As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (NRSV)
It’s a ludicrous idea… that someone should sell all they have and give it to the poor! Where would that leave them? In the poorhouse! That’s where. What good would that do? Then others would have to take care of them!
Oh, wait. Maybe that’s Jesus’s point. That the last shall be first and the first shall be last? That the formerly poor, who now have wealth; those whom we have ‘taken care of’ would now be in the position to take care of us? That’s a scary thought. What if they wouldn’t do it? What if they were so busy being happy that they have a life of ease that they DON’T take care of us?
What I really am afraid of, I think, is that they wouldn’t do it any better than we have done it.
What IF the tables were turned? Is that what Jesus is suggesting? “You lack one thing; he said, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;”
What is the one thing that the man lacked? Generosity? That would make sense. Jesus would be forcing that issue by saying “Give it all away.” But does that create generosity? More likely it creates resentment. The man went away sad. I don’t think generosity was it.
Maybe what the man lacked was humility. Having certainly lacked experience being on the receiving end, it is very possible humility was in short supply. And I suspect we can relate to that. Americans have a notoriously difficult time receiving help graciously… asking for help is even worse. We are, as a people, really terrible at that.
And why did Jesus say “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor,” and then “come follow me?”
Is it that we cannot follow Jesus until there is economic equity between us and others? He did say, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
And the disciples thought THAT was a ludicrous idea. They were sure the people who have many possessions have them because God has favored them… Right?
Good fortune is a blessing from God, a pat on the back, and indication you are on the right track and being rewarded, Right? A sign of God’s favor? And bad luck is punishment from God, illness, poverty, misfortunes of all sorts—all are showing God’s DISFAVOR? Or you brought it on yourself by your poor choices. That’s another convenient explanation. Convenient for those who have means, at least.
But it is totally inconsistent with the cross.
Jesus doesn’t say how this man came to have many possessions. Maybe he worked hard for his money. If we listen to the prophet Amos, we might suppose that he undoubtedly cheated the poor, took advantage, gouged the buyer. Bribes and corruption might just be the oldest tactic for getting rich. They certainly haven’t gone away since Amos’s time. Corporate greed is still a problem. We don’t have to look far to find many examples; from fracking and pipelines to false advertising to child labor in sweatshops in distant places. And none of that happens without our complicity. We want cheap fuel so we look the other way. We want cheap clothing and food so we don’t ask any questions. We are preoccupied with our own lives, and we forget to look out for the poor and the disadvantaged.
But don’t forget one important thing this passage tells us. It was a small detail so you might have missed it. Jesus looked at the man and LOVED HIM. The man had asked Jesus for something to do. That man was used to DOING things… keeping the law carefully all his life, ever since he was a little boy. He was missing the point, of course. While he did the right things, he didn’t love God or his neighbor. Jesus did the thing the man lacked. Jesus loved him.
The scripture tells us the man went away sad, but we don’t know what he did later. Love has a way of changing people. It works on us from the inside out.
That’s one of the reasons I structure the service so the confession is AFTER the absolution. The promise of forgiveness came through Jesus long before we were ever born; long before we were ever baptized. That’s part of the reason we baptize babies. The message is very clear… there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. There is nothing we can DO to DESERVE God’s love. We are as helpless as babies to effect our own salvation. We only dare to confess where we have fallen short BECAUSE of this baptismal promise of forgiveness. We are reminded each week that we have received God’s unconditional love so we can dare to confess completely and openly. THEN we go through the rest of the service with joy and peace, symbolizing living our lives fully and freely.
So know, deep down in your soul, that you are loved. So go and do likewise. Live freely and fully, loving God, your neighbor AND yourself. In the moment of silence to come, spend the time reveling in God’s love.
(30 seconds of silence)
Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
blessings to you,
PS… The First Reading for today is Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 with themes of God’s condemnation of those who would use their own power at the expense of others.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.