Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Rich Young Man and the Leper

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Rich Young Man and the Leper

Once upon a time there was a rich young man. He wanted to be a knight - but he was a commoner. He wanted to be a crusader - but he was a clothing salesman.

His father’s business was importing fine fabrics from France.

His father gave him fine clothes to wear so he could impress all his rich young friends with his fashionable clothing made of imported fabrics. His father gave him a fine horse to ride.

His father gave him money so he could keep up with the fast crowd and impress them even more with his stylishness.

But then one day the rich young man was out riding on his fine horse in his fine clothes.  On the side of the road he saw a beggar. Not just any beggar - a man with a skin disease. A leper!

Stay away! That was the standard protocol of the time. Don’t come near them - you might catch the disease. And look at them. They have open sores on their bodies. How could you touch them anyway?

We don’t know the name of the man with the disease. But his name might as well have been the name of the man who gave us this morning’s parable. He might as well have been Jesus.

For the rich young man leapt from his horse, went up to him, embraced him, and kissed him.

Not so much the attitude of the man in the Gospel story. What was the difference? Maybe this rich young man had heard the Gospel story. Maybe he just knew he wasn’t so different from the other man. Not deep inside.

For they were both of infinite value in the sight of God.

We have seen things like this in our own day. In Sacramento General Hospital in the summer of 1983 when I was working as a trainee chaplain, someone found out I came from Berkeley. And that was near San Francisco. And you know about San Francisco. Stay away from him! He might have that disease. You know the one. (They didn’t know what to call it yet.) And so the teasing went on - sick, cruel, cased in fear.

Fear. Shunning the unknown, the different.

Our young man, by the way, wanted to be a crusader. He got as far as to get the gear (Dad paid) and the horse and start on his way. But he encountered another poor man, this man a knight (a real one) but destitute, without armor or spear. And the young man in a fit of compassion gave him what he had. And went home rejoicing. Dad was furious.

And then came the last straw. One day the young man went into a church. It was in ruins. So he went back into town, to the warehouse where all the fine fabrics were, loaded his horse up and rode to the next town. He sold the fabric and the horse, brought the money back to the church. He tried to give it to the priest. Who wouldn’t have any part of this escapade.

So the young man in a fit of youthful pique tossed the money - now filthy lucre - into a corner of the church and went away. He didn’t get very far. His father was furious. And threw him into the basement of their house. For a month. Or a week. And then he drew him out, dragged him in front of the bishop, right in the town square, and demanded justice. This son of mine has squandered my wealth. Get him to give me back what he has had from me.

All right, said the young man. You win. And there and then he gave back to the old man everything he had had from him. Every. Last. Stitch.

Naked in the public square.

The bishop threw his cope around him and led him off.

(Later he found a castoff gardener’s garment and wore that. His new life had begun.)

By now you know, or have guessed, the name of the rich young man.

Extraordinary. Singular. Unique. Admirable - but a tough act to follow. You wouldn’t expect, for example, a pope to name himself after that young man, would you?

But there was something about him. Something ennobling - no, better than ennobling, humanizing - about him. Something compelling - because unlike the wealthy man in the gospel story, he didn’t see his status as something to be grasped and held onto. In fact he gladly gave it up for another man - men.

And in fact hard as his act was to follow, some of his rich friends, his father’s customers, well, former customers at this point, followed him into his new life.

They embraced the gospel without fear.

They embraced charity as eagerly as the young man had embraced the leper.

They embraced poverty as if it were the fairy princess in a fable, and they were the heroes, fallen at her feet.

They embraced a love of the world and all that is in it. They served the people, rich and poor, and sang to them of God.

They embraced obedience - to the gospel - even when it was hard. Take up your cross and follow me.

And they went on their way rejoicing.

We have a prayer we can say, inspired by their story:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

2016 September 25

The Book of Common Prayer, Prayer 62, page 833.

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