order Lyrica online usa The Sunday Sermon: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – June 26, 2016
blog What We Must Do
Listen to this … Read Matthew 19:16-22 … The Word of the Lord.
Here is one of the best known and, so I’ve read this past week, best-loved stories in the gospel history. (I’m not so certain about that last for reasons that will be clear in a few moments.) This story is found in three of the four gospels we have in our bible, and it is also found in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, one of the very early gospels that failed to be included in what became known as the Christian New Testament.
If you remember this story, chances are you unite different details of it from the different gospels in order to get a more complete picture. It is most often referred to as the story of the “Rich Young Ruler.” But that’s an “amalgamation” of the gospel accounts. All three tell us the man in the story was rich, therein lies the point of the tale. But only Luke says that he was a ruler and only Matthew says he was young.
Since Matthew’s is the Gospel account we examine this morning, let’s consider our protagonist’s youth. Matthew notes this characteristic twice, actually, in both verse twenty and twenty-two. He seems to what to say that this “person” is any number of wealthy, successful “young” people whom the church (in any age!) would like to attract and keep. (Sound appealing to any of you for our own congregation?) The Greek word used to describe the man designates him as somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-eight, I’m told. But for our examination this morning, I think we may expand that age to include almost any of us here who are … financially well-healed and who have enjoyed a … fair degree of success in our personal and professional lives, whatever age we may be at present. We’ll leave a discussion of our desire for the coveted “young professional” for a different Sunday morning and focus on all of us here, young and old.
All of us, because if you’re thinking the description of a “financially well healed, successful” individual doesn’t include all of us who have gathered together again this morning, you’re wrong. It does. We all are wealthy by the world’s standards, even by our own country’s standards, and we have all had success in life, measured not only by capital and credit. Now, in part because we are grateful for these blessings, we, like the rich young man in Matthew, are the type of people who are fond of the idea that there is a deeper reality at work in the world, one we most commonly call “God,” and we’re deeply committed to discovering this reality more fully through one Jesus of Nazareth.
We, too, seek answers to the “big questions” like “How must I do to have eternal life?” So we, too, “go to Jesus” to ask. Or at least we come to church on Sunday morning. I’m not all sure that coming here is the same thing as “going to Jesus, for you see, also like the young man in our story, we are often the kind of people who are not overly interested in the different value system into which Jesus calls the Christian community to live. We are the rich, young men and women in this tale: curious, even interested in the Way, but reticent, even suspicious of what it requires of us.
So, now that we’ve identified ourselves in our scripture lesson this morning … it’s a good time to pray. Pray with me …
This is the third Sunday since June 5th when we were “Summoned into the Summer,” into our extended period of “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, to discover more truly, more fully, and more deeply what it means to live a Christian life in the 21st century. We’ve been following a few of the “essentials” for such a life that Matthew, himself, sets out for us in his gospel.
Two weeks ago we learned that the foundational confession of God’s act in the person and ministry of Jesus is understood fully only when we realize that this is the same act that God is trying to provoke in our lives and in our ministry to the world today.
Last week we explored what it must mean to live towards God’s kingdom on earth: Namely, discovering that Kingdom already here and getting busy further realizing it. (Maybe another two millennia won’t pass before our prayer can change.)
This morning, we explore how our Christian life calls us to let go of both our material possessions and our fear of what others think about us.
This story of the “The Rich Young Man” in the gospel of Matthew is part of a larger section in Matthew that all Christians – and I mean all – have difficulty dealing with: marriage, divorce, children, money, success, and ambition. That’s why I said earlier that I question the idea that this passage is one of the “most loved.” Of all the things in the world we spend time avoiding talking about in church, marriage, divorce, money, success, and ambition are high on the list! (Children are safer because we think we can control that conversation. But if you want that assumption challenged, talk to Lynn Wilkinson and sign up to lead our time with Young Disciples …)
The reason that we have difficulty dealing with this story is that the “the value system by which the Christian community is called to live” is very different than the value system by which our wider world of consumerism and secularism tells us we are allowed, we even deserve, to live by. The story of the rich young man who makes “the great refusal” is a hard text for us today, but the Christian community has squirmed under its difficulty for centuries, and we’ve come up with some pretty ingenious ways of coming to terms with it that, unfortunately for us, are too easy to accept.
One of the more imaginative and effective interpretations has been to take Jesus words that begin verse twenty-one, “If you wish to be perfect ..” to suggest that this passage is talking about “two levels” of discipleship, one for “ordinary” Christians who kept their possessions and one for a select group of the “perfect” or the religious elite who belong to religious orders and took vows of poverty and chastity. (By the 16th century, the Protestant church had done away with the requirements of celibacy for their “religious elite,” their clergy. Still working on that vow of poverty, however … ) The point is, that Interpretation is too easy. The perfection to which the young man is summoned is that which is expected of all followers of Jesus – ordinary and elite. We all ask, “What must I do to have eternal life?” And we all must do as our Lord instructs us to do. What does he instruct us to do?
After a little exchange about who and what is “good,” Jesus begins his response in this way (and in these commandments, go beneath the surface). Here’s what you do, Jesus says: Don’t murder anyone. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. And love your neighbor as yourself. The last is Jesus’ addition to the “greatest commandment” of loving the Lord God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, so his first response is essentially, “Keep the commandments and then some, and you will have eternal life.
But do you recognize the other five things he says to do, the first five in Jesus response? They are all from the “Decalogue,” of course, the Ten Commandments from Exodus and Deuteronomy, but does anyone notice what’s peculiar? They are all the commandments from the second half of the list, the half which deals, not with our responsibility to God, but with our obligation to humanity. (Look that up later: Exodus 20.) Jesus is telling the young rich man, and in the gospel of Matthew telling all of us today, that the way to eternal life has everything to do with our personal relationships with each other. In the way we live, and regard, and care for one another.
The young man says, rather flippantly as I read it, “I’ve done all that …” (hmm? I wonder … but let’s go with it) “… I’ve done all that, but I’m still feeling like something is missing. What’s missing?!” Now, do you hear yourself in this? I go to church. I tithe, I pray, I volunteer and give to charity. I keep the commandments, mostly, and love my neighbor as close to myself as I can. So why do I still feel like something’s missing? Why do I still come here? What else do I need to do?
To that Jesus responds, “Oh, well … if you wish to be perfect …” And we begin to squirm, as the rich young man will, we begin to shut down. Now we’ve pushed this past our comfort zone. Perfection? Really? Isn’t only God perfect? Maybe we can just be “better than we are now?” No … perfection is the goal. This is not the only place in the Gospel where we are told to be perfect (check out Matthew 5:48 later, too: Be perfect at your heavenly Father is perfect.”) No, it’s too late to turn back now. But here’s some hope …
What is meant in the Greek work translated here as “perfect” is not sinlessness before God. We’re so “goal-oriented” in our faith that we always, almost automatically think of “perfection” as sinless, and then quickly write it off as impossible. But what is being called for here, and elsewhere in our scripture when we are asked to be “perfect,” is and undivided – perfect – devotion to God. If you want to have an undivided devotion to God, go … sell … give. Jesus begins with our orientation to our fellows human beings – don’t treat one another in any way you wouldn’t’ treat yourselves – and he ends requiring our undivided, our perfect, devotion to God, letting go of material possessions and our fear of what others think about us.
If the young man in our story is to be “perfect, then, he must rid himself of the impediments of riches. Now, here’s where it gets tricky, because we’re going to “hem and haw” and make this passage “work for us” if we’re not careful. Bu the fact is, Matthew does not regard the “abandonment” of wealth as necessary for all who have it. The point Matthew is trying to make here is that the emphasis, the focus, the heart of a life that leads to eternal life lies squarely on discipleship. This is what you must do to obtain eternal life: Love all of humanity first, not self; and devote yourself to God and God’s Kingdom on earth – to justice and Love, not the kingdom’s of this world – built on “capital” and maintained by fear.
Let me end our examination of the Rich Young Man story, a story that is our own, with what, I think, is the greatest teaching in it: It illumines the meaning of eternal life. Again, to the Greek (and I confess, I’m no Greek scholar, but this comes up over and over again in commentaries and examinations of this text, most often as a “side note.” I find it central). The word for “eternal” in this passages is “aionios,” which does not mean “lasting forever.” It is used in the biblical Koine Greek to mean “such as befits God,” or “such as belongs to God,” or “such as is characteristic of God.” What must I do to have “a life that befits God?”
The rich young man goes to Jesus not asking “what must I do to have life after this life.” He’s asking him what he must do to belong, to “have life” with God in this life. And Jesus answers him, answers us: “If you would find eternal life (life such as belongs to God), if you would find happiness, joy, satisfaction, peace of mind and serenity of heart, it won’t be by piling up a credit balance with God by simply keeping commandments and observing rules. It will be through reproducing God’s attitude of love and care to all.” The “great characteristic” of God for us as Christians is, of course, that God so loved and God so gave … everything. Jesus himself, of course, did just that. So much so that we call him Christ and Lord even two thousand years later. And here again, he calls us all to do the same.
Friends, I’m not sure if you’re noticing the trend in and for the truer, deeper, fuller Christian life we are called to this summer. We didn’t set out knowing where we were headed. I didn’t write these messages or prepare these sermons ahead of time to reach a pre-meditated conclusion. But in every examination so far – the life and ministry of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, and this morning our “letting go of possessions and fears,” we have wound up in the same place. Not far beyond in a life everlasting, but smack down, right here, in life eternal – life as befits our God, life as is characteristic of our God, life as belongs to our God on earth. Right here. Can we handle it? Can we do it? Can we live such a life? We know of at least one who couldn’t.
In the end, the rich young man in our story turned away … in great distress, we’re told, but he turned away. In the end he loved himself more than he loved others and he loved things more than he loved God. In the end he was unable to give up all his possessions and his concern over how others saw him.
In this brief encounter two worlds collide. What must we do to have a life as befits God? Move from the old world into the new. We come here each week to do just that. How do we leave – grieving or rejoicing? Living day-to-day until next Sunday? Or living eternally, living truer, deeper, fuller lives as befits God? As our journey continues, we, too, ask for eternal life, for the wisdom to know and the courage to live a life befitting our God – here … and now.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 26, 2016