My 7th grade home economics teacher called me a perfectionist.
I don’t remember the occasion for this critique — and believe me, it was precisely that, for there was no kindness in her tone. I do remember being surprised, for I wondered then what could possibly be wrong with striving for perfection. And yes, I do remember being surprised for what work I had turned in so far that year was considerably less than perfect. (If it still existed — which, thankfully, it does not — I would offer you a picture of the orange apron I sewed that year, complete with crooked seams and uneven pocket on the front.)
No, I don’t remember the occasion for the critique, but I do remember how it stung. For I knew it was not meant as a compliment. And yes, I sensed that it was true and deep down I understood, somehow, that this was not a good thing. I know this more fully today, of course, for perfectionism is rooted in trying to measure up to some outside standard. One that can never quite be reached and so one is always left feeling less than. Although some of those tendencies in me have certainly been worn away by the constant demands on time and energy, even so, there is a part of me that still shrinks inside when I know I have missed the mark. One could say, I suppose, that I am a ‘recovering perfectionist.’
And so it is that we come upon the rich man in this week’s Gospel. You remember him, don’t you? This one who threw himself at the feet of Jesus begging to know how it was that he could be ensured that the inheritance of eternal life would be his? Jesus reminds him that he already knows what needs to be done. And the man confidently says that well, yes, he’s done all that. And Jesus knows. Oh yes, Jesus looks at him and loves him and knows. Indeed, as I hear the story this time through, I find myself wondering if he was a perfectionist, too.
For what would it have meant for this man to have kept the commandments all of his life? Indeed, how stiffly he must have held himself since he was young — taking the utmost care not to step out of line in any way. And yet, it appears that he knows something is missing. He must sense that even though by every external standard he has done it all just right, it somehow isn’t enough. He must know this — else why would we find him today kneeling at the feet of Jesus asking what is left to be done?
My 7th grade home economics teacher saw it in me: this tendency to want to get it all right but in my doing so somehow missing the point altogether. For no truly fine work is done without risk and risking means, inevitably making one’s share of mistakes. It means falling short of perfection. Indeed, it is so that one can become so obsessed with getting it right that one loses one’s way altogether. Oh, isn’t it so that one can play by all the rules and in so doing, not let oneself be fully engaged in the ‘game?’
Now I know there are a number of faithful ways to enter into the encounter of Jesus and the rich man in today’s Gospel. Certainly there is the assessment of how difficult it will be for most anyone with any kind of means to enter into the kingdom of God. And there is that profound and much welcome assurance that in the end, not one of us can do this on our own, if at all. Rather, only with God is it even possible and only with God will it be so. And yet, I find myself trying to get into the mindset of the one who prompted Jesus’ teaching here. Indeed, I especially find myself wondering why the story points out that Jesus loved him before laying out the true demands of following him.
I think it must be because Jesus did not take his assertion that he had ‘kept all the commandments since his youth’ as arrogance but as eagerness. I expect that he saw a man who really was trying to do the best he could, and who is starting to realize that his best would never be good enough. What he doesn’t know yet is that in the end it really wouldn’t matter for finally it is not about what we do, but about what God did and does. Oh yes, I think perhaps Jesus felt some measure of pity for him, knowing that he was weighed down not only by ‘his many possessions,’ but also all those external, perhaps self-imposed expectations of what worthiness looked like. Even if he hadn’t experienced it yet, Jesus knew the disappointment and eventual heartbreak which lay ahead of him if he continued on this course. And, yet isn’t it difficult to give all that up and to trust another — to trust God — with all of it?
Perhaps it is easier for those who have less — less stuff, less ego, less self reliance — to enter the kingdom of God. Perhaps they have come to realize a long time ago that it really doesn’t depend on them. Perhaps embracing that realization as true for all of us would give us, would give me, the freedom to truly be about what matters most of all. To keep attempting to be righteous, yes, but to do so in the service of the poor and the suffering — those in any kind of need. And when we fall short, to depend on God’s grace for the strength to get up tomorrow and attempt the same.
- I am fascinated by the rich man who kneels at the feet of Jesus today. Is it possible that he actually believes he has kept all the commandments all of his life? Is this arrogance or eagerness? What do you think?
- Put yourself in this man’s place. How would you have responded when Jesus told you to sell all that you own, give the money to the poor, and follow him? Why would you have responded in this way?
- Why do you think the story makes sure to point out that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…?” What is it about him that Jesus loves?
- Where is the grace in this story? Do you hear Jesus’ words only as judgment or is there gift in this as well?