The day before the crash that killed Dan Wheldon, my wife and kids and I spent the day in New York City amid the Occupy Wall Street protests. Chills covered my body and tears began to well up every time I heard chants and saw picketers with diverse signs (my favorite: Bail out teachers, not banks) protesting the deceitful and unreasonable amount of power and entitlement given to the wealthy. I wanted to chant with them. I wanted to show support for their cause. I could see the compassion and love for others springing up from many of the protesters. As the day progressed, though, we passed a smaller group of protesters spewing obscene words of hate and anger. Close to sunset, thousands of protesters crowded Times Square as October 16th became the most active day for the movement so far. Small pockets of protesters were screaming obscenities and throwing objects at nearby police officers who had barricaded the street to keep the protesters from marching. It upset me to see the corruption of a protest movement I had supported as full of compassion and desire for unity.
Jesus had every reason to protest what was happening in the world while He was alive. In some ways, He did protest. He took advantage of opportunities to rebuke both his disciples and the Pharisees (the hypocritical and judgmental religious leaders of Jesus’ time). He used what we now call “tough love” to let others know that they could not continue living selfishly and wickedly. What Jesus did not do was use words designed to express hatred and anger, at least not in the same manner as the protesters I saw in New York. Jesus made it clear that He abhorred sin and could not allow it to go unmentioned. However, Jesus made certain that every word He chose was spoken because of the “authority to judge” (John 5:27) given to Him by God.
There is a gap between the protesters I viewed who are spewing words of hate and the protesters who are standing for unity and equality, who are spreading their message with a kind of compassion and rebuke for the persons responsible for this separation between the rich and the poor. Jesus often rebuked the love of wealth, saying, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). However, when Jesus challenges a rich man to sell everything and give to the poor and the man walks away saddened, Jesus’ words suggest a broken heart for the man: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23). He does not chide the rich man for his unwillingness to sell his possessions. He doesn’t make the rich man feel bad about not giving to the poor. Jesus seems to be aware that the rich man cannot sell his possessions because he has been trapped by his love of money. He does not scream at the rich man. He does not deride him for his wealthy lifestyle. And He certainly does not shout obscenities at the rich man and make him feel any worse than he already does as he “went away sad” (Matt. 19:22b).
I have my own interpretation of the rich man’s sadness. I’ve never been rich, at least not by current American standards. But if someone asked me to sell everything I owned and give the money to the poor, I would be reluctant. I watched an episode of House in which a young man had lost his wife and kids because he was giving all his money to the poor rather than using it to support his family. It turns out he had an illness that made him irrationally generous. I can relate to that. If I decided to sell everything I own and give to the poor, I would expect my friends and family to have me committed. But why? Somewhere inside of me there is a part that wants to sell everything and give, give, give, as much as I can offer. I believe it is that same part that shed tears for Dan Wheldon and his family. It is that part that is “being transformed,” the renewing of my mind that Paul talks about in Romans.
After the rich man leaves, the disciples ask Jesus a sensible question: If it’s so hard to get into heaven, then who can be saved? Jesus’ answer warms my heart every time I read it, but I’ll get to that. I feel like the rich man “went away sad” because he saw something beautiful in Jesus and he wanted to be a part of it. He sought the compassion he had witnessed in Jesus as he watched him heal the sick and inspire others. When Jesus pointed out that the only way to be “perfect,” would be to sell everything and give to the poor, the man knew that would be too much for him and he was disappointed.
Now back to the question the disciples asked: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matt. 19:26).
At that moment, I want to shout at the rich man, “Wait! Come back! Didn’t you hear what he just said?” Matthew doesn’t tell us any more about the rich man, but the compassionate optimist in me wants to believe that his love for God one day replaced his love for money.