The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
For the last few weeks, children have been featured in our Gospel lessons. How open, eager and trusting they are to learn.
Today’s gospel begins with a man running up to Jesus, knelling before him and asking “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man approaches Jesus in a child-like manner and we think he’s on the right track.
But then Jesus says “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Why did he say this? Is Jesus criticizing him for thinking Jesus is good?
Clearly, Jesus sees a problem hidden in the man’s question and he immediately addresses it. “No one is good but God alone.” The way the man phrases his question shows he divides people into two groups: the good people and the bad people; (If he added a third category, the ugly, we’d have a Clint Eastwood movie.) and it’s the good people who “inherit eternal life,” not the bad.
Jesus doesn’t agree with this assumption. He knows that “zoen aionion,” usually translated as “eternal life,” has nothing to do with being good. He knows the world isn’t divided between good people and bad people. That’s a myth. And besides, are we really capable of judging between good and evil like God? Do we really know who the bad guys and the good guys with guns are? No. Jesus says the world is divided between the Creator (God) and the created (in other words, the rest of us). “No one is good but God alone.” Dividing humans between the good ones and the bad ones condemns some and leads others to act in a self-righteous manner, like the Pharisees. And it’s wrong-headed, because God created us all and loves what he created. God insures that we have ongoing life. We can’t earn it. It’s a gift of grace, an expression of God’s love for all humanity, even the bad ones.
Notice how Jesus works with this man who thinks he must do something to “inherit eternal life.” He starts by reminding him of the commandments. “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; Honour your father and mother.” Hmm..that’s interesting. I didn’t know that “You shall not defraud” was one of the commandments. Maybe Jesus knows something that we don’t about how this rich man got his wealth. These rules preserve peace between people. When we follow them, stress is reduced and trust is facilitated, but they don’t impact whether or not God loves us. That’s a given. We never lose God’s love no matter how bad we might be.
The rich man’s question tells Jesus that he’s inflicting unnecessary and self-imposed pain on himself. Life in the age to come is a given because God is a lover.
I hope you noticed that I said “life in the age to come” rather than “eternal life.” That’s because the phrase has been misused so often that it no longer conveys the meaning Jesus intended. To get behind the meaning we lay on the Bible here, we must use phrases like “life in a web that holds you and can’t do anything but hold you from now on and forever”; or “life that is sustained by the creator who is love, our creator, who has no intention of ever letting go of us.” It’s not about you or me; it’s about God and what God has done. And actually this has even wider implications than our personal, individual salvation. “Life in the age to come” is God’s counter movement to human empire, including the American empire. This evil age will overcome by God’s “age to come.” This is a topic for another day.
How do you get through to someone who thinks their soul is in danger when it’s not? And why does he think his soul is in danger? Our text says “21Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” I love that Jesus looks at us carefully and loves us regardless. Through soft eyes he sees the man is lacking something. “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. 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Have you noticed what the man is lacking? He can’t trust that he’s already loved. He lacks trust. He hasn’t learned to trust God or other people. Why can’t he trust? Maybe he thinks he doesn’t need to. He can buy everything he needs. Maybe when he gained everything money could buy, he lost his capacity to trust and became self-contained. Or maybe his awareness of himself as having much more than his neighbor caused him to be suspicious of his neighbor, who he thinks will envy him and seek to take what he has,.. and this blocks trust.
So here’s the rub. If he wants to be sure he has “life in the age to come,” the rich man has to depend on God... and not his wealth. But, being wealthy, he is out of practice when it comes to depending on someone else. Plus he knows others will resent him for having more than they and this cuts him off from his neighbor, like the walls we sometimes build around our homes. He asks “What must I do to inherit life in the age to come?” His question reveals a sadness and isolation. He’s loved but can’t trust it because he thinks “life in the age to come” is a do-it-yourself project rather than a love-gift from God.
How will this man learn to trust? Jesus has a solution. “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.” In loving the poor with his money, he will discover that he is loved as he learns to trust God. The block to trust that his suspicion of his neighbor causes him will dissolve and he will want to follow Jesus. His desire to follow Jesus will give him a sense of joy, gratitude and warm fellowship that only comes from trusting. Now the man knows love is real and eternal because he has acted it out with his life and gained a sense of connection and peace.
It was a common occurrence in early colonial America to be kidnapped and adopted by the Indians. There are many accounts of these abductions. Once a young boy was taken by the Indians in western Pennsylvania. He eventually adapted to their ways and learned to love his Native American family very much. During a severe blizzard one winter, he was confined to his traditional Indian lodgings with an old chief and a young Indian boy. They were running out of food and he was afraid they would soon starve to death. The old Indian assured him “Don’t worry. The Creator will provide what we need. Sometimes he tests us in this way so that we can grow to trust him more.” The boy was eventually able to find game, which saved his Indian family and himself from starvation.
Unlike that early American boy captured and adopted by the Indians, Mark says when the rich man heard what Jesus said he needed to do “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” I’ve always found this to be a sad story.
Jesus knew his disciples had been listening to all of this. No doubt they themselves envied this man who seemed to have everything they lacked. They were “perplexed” when Jesus turned to them and said “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” They thought wealth was proof of God’s blessing, not an impediment life in age to come.
When Jesus noticed that they were perplexed, he said to them again “Children,..” (This is the fourth week in a row that children have been featured in our Gospel lesson. Remember, children are open, eager and trusting to learn.) “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” It is difficult for anyone who wants to follow Jesus. You have to do hard things that others don’t understand, like renouncing violence in all its forms. And the more you have, the harder it is. “25It 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.”
When the disciples heard this, “26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?” I sympathize with their question. Jesus has successfully deconstructed all the ways we try to make ourselves worthy of love. With a gentle eye full of compassion, he looks at us and says,“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
God has chosen to love us regardless. Can we trust that? It’s hard to trust for we often forget how to trust and are tempted to depend on our wealth to give us a sense of worthiness. Yes, I count myself among the rich who find trust difficult. But all things are possible for God.
Could it be... that learning how to trust, hard as it is, is more important than holding on to wealth?
Could it be... that in asking the man to give away his wealth, Jesus is offering him a new life of trust, gratitude, and love?
Could it be... that Jesus isn’t depriving him at all, but directing him toward a richness and peace he has never known?
Could it really be... that for God all things are possible?
Sermon by Tom Truby