In the wide, fertile field of this story, hunker down with me to dig into just one verse, the 21st, where Mark reports that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Let me make a quick case that this is an unusual thing for Mark to say. Jesus talks about love in all four gospels. He says we should love God, and love each other, and make decisions for ethical behavior based on love. He criticizes religious people for loving the wrong things. Love is on his lips more than a few times throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
But rarely in the gospels are we given a glimpse into the interiority of Jesus’ own feelings about people, or about anything. Especially in the Synoptic gospels, we are almost never granted a peek behind the neuro-curtain at the motives for Jesus’ words and deeds. His private thoughts are private, and so we’re left to make guesses about his impetus for doing and saying what he does and says - or, even better, to let his actions and words simply be what they are.
Especially for Mark, spare with words and tightly disciplined in layout, Jesus simply moves through the world in a reign-of-God bubble, making reign-of-God things happen, telling reign-of-God stories. It doesn’t depend on how he feels on a particular day, whether he slept well or has had enough caffeine or finds the person right in front of him particularly winsome. And there is a comforting impartiality about his neutrality toward people and situations. It could be argued that this is a perfect demonstration of God’s universal love - that it depends on nothing other than the a priori decision to do it - and therefore is a model for our own, pre-decided way of loving universally, neutrally, without subjective evaluation of the object of our love.
What does it mean then, when Mark breaks the formula in this story about the wealthy man who comes to Jesus with a quick question about how to inherit eternal life? What does it mean that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and what are we meant to take from that atypical reveal of Jesus’ own heart?
Can we agree that this dude is seeking an atta-boy from the probable messiah? You don’t really come asking a question like his unless you’re pretty sure you’re pretty close. Jesus knows that, and says to the guy, “Well, you could start with the Big Ten Commandments - don’t kill anybody, don’t cheat on your spouse or sleep with anybody else’s, don’t steal or lie or cheat people out of their stuff, be respectful of your parents… You know, proper regard for the people around you. You’ve got that covered, I’m guessing?”
And Wealthy Dude is like, “Yeah, I’m there, Jesus. I’ve been years in the practicing of the ‘thou shalt nots.’ So, are you saying I’m in?” And in my imagination, he smiles that cheesy, wealthy-white-cis-het-bro smile, the all-the-privilege smile, the my-parents-bought-my-way-into-this-college smile, and waits for his reward.
And “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
Maybe Mark feels the need to make it explicit because otherwise, it would be so easy to imagine that Jesus does not love people like this, people like him. The ones who assume they’re in, the ones for whom it comes so easy, being on the right side of religious propriety. The ones everybody claps on the back when they come through the door, the ones everybody wants to sit near when it’s time to sit down, the ones who aren’t the least bit afraid to approach the Messiah with their résumé of righteousness.
Don’t we know that Jesus prefers the ones who are so ostracized that they sneak up from behind, crawling, brushing their fingertips on the hem of his garment in hopes of healing and help? Don’t we know that he reserves whole catalogs of beatitudes for the littlest ones, the mourning and the meek, the poor and the hungry, the ones who are half-starved for justice for their own sake?
Maybe Mark feels like if he goes on with this story (the whole next part about Jesus’s recommendation to the man that he liquidate his assets, give the money to the rest of Jesus’ followers, a.k.a. the poor, take up the life of a disciple behind an itinerant, wonder-working rabbi who will most certainly be killed in the third act), we will read it as a giant gotcha, a poke in the eye of the establishment, Jesus’ hilarious “screw you” to the privileged and powerful. Maybe Mark is worried about us - worried that we’re eager to find Jesus getting the best of the exact same people we love to hate. Is hate too strong? Disrespect? Disdain? Disregard? Disparage? Dis?
Whatever. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”
It has been said that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is much easier in the abstract. Loving your proximate neighbor, like, the one standing right in front of you with all their stuff - material or metaphorical - is really hard. We are judgmental creatures by nature, assessing the enemy-or-ally status of other creatures is embedded in our DNA and aids in our evolution. And our religious devotion doesn’t make that less true; it often makes it more so, as we decide we’ve got some things about God figured out and have a thing or two to teach the rest of the world about pretty much everything.
This is how we fall into the “I love you, but…” trap. You know what it’s like to be caught in that trap, right? The parents and grandparents and siblings and cousins and teachers and friends who, when you came out, as queer or an ally or a Christian, or all of those, said, “Oh, honey, this just cannot be. I love you, but…” And then comes that rancorous spew of “love the sinner, hate the sin” that I daresay has never made anyone in the history of civilization feel actually loved.
I think Mark might be on to us, that we not only get trapped by other people’s “I love you, but…” bull hockey, but that having learned that as a way of being in the world, having been trained, perhaps, by the religious faith of our youth, or our families of origin, or the ideological siloes we’ve built into our media intake, we are in danger of actually setting that trap for others. We think about people in terms of how they could change to be more compatible with us - how with a few simple alterations they could match our ideal of human being, and then we could love them without reservation.
So, “Jesus, looking at [this privileged, pious dude, really seeing him for who he was], loved him.” And surely, we’re meant to do the same, starting right here, with just this one guy: love him, specifically, like Jesus did, and extrapolate from there to loving others who are hard for us to love.
Of course, you’ll notice that Jesus had further instructions for this man he loved. “Sell all your stuff and give the money away” is a hard word for anybody at any time, including us, including ours. But if I’m right - if Mark is right - about Jesus’ a priori love for this guy, the message cannot be, “Jesus loved him, but… he was wealthy, and that was a problem that needed to be solved for this relationship to go any further.” If we start with Jesus’ unconditional love for him, no bull hockey, no “but,” then we have to see that anything Jesus wants for that guy is for that guy’s own sake. Not, like, “be poor because I only like poor people,” but, “your wealth is problematic for you, and because I love you, I wish for your flourishing.”
I wonder, for example, if the guy’s wealth kept him from really giving himself to discipleship, because he couldn’t get easily disentangled from the day-to-day busy-ness of running his business? Better to leave your boats and nets on the shore than try to drag them with you while you follow Jesus. It’s like saying you’re going to answer “just a few emails” while you’re on vacation, and next thing you know, your vacation is covered up in work. “Leave it all,” Jesus says, “if you want to be with me.”
Or I wonder if a disproportionately wealthy follower of Jesus would always wonder if Jesus, or anybody, actually loved him? I wonder if getting free of all his material stuff would have allowed him to test all his relationships, to find out who loved him for himself and not his net worth? I wonder if you have ever felt that the church only loved you in proportion to how much you could give to it, and thus wondered if the church really loved you at all?
The church where I preach weekly is filled with spiritual refugees, people who have fled or been kicked out of churches but want so badly to continue their discipleship of Jesus in a community. Among our five missional priorities, the work we believe God has called our church to do, is one that says, “We do real relationship, no bull hockey ever.” We might use stronger language than that.
All our missional priorities are aspirational - they’re things we’re trying to live up to - but this one about being real and staying in relationship with each other is the hardest one by far. Because we are each other’s proximate neighbors now, the ones we’re meant to love specifically and demonstrably, with all our quirks and clumsiness and occasional bad tempers and inevitable personality clashes and rare flashes of real cruelty. Our church is, as Brian McLaren has urged, a learning lab for love. The Jesus kind of love, where we pre-decide to love each other, no “I love you, but…”, no conditionality, no fixing, no waiting for people to measure up to our standards of righteousness.
As a church planter on the spiritual-but-not-religious frontier, I am often asked what it takes to get our kids and grandkids, those elusive Millennial adults and Gen Z almost adults, into Christian community. This is surely part of it - the church as the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that if you lose all your people, even your family of origin, to stay near him, you’ll get back a family of choice that has decided to love you before you even show up, no “buts” about it. I’m grateful that this is how Jesus loves me, and it helps to remember, as I’m trying to embody my a priori decision to love whoever is standing right in front of me, that Jesus has already love them, too. Thanks be to God.
O God who so loved the whole world that you sent your own child to redeem it, thank you for your gracious estimation of us as lovable. We’re relieved not to have to earn your affection. We ask the help of the Holy Spirit to help us love our proximate neighbors in the same way - without qualification, without condition. Forgive us when we don’t get there. And may our churches be learning labs where we practice our love, so that we may export this still more excellent way to the world you still love. This we pray through Jesus our brother and teacher, and through the power of his living Spirit among us. Amen.