Just one more thing

I have never been a big watcher of television, but television is so much a part of popular culture that you don’t have to watch it to be aware of its effects on society. I’m sure that I haven’t watched very many episodes of the old show “Columbo,” but I’ve heard a lot of people tell stories about the episodes. I have a pretty good sense of the personality of the character and the gist of the show.

The show, popular in the 1970’s was about a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. He came across as a bit of an absent-minded character. I think that in most of the episodes, the audience was aware, fairly early in the show, who the guilty party was and the entertainment was in figuring out how the detective would get the evidence needed to convict. He would play mind and word games with his suspects, lulling them into a sense of security in which they would confess or at least give clues to what happened.

The trademark phrase of the detective, played by Peter Falk, was “there’s just one more thing,” or some variant on that phrase. The detective would appear to have finished his questioning and sometimes he would begin to walk away. Then he’d come back and say, “There’s just one more thing.” What followed was the critical question that turned up the key piece of evidence.

A few years ago, I would even refer to our choir director as “Columbo.” She had a way of coming to my office or a meeting and talking about any number of things. However, I knew that she had some specific concern on her mind. However, that concern usually had to wait until the very end of the conversation. Sometimes, like Columbo, she would even leave the room and then return with the one question or topic that was the most important to her. I learned to listen carefully to the very end of our conversations and not to change my attention too quickly when working with her.

I think that a psychologist might be able to bring some understanding to the patterns of our conversations, noticing that we often surround important questions and conversations with other less important topics.

The Gospel lesson for today has one of those Columbo moments in it. Jesus is setting off on a journey when a young man rushes up, kneels in front of him and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, after questioning the man about why he calls him “good,” reminds the man of the commandments. The man reports that the has followed the commandments since his youth. Up to this point the conversation is similar to what you would expect from any competent Jewish Rabbi. A question about eternal life is an opportunity to speak of the value of the commandments. The questioner demonstrates his own piety and commitment to following the commandments. The specific commandments named by Jesus in the exchange are fairly easy: “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor you father and mother.” Those particular commandments are less complex than the one about honoring the sabbath or not coveting. Compliance with these commandments is fairly simple to evaluate.

It would appear that the conversation is complete and has followed an expected pattern. Then Jesus throws in his Columbo moment: “Just one more thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. You ill have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Mark’s Gospel reports that the young man was shocked and grieving because he had many possessions.

I’ve read that story many times and have probably preached a dozen sermons on the text. It is striking to me that the young man refers to eternal life as an inheritance. Over the years I’ve been involved with or heard stories from a lot of families who have had disagreements over inheritances. There are a lot of people who grow into adulthood believing that they are entitled to an inheritance. They can become combative and aggressive the the time to settle an estate arrives. Brothers and sisters can get into some serious fights with lasting consequences over that they determine to be money that is owed to them. Inheritance, however, is not something that one can earn. It is a gift, provided by the generosity of the giver, not the worthiness of the recipient. One doesn’t earn one’s inheritance. It seems to me that Jesus might have said to the young ruler that eternal life belongs to God and to God alone and that it is given by God’s grace, not by a particular set of behaviors or actions on the part of a person. Such an answer would be keeping in line with the mainstream of Christian theology.

Instead, however, Jesus puts a challenge in front of the young man that quickly becomes impossible for him. He asks him to give away all of his possessions. From the Gospel report, we assume that the young man was unable to do so. It was just too much for the one who had so many possessions. He goes away sad.

The story doesn’t report whether or not the young man ever inherited eternal life. Perhaps the only thing that he lost in his encounter with Jesus was his sense of entitlement. Maybe realizing that he was not capable of earning eternal life was the lesson that he needed to learn that day. Perhaps he went on to live a life of generosity and service and died fulfilled and was embraced in eternity by God’s grace. Maybe the shock and grief that he felt in his conversation with Jesus was temporary and an important part of his growing into a more mature relationship with God.

Jesus goes on to teach his disciples about how wealth can become a barrier to a life of faith: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The wealth that was seen by society, and perhaps Jesus’ disciples, as a sign of great privilege, is viewed by Jesus as a barrier and a challenge for the rich young ruler. Jesus is pretty consistent at turning things upside down when he teaches. There are still many lessons to be learned from each story reported in the Gospels.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!