Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Before I stood in a pulpit at the church, I taught in a classroom at the university. Each semester I was assigned classes for incoming students. These were required classes; students could not opt out. That usually meant that the majority of them were uninterested and disengaged. But then there were the eager and engaged students. There were always three or four of them, maybe a few more at most, but never the majority of the class.


Teachers look forward to seeing those three or four students. Those of you who are teachers will agree. They are your joy and crown. They make the sometimes thankless task of teaching rewarding. They make the hard work of preparing lectures and lesson plans worthwhile.


In the gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day, there is a man who approaches Jesus. It is fair to say that the man is like one of those students. He is eager and engaged.


The man recognizes Jesus as an itinerant teacher, or a rabbi, which, in Hebrew, simply means teacher. A rabbi attracted followers or disciples, who committed themselves to his teaching. They comprised his school, which was named after him. In Jesus’ time, the two most prominent schools were the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai.  


Those eager and engaged students always ask the teacher the best questions, don’t they? So it also with this man. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replies: “You know the commandments.”


Now the Jewish people distinguish among four classes within their own people. There are those who possess both learning and good deeds. There are those who possess learning but not good deeds. Then there are those who possess good deeds but not learning. And, finally, there are those who possess neither learning nor good deeds.


This man certainly belongs to the first class. He possesses both learning and good deeds. He is the consummate disciple. He applies what he learns, and learns what he must apply. He is an assiduous student of Torah. He knows God’s commands. And he has been diligent in keeping them.


Teachers can be discerning. They can be sensitive to the barriers that prevent their students from learning. But what sets apart Jesus from ordinary teachers is that he can see into the heart. He is interested in the passions of the heart. “What are you passionate about?” That is a question we sometimes ask someone, especially if we want to get to know him or her. If we know a person’s passions, then we know what lights up their eyes, what motivates them, what makes them wake up early in the morning, and stay up late at night. We say of them when we see them doing what they love that they really “put their heart” into it. Conversely, when we see them doing something they do not love, we say of them that they are doing it “half-heartedly.”


Anything less than a whole heart when it comes to the love of God is not making the grade. The man would have known the command: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5).


Love for God is expressed in loving and keeping God’s commands with one’s whole heart. The Psalmist cries out: “Oh, how I love your commands! I think about them all day long” (119:97). Elsewhere the Psalmist regards as blessed the one who delights in God’s law, who meditates on it day and night (1:2). And later Jesus reinterprets this theme when he says to his disciples: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (John 14:23).


There is no reason to doubt that this man loves God’s commands. But there is another love in his heart, one that competes with his love for God, for God’s commands. It is his love for money, for material possessions.


Jesus warns us about the power money can have over us, how it can claim us. Someone once asked a pastor if one could be a sincere Christian and to have a lot of money at the same time. The pastor replied: “It depends. Does that sincere Christian have the money or does the money have that sincere Christian?” Money promises to satisfy the deep hunger of the heart. In this respect, it claims the place that only God can occupy. That then creates inner conflict. For “you cannot serve God and money. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24).  


But money cannot deliver on what it promises. That is why Jesus says: “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19-20).  


Nevertheless, we serve money because it brings many things that our hearts and our bodies crave: honor, respect, admiration, power, beauty, and sex. We think that in these things we have the fulness of life. But if this is true, why are so many of the world’s richest people who have all these things desperately unhappy?


Jesus can see into the heart. And because he can, he sees the emptiness in the man’s heart. Why else would he speak of his lack? But even if we cannot see what Jesus sees, we may suspect that this emptiness is gnawing away at him. Why else would he come to Jesus to ask about eternal life in the first place? Asking about eternal life is the same as asking about abundant life, about life to the full. Evidently his money did not provide him the answer.   


Parenthetically, are we sensitive to those around us who are searching? Their words and behavior may suggest to us that they are dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Before we go in search of alternative explanations, or propose alternative remedies, why don’t we tell them about the gift of new life that God gives in Christ, about the peace and joy that we have found in this gift we have received? I’ll be the first to confess that I am not very good at sharing my faith in face to face interactions. I find it awkward. But it is clear in our gospel lesson that Jesus points to himself as what the man is looking for: “Come follow me, and you have treasure in heaven.”


In this case it is only if the man gives all his money away that he can follow. This he cannot do, and he goes away very sad, perhaps in search of another rabbi whose teaching allows him to keep all his wealth, with which he cannot part.


The disciples are appalled when Jesus tells them how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus apparently does not feel that they grasped his point, and so, like a good teacher, repeats it for emphasis, and adds a vivid illustration to drive the point home. The eye of the needle is the smallest opening imaginable, and the camel was the largest animal of which the people in Jesus’ time and place were aware. In other words, not hard, but impossible.


The disciples then ask: “Who can be saved?” Presbyterian pastor and author Meda Stamper says that the question reflects how deep an impression the man made on the disciples. “If a candidate as good as this man can’t get in, where’s the hope for the rest of us?”


It turns out that the man’s case is not hopeless after all. It turns out that ours is not a hopeless case after all. Salvation is not a human possibility. For man it is impossible. But for God all things are possible.


I wonder if we really grasp what Jesus is saying here. It is interesting to hear what ordinary people say about their spiritual lives. Many will say that they strive to be a basically good person. Even though they are not perfect, they try to be and do better. They want to become the best version of themselves.


I hope this is not your mindset. For it is not in keeping with what Jesus is teaching here. Indeed, it is not consistent with the gospel of God’s grace as you have learned it. The fact is that we don’t keep the commandments perfectly. We just don’t. Our hearts are not wholly attached to God. They just aren’t. We are not who we ought to be.


But this frank admission, this honesty, this openness, is liberating. It releases us from the false pretense, from the posturing, from the hypocrisy. When we come to the end of ourselves, we realize we can no longer look to ourselves. Then we can look to God. For God all things are possible. Often we can’t get out of our own way. But when we step aside and trust God to do in us and for us what only God can do, then we begin to undergo transformation. That is to say, we begin to be changed from the inside. Then we learn that it is not about us, but about God’s grace. And the more we learn about this grace, the more our hearts change. They begin to value this grace above all things, even money and material possessions. “How precious does this grace appear the hour we first believe,” as the hymnwriter wrote.  


Peter begins to be concerned about his own salvation. He reminds Jesus that he and his fellow disciples have left everything to follow him. And it is true: Peter left his fishing boat. James and John left their father. Levi left his tax booth. They demonstrated that total commitment that Jesus asks of those who follow him.


Jesus’ reply is that they will get it all back—a hundredfold in this life and in the age to come, eternal life. But you have to go all in.


Of course, the concern of the rich man about following Jesus is the retirement plan. He accumulated wealth to secure his life in this world. He wanted to be sure that his material safety net was big enough to ensure that he had no cause for concern when he was no longer able to work and generate wealth for himself. Who wants to expose himself to the uncertainties and insecurities of the future, making oneself as vulnerable as a child? But to have the abundant life, the life to the full, for which the man sought out Jesus in the first place, one must trust God as a child does its father and give up the obsession to create one’s own security.


Make no mistake. What Jesus offers here a radically different kind of life. Note that on the list he gives there appear fewer commodities than relationships. We have already observed that money demands absolute allegiance. One has to sacrifice everything to serve it, including relationships. A friend, who died tragically last year, knew a few hedge fund managers and Wall Street investors. He told me that to a man they had miserable home lives. How could it be otherwise? Serving money leaves little time to spend with spouse and children and friends. Those guys could not imagine a life in which there would be other brothers and sisters in the faith who would watch over them and care for them.  


But that is life that is truly life that Jesus offers. If for various reasons we find in ourselves the same misgivings that the rich man had about this offer, or, if we say that it is a beautiful vision, but one that we cannot attain, or, if we even find in ourselves a strong pull to turn away and find someone other than Jesus, let us remember: If there is hope for the rich man, there is hope even for us. For if for man it is impossible, for God all things are possible. Amen.    

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