October 14, 2012
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
By all accounts, this man is doing just fine: He is wealthy; he keeps the commandments. By standards both worldly and religious, he has it made. But something is missing. Something doesn’t fit. He runs up, falls at Jesus’ feet, and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I am reminded of the prayer of confession we often use that includes the words:
…we know that you love us and that you call us to fullness of life,
but around us and within us we see the brokenness of the world and of our ways.
Our successes leave us empty; our progress does not satisfy.
Our prosperous land is not the promised land of our longing.
Is this not the plea of one who has great possessions and observes the commandments and yet he does not feel whole? The commandments Jesus asks about are from the Top Ten:
‘Do not kill,
Do not commit adultery,
Do not steal,
Do not bear false witness,
Do not defraud,
Honor your father and mother.’
When the man says he has kept all of these since his youth, Jesus does not doubt his word or claim otherwise. But even with all this stuff, and all this obedience, the man comes to Jesus because something is missing.
You lack one thing [Jesus tells him]; go, sell what you have,
and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.
The man goes away sorrowful, for he has a lot of stuff. I don’t think it requires all that much stuff for this verse to trouble us. We assume that “rich” means someone who owns a lot more stuff than we do. But talk with Dennis Cates about the Philippines. Or ask Dale Dodds about Haiti. We are the rich.
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
In the 5th century, someone noticed that camelus was the Latin word for camel as well as for a ship’s hawser, the thick rope used to moor a boat to the dock. It was supposed that if you cut the hawser, and pushed really hard, some strands could get the through the eye of the needle, and so there was some chance of getting out of this without having to do as Jesus said or rely on God. This was immediately shot down for the rationalization that it was.
Confessing how much we want to avoid any idea that we are supposed to give up all our toys to follow Jesus, there are a couple of things we should note in this passage. The first is that the disciples themselves see this as impossible. And Jesus agrees that if it were up to us, salvation is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.
The second is that all of the commandments mentioned are about not doing bad things to others: no stealing, no defrauding, no adultery, no killing, no lying about them, and no dishonoring of mother or father. It is good and right and important not to do bad things to others.
But Jesus says it is not enough to not do bad things to others. What he commands is actively doing good to others, even and especially doing good for others even at a sacrifice to ourselves. We may not like this any more than we like the idea of selling all our stuff and donating the proceeds, but that’s what it says.
Third, it may not be the stuff that gets in the way. It may be that we just don’t think anybody else is as deserving of this stuff as we are. It may be that we look down upon those who need our help, or they may be one of “those” people. (And we all have a “those” people, don’t we? You know, one of “them.”) I think that finally it comes down to where the man put his trust. He was religiously observant. He followed the rules. And he had a lot of stuff, and he got it at least somewhat ethically as he followed the commandments.
And. It. Was. Not. Enough.
He wanted what Jesus had to offer. He wanted what gave Jesus that peace, that knowledge of what it meant to be okay with God.
But when he asked Jesus, he didn’t like the answer. It was hard to trust Jesus when he still placed all his trust in his stuff and in his obedience to the rules. It is hard to shift allegiances away from all the monetary and technological and political and military and economic and social answers on which we rely and trust instead in the Gospel that says there is a higher good.
This is one of those texts where if the preaching relied only upon those things which the preacher had mastered, there would be no sermon. I am no better at this than you are. Someone recently said, “I kept wondering how I could be more like Jesus, but then I realized that I am not part of the Trinity.”
It really does come down to how much do we trust the one who calls us by name, the one in whose name we are baptized, the one who knows us better than we do ourselves, and loves us better than we do ourselves, the one who loves us, whomever we are. If we are in that love, then we are able to do good for others, giving sacrificially as Jesus says.
Two things to remember: Before Jesus gave this man such impossible commandments, Jesus looked upon him and had love for him. These were not the words of rebuke, but words for what was best for him. And, “With [mortals] it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
Thanks be to God.