Lose Your Life Or Never Truly Live It—Flannery O’Connor & Matthew 19
Recently my pastor spoke about the Rich Young Man from Matthew 19. He was careful to point out how each of the young man’s finest merits are similar to what our culture likes to make into its gods: wealth, youth, power. The story goes that the young man (who has everything) asks Jesus how he can also come to have eternal life. And Jesus, knowing the young man’s reputation, tells him to give away everything he has, to essentially carry nothing to his name. No money for food or clothes, no youth to persuade his way into gain or sustenance, nothing to rule over, and thereby rendering himself reputation-less entirely—a ghost of a man, hollow by his own standards.
It’s hard not to sympathize with the young man. Maybe his life statuses came easy to him, but I’d bet not. I’d bet he’d done a lot to gain his wealth, power, and to keep himself looking young. Otherwise, why would Jesus go right for these things? Like with the surgeon’s knife, Jesus sticks him at his heart, the young man’s skin beginning to bleed beneath his tunic, and as he sticks he seems to be responding to the man’s question about what good deed he must do to gain eternal life: ”So,” Jesus is saying, “are you going to do this or should I?”
A friend once told me that Flannery O’Connor’s stories cut deep, like a knife. Later that day at a bookstore, at the section marked for “O” authors, I considered what the difference between a knife cutting deeply and a knife cutting shallowly meant. A shallower cut heals more quickly and likely does less damage. One gets the idea that with a shallow knife wound he can move on with his life after a couple days of healing. A flesh wound, as it were. But a deep cut? That there’s a life-changer. One risks rupture, or penetration into something vital. Indeed, one might even die.
In the weeks that followed my bookstore visit, Flannery O’Connor ended up being quite the sinister companion with her unafraid perspectives. She made me think, upon reading her story Parker’s Back for example, Well shit, I’m Parker. I don’t want to stop doing what feels good, living without making commitments and only acting out of reacting. I am this man, this boy of a pathetic excuse for a man. Yes, and she left me bleeding too, for one of her finest literary tactics is not cleaning up the messes she makes (how’s that for riveting art?). And she made a fine mess of me. She shanked and stood above me with that dripping knife and watched me fetalize. She seemed to be saying, See? See that pettiness? Your life is precious. You might even die today. Consider that miserable pettiness a little bit more.
I imagine Jesus standing calmly in front of the young man, looking him cold in the eye and speaking plainly when he says, “Go, sell everything, and give all the money to the poor.” And, I imagine the frown that must have instantly appeared upon the young man’s face, followed by the annoyance and frustration at such a request. No, no. That doesn’t make any sense at all. What kind of a teacher are you? What does my money, my youth, and my power have to do with eternal life? If anything they’ve helped me get where I am. No Jesus, I’m not just going to hand over everything. The crowds and the people in the streets were wrong about you. You aren’t the Teacher, you’re just insane. I’m done here.
And, he leaves.
Yes, I have sympathy for the young man because the reason he’s so frustrated is the same reason I get frustrated when I consider the notion that Jesus wants me to give up everything I have. That is, everything that makes up the good reputation of Aaron Green. This bible story isn’t about giving to the poor, or rich people needing to become poor, or Jesus just being a controlling jerk. This story is about extraction: from where or what does this young man take his worth? It’s about starting with nothing so that we can have everything.
The young man did not inherit that eternal life. And he knew, deep down, that the ache he walked away with in his chest was proof that Jesus was right.
And what does it mean to be rich anyway? Money is only the most obvious. What about a wealth of friends? This is a difficult teaching. This is why it is difficult for any kind of rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven: because it may mean giving up even those closest to you. Everything that tells you who you are—anything you care so deeply about that you couldn’t possibly lose. Even your mission with the church. To give it up and consider it skubala, like Paul said. Or, dog shit compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.
Yes, this is what your Lord requires of you.