Tradition links the rich young man who asks what he must do to attain eternal life with Lazarus of Bethany, who is raised from the dead by Jesus — his final act before taking the path to Jerusalem and the cross. I wrote this poem after wondering for some time about how those two could be connected.
What the rich young man said
He told me to sell everything,
Give all to the poor, and follow him.
Yes, I turned away – but don’t harshly judge
The one who can’t let go.
The trouble isn’t with all the things
I love to see and touch:
This silver cup I’ve had from childhood,
That tapestry of woven silk –
A gift from my dear mother –
Or luxuries like roasted meat,
Soft pillows, scented baths.
I could renounce all these and eat
The crusts thrown to the beggars
In exchange for life eternal.
I’d call that a good bargain.
But what of all the people’s lives
That rest on mine, so interlaced
I can’t say where I end and they begin?
My loyal serving maids and men,
The tenant farmers who depend
On me as their kind master?
My sisters, too, who look to me
For guidance and support –
If I abandon them, what care
And understanding will they find
In this harsh world? I can’t
Just leave them to pursue
My selfish dream of life.
And yet, that’s what he told me,
And I must listen, or be dead indeed.
At death, it’s true, all human ties
Are broken, and we walk alone
Into that unknown realm
With nothing, no one,
No, not one.
By binding them to me in life,
Considering them possessions, things,
Objects to be owned and managed,
I’m killing something singular
In them, and in myself.
Yes, even caring bonds must break
If we are to know freedom.
So can I die before I die?
Can I go into that dark cave
Of my own separate body
And walk alone where no one else,
Not even he, can enter?
And as my limbs grow cold and stiff,
No movement left, all bound with rags,
Will I then hear him calling
Me back to life and light?
Will the stone be gone?
Will I obey
His inconceivable word?