Sermon for Sunday, January 18/31
A Jewish leader asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; honor your father and your mother.’” The man replied, “Ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commands.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me.” But when the man heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. Jesus saw that he was sorrowful and said, “How hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The people who heard him asked, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus answered, “Things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:18-27).
The leader in today’s Gospel has kept the great commandments of God. In the eyes of the world, this is a good, upstanding man. He’s got all these things checked off his list; he’s not outwardly committed any of the “big sins.” He comes to Jesus to be reaffirmed in his own thinking, his self-reliance, his thinking that he’s already “arrived,” and to be reassured that having done his duty and kept himself from these “big sins” is all that’s expected of him.
Now before we look into Christ’s answer to the leader’s question, “what do I still lack?” we can acknowledge his outward keeping of the commandments: He’s not stolen, he’s not committed adultery, he’s not defrauded his neighbor. Good job: We’d all like to be known as moral, godly people, right? We’d like folks like that for neighbors and fellow parishioners.
But that’s a small vision; it’s not at all like the fullness of what God plans for us. Keeping a list of commandments, doing our duty, is only the start, and not the finish line of our race of faith. Christ commands, “Be ye perfect,” and throughout the Bible we read his words, “Be holy, for I am holy.” God calls us to purification, illumination, and union with himself; not just to present a checklist and get an A and a gold star. Every discipline we practice, every temptation we pass by, every trial and suffering in which we practice patience and thanksgiving – these aren’t goals in themselves: They’re tools and steps toward the goal. Imagine it’s Christmas and you’ve driven all day to your parents’ house: Do you care that you successfully followed all the directions on the map? Was that navigation exercise the point of the trip? Or was it all done to get you home?
So our “rich young ruler” is in for a surprise when he meets this traveling Rabbi Jesus and expects to be told, “Attaboy! Good job!”
Now we have to take a step back and look at elementary rules of Bible study. Some of the first questions we must always ask are:
- Who is talking?
- Who is being addressed?
- (And, when it’s Christ being addressed, then we have to ask the Lord’s own question: Who do you say that I am?)
- And finally: Does it apply to me here and now?
In my former tradition, we looked for promises and commands in scripture – always a good idea – but we were not always very observant about who was speaking to whom. God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart, and appointed you as a prophet to the nations,” (Jeremiah 1:5), and I’ve seen people read this and say, “This is God’s word to you all tonight! Right here in the infallible scriptures, you are all appointed as prophets!” Yet, a moment’s reading of the passage in context would tell you that God said these words to one particular man in unique circumstances.
Again: Christ said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?” (Matthew 5:44).
Saint Matthew begins this passage by saying that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them” (v.1). The whole Sermon on the Mount is addressed to disciples of Christ. Two thousand years later, is this sermon relevant to us? Does it describe the normal Christian life (the life that ought to be normal!) for us gentile foreigners, centuries removed? Over 2000 years, the Church has said unanimously: Yes. In fact ten minutes ago we just sang the Beatitudes that begin this chapter.
Here’s another example – Christ said:
“As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, The Master asks: ‘where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (Luke 22:10-11). Saint Luke tells us that Christ said this to Peter and John, and not to a group; it’s never repeated, it’s never mentioned as a moral principle by any of the Bible writers or Church Fathers; and in any case common sense says we as a Church can’t obey this command. (Well, you could. First, fly to Jerusalem and look for a man with a jar of water…)
In today’s passage: Who is speaking? A well-to-do leader of the local Jewish community is addressing the Lord. We’re in Luke’s Gospel today, but Matthew adds that the rich leader was a young man. And who did he think he was speaking to? Evidently, to a traveling rabbi, a man much like himself. He’s pretty sure this Rabbi Jesus will agree he’s got his act together: Well done, you law-abiding, conservative tradition-keeping, pillar of the Church!
Instead, Christ stops him and questions his very first words. “Good teacher!?”
If Christ is just a teacher, then he’s not “good.” In fact, Christ explicitly commands: Call no man father, teacher, or master! (Matthew 23:1-12). We may use these terms within relationships (with our actual physical and spiritual fathers, and with people we have chosen to trust as teachers and mentors) but as social titles they amount to flattery. Case in point, this fellow has just walked up to the Holy One of Israel, the Judge of the Universe, and said, “Hi, fellow human! I judge that, as teachers go, you’re a good one! Now let’s talk about how I too am a pretty good person!”
And the One who sees the heart knows the command that will shatter this rich young man’s delusion of self-sufficiency and performance-based righteousness: Sell everything and become poor.
Wrapped up in Christ’s challenge to this man is the truth of our life in Christ: that salvation isn’t a duty, but a gift, the action of grace, God’s mercy toward us and our cooperation with that grace. This is why the correct response and attitude toward God is one of thanksgiving, of gratitude, coupled with repentance, We cannot save ourselves; we aren’t saved by our performance.
The problem of the ruler, then, is not what he’s done or not done, but what he neglects: the conversion of his soul, a change of heart.
I read a sociology paper recently called “The Origins of Religious Disbelief.” https://psyarxiv.com/e29rt/ The researchers wanted to see why believers in a religion have children who grow up not to practice that religion. Why do church folks’ kids grow up to be atheists? They found that the likelihood of becoming an atheist was largely driven by witnessing fewer credible cultural cues of religious commitment.
That is, it wasn’t really a matter of personalities or reasoning capacity; it was growing up in a family or church that did not have a costly faith. A religion of dogma and liturgy, even right dogma and worship (which is the very meaning of the word Orthodoxy!) will not convince your sons and daughters that God is worth their time.
I have spoken to some people who grew up Christian and as adults continue to be intentional disciples of Christ. In many cases, what I hear is that their parents did not leave religion at church on Sundays. There were often strangers at their table, or house guests staying in the spare room; transients or refugees or newly-released convicts or women escaping harmful situations. They might have observed Christmas by taking their best toys to kids at the Gospel Mission, or their family may have gone without some desired thing in order to give alms or support some worthy project. Their family practiced a costly faith.
But I digress.
So here is Christ, commanding: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Again we need to ask: Who is he talking to? To one specific rich young leader in first-century Palestine. Do we see the majority of Christians in he first century selling everything they own? (Well, some certainly did: See Acts 2:42-47. And many did not: Priscilla and Aquila owned a home large enough to serve the Liturgy in [Acts 18:18ff; 1 Cor 16:19]; a brother named Judas and his family lived in a house on Straight St. in Antioch [Ac 9:11ff]; In 2 Cor 9:7, Paul expects believers to have enough money to be able to “give as he has decided in his heart.” The communal life, without possessions, was lived in certain cases, just as it is today in monasteries, but not in most cases among Christians in the world.)
It is tempting to end the sermon here and say: Don’t be like the rich young leader, deluded in your self-reliance, but trust in God, the only Good and Holy One. He is not grading your performance on a checklist of duties and prohibitions; he is calling you to lay down whatever you love more than you love him.
…And in this way, to leave Christ’s command as something only one man ever needed to hear.
But a parallel comes to mind: Christ said that “there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).
Most of us will not take up the monastic life, in which both absolute chastity and poverty are still very relevant, and are lived out in our day and age. Yet chastity is a reality in our lives, even though we marry, live in the world, and have families.
How? We don’t have romantic attachments to anyone except our spouse. Outside that one sacred covenant of marriage, just like the monks, we school our eyes and take care what we hear, in order to guard the purity and pre-eminence of marriage and the family — which St Paul tells us in a Mystery is an icon of the Church (Eph 5:32).
And in the same way that we practice chastity within marriage, even so, as people with jobs, homes, and bank accounts, Christ’s command to sell all and become poor is part of our life in the world.
For our salvation it is vital to be always giving, to let goods and money and time flow easily from our hands, even if we haven’t got a lot of wiggle room in the budget. Christ praised the widow, not because her 2 cents was a lot but because it was a lot to her (Luke 21:1-4).
Saint Basil the Great never worried about offending his congregation. He preached to the wealthy in his diocese: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? …the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”
But you have a mortgage, a tax bill – and, more importantly, a spouse and children. If selling everything and becoming a nun is not possible for you (“He that is able to receive it, let him receive it”) then how do you judge what you may call your own and what amounts to greed?
Ultimately you are responsible for your answer to that question. Anybody who dictates your budget in the guise of religion is a wannabee guru and you should walk away fast. But I will tell you what in my opinion is a wise rule of thumb. Do with it what you will.
First: Do your budget, paying your Must-Pay bills and honoring your debts as best you can. And with what’s left over give yourself an allowance that you can be at peace with. In that allowance is: fun, foofoo coffee, family movies… whatever you know you need in order to stay sane – but in a sober proportion. You may remember that ten or twenty years ago eating out was a special occasion; I easily forget that and could buy lunch for $7.50 at the drive-through every single day if I’m not watchful. Soberness means that you do get to enjoy but you don’t have to treat yourself all the time.
Also in your allowance are almsgiving and support for the parish. If the lights are on this morning, it’s because someone put a few dollars in the offering box. Separately from offerings for the life of the parish, giving to the poor and those in need is non-negotiable in the life of a disciple of Christ.
“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:42); “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his good deed” (Prov 19:17).
So that was your allowance: You decided how much to pay yourself and how much to give.
At the end of your budget, if you end up with more than you need for obligations and your allowance, then that goes in the offering box or to someone in need. And if that’s only two cents, then there you go. And if there’s nothing left: Then (without comparing yourself to anyone else) ask the Lord where you can find two mites — and ask the Lord to bless and prosper it as you give it. An offering of five loaves fed five thousand people when the Lord blessed it.
(Aside: The Old Testament 10% tithe isn’t a command for us Christians, but when I receive an unexpected windfall above and beyond, then for me it seems appropriate to give a tithe of it to the parish, or to the next person who has a need. Anonymously if possible. That’s my rule of thumb for me, anyway.)
I’ll close with some wise advice from Saint John Chrysostom:
The only safe investment for wealth is the poor. “In fact, we are owners of other men’s possessions. The only things we own are those that we have sent before us to the other world” (Homily XI on 1 Timothy 3:8-10).