Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 10, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
The man who ran up to Jesus in our gospel reading had it all. He was rich. In Matthew’s version of this story we also learn that he was a ruler, so he had power. He had status. Matthew also tells us he was young, so it is probably safe to say he still had his looks and his health as well.
But, as so often happens still today, that superficial stuff didn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t really have it all, did he? Something was missing in his life. Something was missing, and he went to Jesus to find it. In fact, he ran to Jesus! This was urgent! He knelt before Jesus, showing both his vulnerability and his reverence for Christ. And then came the question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He didn’t really have it all, did he? He lacked a relationship with God. He had something nagging at him that said that there was more to life than all the outward blessings he had. Those things weren’t providing him with peace and contentment and hope. They weren’t providing him with true joy, the kind of joy that can only come from an intimate relationship with God. And so he fell at Jesus’ feet and said to him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This was more than a question about going to heaven when he died. This was about having a relationship with God that would begin now in this life and continue forever. What did he need to do to get that?
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus replied. “No one is good but God alone!” Jesus’ initial response seems a little smart-alecky, and maybe even rude, but it provides the first hint of an answer to this young rich ruler. “No one is good!” Jesus says. No one has a relationship with God based on their goodness! And then, as if to show him that no one is good but God alone, Jesus starts listing off the commandments. “You know the commandments,” Jesus says, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal or bear false witness or defraud.” And this rich young ruler responds by insisting that he has kept all these commandments since his youth.
But notice here that Jesus so far has only referenced what we call the “second table” of the commandments. He only references the commandments that govern how we live in relationship with other people. Next Jesus zeroes in on what the precise problem is for this young man. Jesus looks at him with love – not out of spite or anger. He looks at him with love and tries to get him to see that his problem is with the first table. In fact, it was with the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” His wealth had become his god.
“Sell what you own,” Jesus told him, “give the money to the poor – then come, follow me.” Now this young man had something he could do, but he just couldn’t do it! Sadly, he walked away from Jesus. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The young man thought he had kept all the commandments, but the truth was, he couldn’t even keep the first one! His wealth was the problem. His wealth had become his god. His wealth was what he looked to for comfort and meaning and purpose and joy. It was what was getting in the way of his relationship with God. And it was just too much to give up.
The point here is not that wealth is inherently bad. The point is that there will always be a commandment that will trip you up – usually the very first one! The point is that no one is good but God alone. The point is that if you ask what you must do to inherit eternal life, you’ve framed the question in such a way that you’ll never find it.
Wealth isn’t inherently bad or wrong, but it sure is easy to make it your god. Moreover, those with wealth, those with means, are used to seeing the world in such a way that it is what they do that earns them those good things. And oftentimes that is true! By doing good things like working hard and having goals and being patient and delaying gratification, you can earn wealth! But when you carry that mindset over to how you can have a relationship with God, how you can inherit eternal life, how you are saved, it just doesn’t work.
And so Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t saying here that it is merely difficult. I’ve heard all the goofy interpretations that try to make this a possibility. This is clearly a humorous way of saying it is impossible. It is an idiom not unlike how we might say something has “a snowball’s chance in you-know-where.” Jesus makes this crystal clear just a moment later!
The disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” They too are shocked by what they are hearing. If this young, successful, upright, religious guy who has it all can’t be saved, then who in the world can?” And Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible.” Despite outward appearances, no one is good but God alone, and so it is impossible to inherit eternal life by doing something. Even if you are given something to do, you won’t do it! This was tragically illustrated by this rich, young ruler! “For mortals it is impossible,” Jesus says. But that’s not all he says. He continues, “But not for God; for God, all things are possible.”
Dear friends, the impossible has been made possible through Jesus Christ, who came to be more than a “good teacher.” He has come to be our savior. He has come to make it possible for us to have a relationship with God, now and forever.
Jesus, himself young, himself possessing all the riches of God, himself the ruler of all creation, gave up everything for us on the cross – even then looking upon us with love. Jesus gave up everything to give us forgiveness and salvation and new life, now and forever. The question is no longer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” but “What has Christ already done?”
The impossible is made possible today as God speaks to us through his Word. God puts this tragic story of the rich young ruler in our ears in order to loosen our grip on our own wealth and instead take hold of Christ Jesus. God speaks to us through his Word of law and gospel to shatter our illusions about our own goodness and draw us to the goodness of Christ.
The impossible is made possible today as God moves our hearts through this good news to let go of everything that gets in the way of our relationship with him in order to take hold of the hope and peace and joy he alone can give us. Only in him do we truly have it all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church