Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 14th, 2018
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 this morning had it all. He was rich! In Matthew’s gospel we also learn that he was a ruler, so he had power! Matthew also tells us he was young – so it is probably safe to assume he still had his looks and his health as well. Like I said, this guy had it all. Hashtag blessed.
But 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. 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: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The phrase “eternal life” here is not just a matter of going to heaven when you die, as is often thought. It includes that too, but this phrase is frequently used in scripture to describe a life lived in relationship with God in the here and now as well as in the life to come. So this man wasn’t just concerned about where he was going after he died. He was asking how he could have a relationship with God that begins now and continues forever. He didn’t really have it all – he was lacking a relationship with God that gave him peace for today and hope for tomorrow. He had all the outward blessings of life on earth – he had wealth and power and youth – but he was lacking the one thing that could give him true joy – an intimate relationship with the God who created him.
And so he fell at Jesus’ feet and said to him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus replied. “No one is good but God alone.” Here already is the hint of an answer – one inherits eternal life by recognizing that no one is good but God! You don’t earn it. You don’t get in with a good resume. A relationship with God isn’t dependent on your own goodness – if it was no one would have a relationship with God, right? “No one is good but God alone!”
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.
Jesus then looks at this earnest, pious, desperate, rich young ruler, and, St. Mark tells us, he loved him. And so it was out of love that Jesus then zeroed in on what it was that was getting in the way of this man’s relationship with God. It was his wealth. “Sell what you own,” Jesus says, “give the money to the poor – then come, follow me.” Note well that Jesus isn’t inviting this man to buy his way into the kingdom. He isn’t asking for a campaign contribution in exchange for access to the big man upstairs. He isn’t suggesting that this good deed would earn him a place in the kingdom. Jesus, with love, is asking this man to give up what has gotten in the way of his relationship with God.
And then, in one of the saddest scenes in all of scripture, this man turned around and walked away. It was just too much to give up. “He went away grieving,” St. Mark tells us, “for he had many possessions.” The man walked away. And Jesus let him.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus then declared to the disciples. This declaration caused the disciples to be perplexed. They were confused. You see, going all the way back to Abraham, wealth had been seen as a sign of God’s blessing. In fact, in the popular piety of the day, any good thing that happened in your life was seen as a sign of divine favor. And this man had it all: he was rich, young, powerful, and apparently, well-behaved! If this guy couldn’t be saved, who could!
Jesus then said that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. I am aware that there are some who say there is a place in Israel with a narrow canyon called “the eye of the needle,” and that if you unload your camel and make it suck in its gut and soap its sides you can squeeze it through, but according to most scholars this totally misses the point. Jesus is using humorous language to say it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom! It is an idiom. It is like saying they have a snowball’s chance in hell! In other words, it is not going to happen!
This is how the disciples take it. And now they aren’t just perplexed, they are greatly astounded! They ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus replies, “With mortals it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Wealth continues to be a major barrier to a relationship with God. This is as true today as it was in Jesus’ time. We can look today at how Christianity is in decline in North America, which is economically prosperous, while it is growing by leaps and bounds in poorer parts of the world.
It isn’t just the economic wealth itself, but the wealth of opportunities our culture provides. There just is so much to do, and people have the money to do it. And they do – people are increasingly choosing a whole host of activities over following Jesus. Do you know that, according to a study by the Barna group, ten or fifteen year ago active membership in a congregation was understood to mean you were in the church building for worship and Bible study and other activities three times per week? Today active membership is understood as being at church twice per month. From twelve times per month to two! This is attributed to affluence and mobility and opportunities people have that they never had before. People are increasingly walking away from Jesus and choosing to do other things, and it is having a major impact on churches. It is having a major impact on people’s relationship with God. How can it not?
The wealthy society we live in is a blessing in so many ways. Wealth isn’t inherently wrong or bad. Remember, in First Timothy it doesn’t say money is the root of all evil. It says the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Wealth, properly used and properly understood, can still be considered a blessing from God.
But it can also become a barrier. The comforts and opportunities we are surrounded by, which are made possible by our affluence, have a way of distracting us. They have a way of tempting us to walk away from Christ. And you know what? He’ll let us do just that!
Peter said to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And Jesus said to him, “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 all those things back a hundredfold, both now and in the age to come.”
Jesus promises here that following him will be worth it. He promises an abundance that goes beyond even that which we cherish most in this life. When we let go of that which we’re clinging to so tightly and take hold of Christ instead, we get all those blessings back in a new way.
Even with this powerul promise, we regularly turn away to live for ourselves. For us who are wealthy (and by the standards of the world that means pretty much all of us) it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for us to enter the kingdom of God – which mean it is not going to happen! We have a snowball’s chance in hell of saving ourselves! Remember what Jesus said at the beginning of all this? “No one is good but God alone.”
Who then can be saved?
“For mortals,” Jesus said, “it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible.”
Dear friends, the impossible is made possible by God today as he puts this tragic story of the rich young ruler into our ears, shaking us out of our complacency so that we wouldn’t walk away from Jesus, but would instead follow him.
The impossible was made possible by God, who sent Jesus to us not just to be our “Good teacher,” but to be our savior. Jesus, himself young, himself possessing all the riches of God, himself ruler of all creation, gave up everything for us on the cross, even then looking upon us with love.
The impossible is made possible today as God moves our hearts 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 offers to us.
Only in him do we truly have it all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church