Do you remember Flip Wilson’s comedy show back in the ’70’s? One of his favorite skit characters was Brother Leroy and the Church of What’s Happening Now. In one skit, Brother Leroy was leading services one Sunday morning – and it wasn’t going very well. The people didn’t seem to be too responsive. When it came time to receive the offering, Brother Leroy passed the offering plates. And they came back almost empty. So he passed them again. Same thing – just about empty. So Brother Leroy turned to the people and said, “Now, I know that you all want this church to progress. This church must progress.” You could hear the crickets chirping, it was so quiet. So Brother Leroy shouted a bit louder: “Now, before this church can progress, it has to crawl, this church has got to crawl.” And the congregation started getting into the spirit of things and responded, “Make it crawl, Reverend. Make it crawl!” Brother Leroy pushed forward: “After this church has crawled, it’s got to pick itself up and start to walk. This church has got to walk!” And the people yelled back at him, “Make it walk, Reverend. Make it walk!” “And after this church has walked, this church has got to get up and run, this church has got to run.” And the people were worked up into a terrible frenzy, and they hollered back: “Make it run, Reverend. Make it run!” And then Brother Leroy said, “Now, brothers and sisters, in order for this church to run, it’s gonna need money, it’s gonna take money
for this church to run!” And the people yelled back, “Let it crawl, Reverend. Let it crawl!”
A friend and colleague of mine, in working on her doctoral dissertation, found research that concluded that female clergy shouldn’t tell jokes from the pulpit. Clearly, I don’t subscribe to that idea. In fact, I find that humor can often help to relax a congregation and lower people’s defenses, making it more likely that they will be able to hear a difficult message. And this message, this story about Jesus, is a difficult one – because it’s about money. Wealth. Possessions. And how we relate to them. (See, aren’t you glad I told a joke to soften you up?) Let’s dig in.
A man approaches Jesus with a burning question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We don’t know who this man was who asked such a deep spiritual question. Mark tells us that he is rich. When Matthew tells us the same story, he tells us that he is a ruler. And Luke tells us that he is young. In other words, this guy has it all: money, power, and youth – all the stuff, all the status, and all the success that anyone could hope for. And yet, obviously he knows that he is missing something in life, or else he wouldn’t have come chasing after Jesus with this burning question.
Jesus begins to answer the question by talking about the Commandments, and the man gets excited. He can’t wait to tell Jesus that he has lived by the Commandments since he was a boy. He figures if all it takes to get eternal life is following the Commandments, then he’s got heaven in the bag. But Jesus isn’t finished yet. He looks at this man – with love, Mark is careful to tell us – and drops the other shoe: “Then there’s only one thing left for you to do: Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, come follow me.” The man is shocked. He didn’t know that this extreme sacrifice would be expected of him. And he leaves, grieving, knowing that he doesn’t have the strength to do what Jesus has asked him to do. He was this close to following Jesus, to walking in a closer relationship with the Lord – but his money, his possessions, got in the way. His inability to let go of his wealth distanced him from God. You see, by asking him to give away all of his possessions, Jesus was asking him to redefine his whole sense of identity – from that of a self-sufficient, self-made man to a God-dependent, God-made man. And sadly, the man couldn’t make that leap.
I suspect that most of us, too, would have trouble making that leap. Whether or not we consider ourselves rich, young, and powerful, still we’re not in positions that we can sell everything we have and give it to the poor. We can’t even boast, as the man in the story did, that we have followed the Commandments all our lives – we know better than that. But we don’t need to leave this place sad because of our inability to do what is expected of us. Jesus understands our weakness, and forgives us when we come to him. We don’t need to miss out on the opportunity to walk in closer communion with Jesus. Jesus walks with us as we struggle to be generous, even as God is unendingly generous to us. Even when we walk away, Jesus comes after us, reaching out to us, time and time again. God showers us with so many wonderful gifts – our beautiful world, the time to enjoy it, our health, our families and friends, our material possessions, our spiritual gifts, even eternal life – not because we’ve kept the commandments, not because we’ve been as generous as we’re called to be, but just because God loves us.
And all the while we’re experiencing that wonderful love, Jesus is gently nudging us to open our hands in return, to share with others what has been so freely given to us. He’s encouraging us to let go of the things that get in the way of our following him – and not just to let go of the physical things but also everything else that gets in the way – our hard-heartedness, our pride, our belief we are self-made people – let it all go! For when we open our hands and our hearts, then we will find true joy.
Somewhere, I read about the art of trapping monkeys in India. I honestly don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a good illustration. It is said that to trap a monkey, all you need to do is to drill a hole in a coconut and place some rice inside. The monkey will come along and stick a paw into the coconut, grab a fistful of rice, and then be unable to pull its paw back from the coconut. He is trapped by his greed. All he would have to do is turn loose the rice, and his hand would be free so that he could draw it out. The problem is that the monkey places greater value on the rice that he is holding than he does on his freedom. Jesus presents each of us with a simple question about what kind of person we want to be. Do we want to be like those monkeys in India, losing our freedom because our fists are firmly clenched on our “stuff”? Or do we want to live as disciples, free from our attachment to earthly things, opening our hands wide in generosity?
Our Lord Jesus stands before us – freely, generously offering his own self for us. Let us open our hands wide so that we may receive the gift – and then may the Holy Spirit help us to keep our hands open so that what God has given us to hold may flow freely through our hands so that the whole world may experience God’s generosity through us.
 Wayne C. Dureck, PRCL, August 29, 2000