The rich young man had not always been the rich young man. He had always been rich, mind you, but he had spent his fair share of time as the rich young teenager and the rich young toddler and the rich young infant. And yet in all of that time, he had never once taken being rich for granted. For you see, the rich young man had a rich old man for a father, and the rich old man had taught his son a thing or two about the family business. And not the business of deciding how best to import fine linens or how to judge the quality of Persian perfumes or how much to charge for an ephod of oil or whatever the family business was. The rich old man had taught his son, almost from the moment his son's chubby baby fingers could reach out and grab the fringe of his prayer shawl, about the business of prayer.
The rich old man had delighted in teaching his son how to pray. How to sing the sch'ma, how to bless the bread of the Sabbath, how to listen for the whisper of the Ruach in his soul and feel the pattern of the law written in his heart. The rich old man had loved teaching his son how to seek Wisdom and how to give thanks when he found Her, how to chew on the meaty texts of scripture and drink down its promises like fine wine. And above all, the rich old man had loved to teach his son to pray the psalms, to let the music of those ancient prayers vibrate through his bones, to let their words melt into his being like honey on the tongue. Every morning and each night, in the market and at the temple, in times of work and in times of rest, the rich old man would reach into the psalms like a merchant reaching into a bag of pearls, hold one up, admire its luster, and pass it along to his son like the treasure he knew it to be. Create me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.And, of course, day after day, May the graciousness of the lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.
And their handiwork did prosper, day after day, year after year. 30, 60, 100 fold, the rich old man and the rich young man saw their business grow and flourish. And the more they prospered, the more they prayed. And the more the prayed, the more grateful they became, for they were reminded each day that their prosperity was a gift of God. Prosper our handiwork, they prayed, and when their prayers were answered, they gave thanks, and they did not take their blessings for granted.
The old man and the young man were known in their village not as rich men but as men of prayer. They were known to always give out of their abundance to the poor. They took in an orphan child once who was the same age as the rich young man, and they sent bread and oil to a widow woman who was dying a slow, lonely death nearby. They worshiped regularly, never took the Lord's name in vain, and honored the wisdom of the elders. They loved each other with a great and abiding love, and the women and men who knew them often remarked on how the old and the young were blessed beyond measure - by their handiwork, by their prosperity, and by their love for each other and for their God.
And so it was not so great of a surprise when the rich young man decided to go hear this preacher he had heard so much about in his business travels. The stories of this man's words, his teaching and his miracles, followed the rich young man from town to town, and when he got back home he told his father that he had to go see him. The old man watched his son bound from the house with happy expectation in his eyes, and he prayed for him. Show your servant your works, o Lord, and your splendor to your children…and to mine. But when the rich young man came home again, his eyes were full of confusion. I asked him about eternal life, he told his father, and he asked me what I had been taught. I told him that you had taught me from my youth how to follow the commandments, how to pray, how to live in this world that God has given us. He seemed moved by my answer, and I stood by his side, waiting for him to offer some word, some wisdom that I had never heard before. But he said nothing like this. He told me not that I was blessed but that I was lacking. Sell what you have, he said, and give the money to the poor. And then come and follow me. And what was I to say to that? Is not our wealth a gift of God? Prosper our handiwork, we pray each day, and are we not prosperous? Is not our handiwork blessed? Is not this the answer to our prayers?
The rich old man looked at his son that he loved so much, saw the pain in his eyes, and did not know what to say. He reached into his bag of beautiful psalms and pulled out only bits and pieces that he feared would be no consolation. Help me, God, seemed to be the only prayer in his heart. Help me to find the answer for my son and for me, an answer that will illuminate our hearts and minds, bring us wisdom and truth and right action. What shall we do? What shall I do?
But before the rich old man could speak a word, there came a tiny timid knock at the door. The rich old man tore his eyes from his son's head hanging low against slumped shoulders and walked to the door. He opened it, and there, standing before him, was a skinny slip of a boy, all elbows and shoulder blades with hardly any flesh to accompany his bones. Please sir, the boy said, I have heard that you are a good and generous man, a man who knows how to care for the orphan and the widow, for the poor and the lowly. I am hungry, he said to the rich old man, and there is no bread. My mother is sick, and my father is dead, and there is no bread. I am the oldest, and my younger sister cries out in the night for the pains in her stomach, and there is no bread.
And the rich old man looked at this boy, all skin and bones, and loved him. Son, he called, go and fetch some fresh bread from the basket, and wrap up some cheese and wine, and pick a few sweet dates and bring them all to me. So the rich young man dragged himself from his stupor and packed a cloth full of food for the poor young boy. His father called a servant to help the young boy home, and as they waited for the servant to ready himself they three shared sweet pastry and grapes together under the light of the stars. The servant came and picked up the cloth, heavy with food, and promised that he would find out where this boy lived so that they could send more bread tomorrow.
And as the servant and the poor young boy walked out into the moonlight, the boy turned around and smiled at the rich men standing in the doorway. I prayed, he said, his eyes open wide. I prayed that God would help me, and here you are. You are the answer to my prayer. The Lord our God is good and gracious, may he prosper the work of your hands for ever.
And the rich old man and the rich young man stood in wonder and watched that poor young boy walking into the night. They stepped inside and shut the door and looked at each other with eyes wide. And the rich old man asked his son, Could it be that simple? That when we were asking God to prosper our handiwork, he was indeed answering our prayers...but that we were thinking of the wrong work. It was not the business, with the spending and the saving that was our work. This was our work: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Prosper our handiwork, we prayed, and God answered that prayer again and again, year after year, and you and I never knew how. Surely the Lord is gracious to us, and we did not even know how much.
I do not know how my story ends. Nor do I know how the Gospel story ends – Mark follows Jesus and not the rich young man into the next chapter. I do not know how our story ends. And I think that this is very good news. Because over the coming weeks, you and I will have time, concentrated time set aside to wonder about our own work. You and I have time set aside to talk about the place our money has in our lives, to think about what our true handiwork might be. You and I have time set aside to pray and to listen for the invitation of Jesus Christ that will never stop coming – Follow me. Follow me. You and I have the time to learn to put down all of our stuff so that our hands are free for holy work. So teach us to number these days, O Lord, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. And may the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us. Prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
11 October 2015
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia