I heard a Hindu riddle this week. Question: ‘What do you when you reach the top of the pole you’ve been climbing?’ Answer: ‘Learn to fly.’
The young man who ran eagerly up to Jesus and knelt respectfully at his feet was not trying to test Jesus or catch him out. He genuinely wanted to know what to do next. He had climbed to the top of the pole of the Jewish morality he had been taught: he had kept all the commandments and gathered many possessions, but he knew that something was missing in his life. All his good deeds and all his wealth had not satisfied his deepest longings.
Jesus did not criticise or condemn what the young man had been doing. In fact he affirmed it, repeating the commandments. But when the young man said, ‘Yes I’ve done all that. What else must I do?’ then Jesus looked right into his heart with real love and recognised what was going on: it was all about himself. He was entirely focussed on what he could do and what he could possess. He needed to know that real life is about what God does and what God gives.
That’s when Jesus invited him to learn to fly: to let go of everything he had been holding onto and to throw himself into the arms of God – to give up his wealth and his position and join the followers of Jesus, wandering the paths of Palestine, relying on the hospitality of others, having nowhere to lay his head, but rejoicing in the love of the Father.
The young man went away sad, because the challenge was too great at that point in his life. We don’t know whether he ever came to realise that Jesus was offering him the only way he could find happiness. Sometimes we get wiser as we get older. Sometimes it dawns on us slowly that even if we achieved everything we’d ever dreamed of doing and possessed everything we’d ever desired, there would still be something missing. Real happiness is not achieved or gained but received: being loved by someone opens us up to experiencing the all-embracing love of God. At some point we all need to stop climbing and learn to fly.