Robert L. Getty, Ph.D. - October 11, 2015
20th Sunday after the Pentecost
Robert L. Getty, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Have you ever had the experience when you were at your best? Everything in your life was just right. You may have seen the Comfort Inn commercials where because you had a good night sleep you could even fly an airplane. That is probably a bit much to think that your self confidence was so strong that you could do anything. But you have more than likely had those moments when you had it all together. You could walk into a new job interview and were sure you would be hired on the spot. As a military officer coming up for promotion, there were times when I felt it was a sure thing to get the promotion. Or when taking an exam, you were sure that you knew the subject so well that you could quit studying and enjoy yourself. Then reality sets in! All of the build-up and confidence turns in to a balloon that has just burst. The bubble popped.
Our Gospel scripture concerns a man who because of his wealth expected to be in the front rank. He was sure that he would be seen as a most desirable recruit to the kingdom of God. Then reality set in. As we read the scripture, it appears that Jesus was putting barriers in front of this rich man, but Jesus loved him. How could it be that in one sentence it speaks of Jesus’ love and the next it seems there is a test that must be passed.
The commandments that are quoted represent the second part of the decalogue, those injunctions which govern behavior towards other people. These commandments clearly provide a relatively objective assessment. Jesus probably limited his reference to the second table of the law, the one dealing with relationships of human beings to each other, because obedience to it provides evidence of obedience to the first table, the one dealing with the relationships of human beings to God.
As the discussion continues there is a threefold repetition of the phrase to enter God’s kingdom. This is followed hard with the words about relationships of human beings to each other. Mark provides an unmistakable guide for his readers to find the relevance of the story of the rich man. It is, again, all about the ‘upside down’ values of God’s kingdom.
Pope Francis during his recent visit echoed this upside down values as he challenged his audiences to not look for riches as an end, but as a means to help those in need. At a conference in Bolivia in July, he pulled no punches when he declared:
An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity.
At times the general and popular view of worthiness relates to individual accomplishments and successes. This has to do with our judgment, our assessment of who qualifies to be called successful. We develop criteria that show what it takes to be the best qualified. The rich young ruler felt his wealth and adherence to the commandments made him the most competent, the best choice to enter the kingdom of God.
When I came up for promotion in the military, I carefully planned what I had to do, what my resume, so to speak, had to contain. Being academically inclined, I signed up for all the schools—junior officer school, senior officer school, command and staff school, Air War College. I completed them all. I even volunteered to fly combat missions, since I thought that would seal the deal. I was a shoe-in for the next promotion. However when the promotion board met, reality set in. They were looking for those individuals who held command position as unit commanders. Since, I spent my time in the books, and served on a combat crew, my resume was not what they were looking for. To make a long story short, I did not make the next promotion, I got out of Air Force and started new careers. As I look back, it was all for the best that I missed that promotion.
In the case of the rich young man, he had it all figured out. He kept all the commandments about the relationships of human beings to each other. He thought his wealth stood him above others. But wealth is relative: even those who would consider themselves poor in modern Western society live at a level which would have been unimaginable to most of Jesus’ hearers. This even today remains so to many in other parts of the world. If we lose sight of the principle that affluence is a barrier to the kingdom of God we are parting company from Jesus at a point which seems to have been fundamental to his teaching as all three synoptic writers understood it.
The entire section emphasizes that riches make being a disciple difficult but the rewards of discipleship are worth more than material possessions. Jesus did not teach that wealth is evil. He did not teach that poverty is better than riches. He did not teach that only the poor can be saved. He did teach that discipleship is costly and that wealth often is a hindrance to repentance and acceptance of the gospel. The young man’s response that he kept the commandments should have proved that he was altogether a most attractive recruit for the kingdom of God. At the same time, the “one thing” this man lacked was not understanding of the requirements of the law but radical trust in God, who alone is good, that would allow him to abandon all his property and follow Jesus.
For us to apply this today, requires real sensitivity and honesty with regard to our own instincts and values. Wealth is sometimes a result of work—ours or someone else’s—but work itself can also be an emotional obstacle to following Jesus. If we have privileged positions—as the rich man did—managing our careers may become more important than serving others, doing good work, or even making time for family, civic, and spiritual life. It may hinder us from opening ourselves to an unexpected calling from God. Our wealth and privilege may make us arrogant or insensitive to the people around us. These difficulties are not unique to people of wealth and privilege, of course.
What human beings cannot do, God can. They have considered the criteria for entering God’s kingdom from a human perspective. From that perspective those criteria, as Jesus has now set them out, cannot be met. But if it is God’s kingdom, we are not limited to human calculation. The salvation of the rich is always a miracle, but miracles are God’s specialty. Inheriting eternal life, entering the kingdom, and being saved are impossible for any human being, but not for God, who is good and desires the salvation of all. Therefore, we all must depend entirely upon God. Such absolute trust in God makes possible a life of faithful discipleship. One thing seems clear. This passage is about wealth and the challenges it presents and, simultaneously, it is about discipleship. The focus is on the need to follow Jesus and to be aware and even concerned about those things that would keep us from following Jesus “on the way.”
When we read the Epistle to the Hebrews, we have a expanded look at the miracle of finding Jesus as our Savior and Lord. The author is showing his readers how the inadequacy of our trust is directly proportional to the inadequacy of our understanding of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the triune God. Ultimately God does not choose to continue to speak through prophets, but speaks most fully and completely by entering creation as God in the flesh. And what we learn in Jesus, what the author wants his readers to carefully consider, is that God speaks in order to give Jesus Himself to us in relationship—to make us, God’s creatures, sons and daughters, children of God’s own heart!
It is the living word of God that is active and sharper than a sword. While putting it this way doesn’t exclude God’s written word, as mentioned at the beginning of this letter, “In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways.” However, as the author declares the power of the word, he is primarily referring to Jesus, the Living Word that God has spoken to us in these last days. In God’s sanctifying work, God is able to enter into to all our thoughts, memories, anxieties, resentments, ugly sin. We are not just to be declared new, but truly made new—from the inside out. How wonderful that we can’t keep anything hidden from God. If we could, how could we ever completely live in God’s rest? The word in a way “reads” us, interprets us, helps us see ourselves and see what God will do to sanctify us by that very word.
Jesus knows our particular weaknesses and suffers with us, takes on our suffering and makes it his own to heal us from the inside out. Far from being distant from our sins and brokenness, God, in Jesus, comes all the way to us and shares our weaknesses. We are to draw near. Because God in Christ has drawn so very near to us, we can now draw near to Him, with confidence. Amazing! And we do not approach in a cringing, fearful way. We come with confidence. In other words we go as if we belonged there, because with Jesus as one of us, we do belong there.
As we looked into the experience of the rich young man, he thought his riches and good behavior made him the best qualified to enter into God’s kingdom. Not his relationship to others but his relationship to God, not his accomplishments but his total faith and allegiance to God. Only our relationship to Jesus makes the difference. I cannot make a list of my accomplishments or attributes that make me worthy of the kingdom of God. I cannot nor can you negotiate our way into God’s kingdom. We do not come to God boasting of our great attributes, but with confidence in our Lord and Savior. This anticipation of coming to Jesus is expressed clearly by Eugene Petersen in The Message (Hebrews 4:12-16closeAn error occurred.):
God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what. Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.