get into heaven? In both stories, the teacher is quick to point out that to become what we’re trying to become, we need to do more than just follow a rubric, we need to be willing to give up everything we believe about who we are, and what we are capable of. And for the artist, it is in that most vulnerable state of deep inner offering, that her best works are created.
And for the Christian?
For the Christian, it is in that most vulnerable state of emptiness and void– detached from all earthly things– that we are finally able to discover the eternal Being that lives within us all.