There is a basic difference between taking an initiative and responding to a call. In the first instance, the movement starts from within - an individual is the initiator. In the second case, it starts outside the individual - another person is the initiator. Throughout the Gospels, we see many instances when Jesus initiates the call to discipleship; but we also see that sometimes those who take initiatives do not always become disciples.
Today’s Gospel is the beginning of two extraordinary, contrasting and very familiar stories. The first may be understood as an ultimately failed initiative, and the second as a successful response to a call. The first, of course, is the story we know as "The rich young man," - although he may not have been rich nor young. The second is the story of blind Bartimaeus, which we will hear in a couple of weeks.
Jesus is certainly used to being bombarded with requests for healing, but requests for information or advice are very unusual. The man asks Jesus what he must do "to inherit eternal life." We know very little about him - neither his name nor his age. We simply see that he is more reflective than impulsive, and in search of something more than just a "quick fix." His agenda is clear, his approach direct, and his intentions are honorable.
Blocking Jesus’ path and throwing himself on his knees, he seems to give every indication of his willingness to follow the teacher's instructions implicitly and without question. He is looking for clarity, and for a response that might outline a program he could follow to ensure his salvation. However, like many others, he is expecting an immediate solution.
Jesus does not always provide clarity, rarely stipulates a task or program, and refuses to set limits to love. Jesus looks for generous and open-ended commitment, not contract-workers or laborers who work to rule. He has come to expand imaginations, not to play political or social games or be limited to theological answers to closed questions. His agenda is as open as God's love, and his perspective is as wide as God's embrace.
So Jesus responds, but not as the man imagined. "You know the commandments," he says, gently affirming the man's religious knowledge. He then proceeds to catalog those commandments that relate to family and neighbor, interestingly omitting all the commandments directly related to the worship of God. He knows that this is a good man, who now affirms that he has followed the commandments all his life.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and finally says: "You lack one thing.” This man who seems to have lacked nothing, neither riches nor a good life, is lacking only one thing. Then, immediately, Jesus follows home his point – he offers an invitation – the first step to discovering the answer to his question. The invitation Jesus is offering him isn't that the man will receive a fixed place to live, a guaranteed retirement package, multitudes of people admiring and thinking well of him. He is told to first go and sell all that he has and give to the poor.
Jesus is never one to ask the impossible, only the unlikely and unimagined. His instructions are intended to create connection, collaboration, and community. His "go" will be followed by a "come, follow me!" In this way, the man's initiative will have been transformed into a covenant or bond between the master and the disciple. But that command will also require the man to engage in some very radical and public behavior, and not just private piety or spirituality. "At that saying", Mark tells us, the man's face fell and he went away as quickly as he had come. In good faith, he had sought a reasonable answer to a reasonable, but complex, question. But he had not received an answer - at least, not a simple, reasonable answer.
This is a stark, sad story: such good intentions, such an unsatisfactory ending. Maybe this was indeed a young man, perhaps even a callow man. But maybe he was also young enough for second thoughts and a second approach to Jesus at a later date. We can only speculate. But we can also draw some conclusions and applications for our own faith journey.
Each of us shall have to take this gospel to heart. We need to examine our own perspectives and strip away our illusions. Discipleship requires new kinds of relationships, new kinds of community. Rugged individualism is simply not adequate. What God wants to give cannot be purchased or earned.
Like the man in today's gospel, we need to ask ourselves: “Right now, at this stage of our lives, what must we do to be more responsive to the invitation Jesus is extending to us?” And rather than presupposing we know the answer to that question, we might pray for a listening heart to the One who is saying, "Come follow me."