Mirrors, Measuring Sticks, and a Rich Young Ruler
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me, who am I at all?”
I tell people—quite truthfully—that I don’t care what I weigh. I have literally not weighed myself since 2010 and have long since thrown out every scale in my house. I don’t know what my BMI is. Nor do I care. I intentionally choose to not know what these numbers are. Even at the doctor’s office, when I am instructed to step on the scale, I ask the nurse to please just silently write down the number. I have found that I absolutely do not need to know what I weigh in order to function as a happy and productive member of society.
Now, of course, there are plenty of other ways for me to be know what size I am and to judge the state of my health and well being.
I get dressed every day, for example, in clothes that tend to shrink and expand on a constant basis…
And I look in the mirror. Probably more than I should. Now, strictly speaking, we could go our whole lives without ever looking intentionally in a mirror. But even if we decided to fanatically commit ourselves to never looking in a mirror, we still hazard catching the unexpected flash of our reflection in a window or forward facing camera. Which, inevitably, brings us back from the Shangri-La of a mirror-less existence, whether we want to or not.
Our reflection is what it is. And this makes us feel all kinds of feelings.
For example: Some of the most dreaded words ever to appear on our social media accounts are, “So and So has tagged a picture of you!” It only takes a fraction of a second’s passing glance at said tagged photo to send us into a tailspin of “dear God is that really what I look like??” And just like that. A perfectly lovely day is robbed of joy and contentment, of peace and purpose. The harsh reality of an un-looked-for, unaltered photographic reflection of ourselves wields a mighty power over us.
Why, though? Why does this happen? I mean, we know better than anyone else what we look like. What we look like in a picture should not come as a surprise.
I mean, we don’t see that tagged photograph of ourselves and exclaim, “Oh my, who is that person? I wonder if I should send them a friend request?”
No. We see the picture and we know EXACTLY who that person is. It is us. In all of our un-altered glory.
That is why we react the way we do.
I would contend that we do not react in an astounded, panic-sticken way because we are surprised by what we look like. On the contrary. We react the way we do because we are unsurprised. We have known all along that we are not good enough. The tagged photo is merely a confirmation that our suspicions were right.
There is a standard, after all, and we do not measure up.
Our reflection unabashedly tells us that we do not measure up.
What power our reflection has! And we have given it this power, whether we realize it or not.
Well, we have decided to give what we believe about our reflection power.
We have decided to believe that the pleasingness (or lack thereof) of our physical form and appearance is inherently tied to who we are, to our notion of value. Our culture preaches this doctrine to us morning, noon, and night. And we dutifully submit to the indoctrination. There is a standard, by God, there is a standard.
In this way, photos on social media have become our measuring sticks. They tell us whether or not we measure up to this standard.
And mirrors have become our measuring sticks, too. For the mirror shows us reality—an unflinching, raw, naked reality. We ask this reality to tell us something, something we spend our whole lives trying to find out:
Do I measure up?
“Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me, who am I at all?”
Do I measure up?
My reflection answers.
I struggled with an eating disorder for twenty years of my adult life. When I looked in the mirror I always saw not-quite-thin-enough. I believed that if I weren’t remarkably thin, then there was nothing remarkable about me. This belief was reflected back to me every time I looked in the mirror, etched in angle and curve of my body. It emanated from every flaw, every flabby excess I wished with all of my heart wasn’t there. The mirror was my measuring stick.
And sadly, I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t use the mirror in a similar way, as a measuring stick in some form or fashion. There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t looked at their own reflection in the mirror and formed an opinion of themselves, rather, of their value, based on what they saw.
Picture with me a young woman in the prime of her life. She stands before the mirror. What does she see there? Smooth skin, maybe a blemish or two she wishes weren’t there, maybe a nose that is a little too prominent for her liking. She also sees a bit too much weight on her frame; she has always wrestled with her weight, and no matter what she does, she can’t quite lose those last ten, twenty, thirty, forty pounds that will make her life complete. But she is still young, and she makes a decision to lose the weight, vowing that the next time she looks into the unrelenting gaze of the mirror, she will be encouraged by what she will see.
So, she loses the weight. And for a while, for many years in fact, she manages to keep the weight off. Every time she looks in the mirror it tells her that she has done a good thing, an admirable thing, a thing that ensures she is measuring up.
But as the winds of time carry her along, she finds that things are changing. Somehow, she isn’t quite measuring up to the former reflection anymore. In fact, she will never quite measure up ever again. The mirror tells her this is true.
It is true.
What should her response be in the face of that reality?
Yet another measuring stick
Mark 10 describes an account of a rich young ruler seeking Jesus out. This young man was a success, to be sure. His name will forever go down in history as the “rich, young ruler,” after all. He had wealth and an enviable social status. He had always measured up according to any standard that meant anything to anyone in the culture of which he was a part. But, even so...he had heard whispers, more than whispers, that this man from Galilee might just be the one he had been waiting for, the one they all had been waiting for—the Messiah. It was for this reason he sought Jesus out.
When he found Him, he fell in the dirt at the feet of Jesus and asked,
“Good teacher, what good must I do to inherit eternal life?”
To which Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good?...No one is good but One—God. You know the commandments:
Do not murder;
do not commit adultery;
do not steal;
do not bear false witness;
do not defraud;
honour your father and mother.”
That is an impressive list, I might add. Not an impossible one to execute, but a challenging one, nonetheless. Someone who lived according to the edicts of these commands would be a virtuous person, indeed. A moral person worthy of emulation; a person, who, when measured up against religious standards of any sort, would certainly be found successful.
“Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.”
A mic drop moment if ever there was one. Keeping that list of commandments was no easy feat. It was, in short, a spectacular accomplishment and everyone within the sound of his voice would surely have known it.
Now, what the rich young ruler expected Jesus to say and do next we can never be entirely sure of.
To me, that is the beauty and the mystery of Scripture. When we read Scripture, we read the inspired words that God wanted us to read. We drink in the story, the culture of the day, the humanity of the people about whom Scripture spends so much time recounting, the hope of the Good News of Jesus Christ that dwells in every line, every letter. But Scripture doesn’t stop there. It is then that it invites us fully in, into the in-between spaces. Here, we can imagine ourselves in the stories, in the tales of redemption, and contemplate what we would have done, what we should have done. God’s word is alive, after all. And its life is forever drawing us back to Himself, back to His love, in those in-between spaces in the Scripture, where heaven and earth collide.
As we read Mark 10, while it isn’t spelled out in red letters what the rich, young ruler expected Jesus to do, we can reasonably conclude, based on the rich young ruler’s subsequent reaction, that he looked to his own religious accomplishments and worldly possessions as a measuring stick. These accomplishments and possessions were the standard by which he could judge himself, to deem himself good enough…or not good enough. It's likely he expected a congratulations, perhaps an attaboy, perhaps a “wow!”, perhaps a "you certainly have done all you can possibly do".
But, Jesus did not offer congratulations on the rich young ruler's lofty religious accomplishments. Jesus looked at him, and loved him, and then proceeded to redefine the meaning of “measuring up”.
“Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”
The rich young ruler was “stunned at this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions.”
The rich young ruler left the presence of Jesus, carried away on a sorrowful current of pride, unwilling to let go of his measuring stick: the standard against which he had always measured his life.
With each retreating step it was if he were saying, “Good grief, I’ve memorized the whole rulebook on how to be good! I’ve lived the whole rulebook. And now you expect me to hand over all of my POSSESSIONS? Who would I be if I did that? If that is the standard you expect from me Jesus, then I will never measure up. Never.”
To which Jesus would have said, “Of course you can’t measure up. You were never expected to. Measurement is irrelevant in the new economy that I am bringing. You could never even begin to fathom how much I love you. I came to this world to do for you what you are utterly incapable of doing for yourself. I’ve come to DESTROY measuring sticks. Now, put down that rule book and come, just as you are, and follow Me.”
The real measuring stick
Yes, this is an unsettling way to think. The thought of tossing our measuring sticks away. It may even seem downright impossible. It certainly seemed ridiculous to Jesus’s disciples, who witnessed the interaction between Jesus and the rich young ruler.
“Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘How hard is it then for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God?’
But the disciples were astonished at His words.
Again, Jesus said to them, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’
So they were even more astonished, saying to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’
Looking at them Jesus said, ‘With men this is impossible, but not with God, because all things are possible with God.’”
Simply stated, the disciples were dumbstruck with the impossibility that Jesus was proposing a system of measurement where wealth and possessions were of no use. Whatsoever.
Likewise we, are similarly astonished. It seems impossible to imagine a world where the measuring stick of the mirror (or social media or scales or sizes) is of no importance. The mirror has played such an integral part of the way we have always judged ourselves to determine if we measure up or not. It’s no easy feat to lay it down, just like that.
Who would we be if the mirror no longer told us?
It feels like an unimaginable accomplishment, to look in the mirror and declare, "You can't tell me who I am anymore! The only measuring stick I will ever need is in the shape of a cross!".
Proclaiming these words, and meaning them, may seem as unbelievable as a rich young ruler giving away all his possessions.
But it is possible, it really is, "because all things are possible with God.” And the Son of Man is calling to us today, just as He did to the rich young ruler over two thousand years ago,
“Come, just as you are, and follow Me.”