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rich young ruler

What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?

Sermon for Sunday, August 27, 2023 — Matthew 19:16-26

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For a few years in high school, I was an atheist. But I found that I couldn’t be an honest atheist, though, because atheism is itself a dogmatic belief about the existence of God. In the absence of data, it was dishonest to claim I was a believer in the nonexistence of God.

In my experience most atheists are not psychopaths; they have as much sense of right and wrong as anyone else. But, like a thermometer with no markings, the built-in human sense of right and wrong is not calibrated to any objective external standard. So it doesn’t reliably say anything.

The first few chapters of Romans tell us that everyone is intuitively aware that there’s a creator, and they ought to offer him glory – but St Paul notes that, instead, we honor visible, created things. Our sense of right and wrong tells us we are not right inside, just as Adam and Eve realize they are naked – that was never a problem before sin and death, but now they feel that they are bad – so they make clothes out of fig leaves to cover their newly-acquired shame. We intuitively know something is not right in us. One definition of humans is that humans are the one animal that says, “I am not what I ought to be,” and goes looking for wisdom and righteousness.

Philosophers are the people who ask the same question as the young man in today’s Gospel: How can I be good? What is Good? But in our alienation from the source of life and light, we measure good and evil by the only visible standard we can see: One another. I may be a mixed bag of help and harm, but at least I’m not as bad as that guy. St Paul says, “Measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, they are not wise” (2 Cor 10:12).

The young man in today’s Gospel has kept the great commandments of God. In the eyes of the world and of his religious peers, 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 “arrived,” and to be reassured that doing his duty and keeping himself from “major sins” is what God expects 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 hasn’t defrauded his neighbor. Good job: We’d all like to be known as moral, trustworthy people of integrity, right? We’d like folks like that for neighbors and fellow parishioners. 

But that is 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. Throughout the Bible we read the 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 man 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 announce “This 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 actual passage 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).

Who did Jesus say that to? “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” (Matthew 5:1). 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? For 2000 years, in every nation, 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).  The Lord 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 Gospel: Who is speaking? A well-to-do leader of the local Jewish community is addressing the Lord. And who did he think he was speaking to? Evidently, to a traveling rabbi, a teacher of morality, a good man. He’s pretty sure this Rabbi Jesus will agree he’s doing well: “Well done, fellow law-abiding, conservative tradition-keeping, pillar of the Church! We good people recognize one another.”

Instead, Christ stops him and questions his very first words. “Good teacher!?” 

If Christ is just another teacher, then he’s not “good.” In fact, Christ explicitly commands: Call no man your father, teacher, or master! (Matthew 23:1-12). We might 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 simple word that will expose 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 fulfilling the law of Christ is not a duty, but a gift to us, the action of grace, God’s mercy toward us and our cooperation with him. This is why our response and attitude toward God is one of thanksgiving, of gratitude, coupled with repentance. We can’t save ourselves; we are not saved by our performance. 

Let me double down on that. In modern English we have a kind of useless word: “perfect.” It’s a kind of imaginary absolute. As if there were a gauge that on one end says “evil” or “garbage,” and if it pegs all the way on the other end, it’s pointing to “perfect.” But when the scriptures use this word, they’re talking about fulfilling the purpose for which you were made and sent into the world.

For centuries before Christ, the Greeks used a word for an arrow that misses its target; by metaphor it became a word for our own failures and falling short of the glory of God; we translate it into English as sin. But when we think of sin as “missing the mark,” we’d better not define “the mark” as a standard of moral perfection. The mark we’re aiming for is the heart and character of God, who is love. The law of Christ is, “Love God and love your neighbor;” the rest is commentary. Do we fall short of that? Of course we do; forgiveness is a free-flowing stream of grace from the One who is love.

When you see “perfect” in scripture, understand it as meaning mature, complete, and fulfilling the vision of God who made you. St Paul has this in mind when he speaks of the goal of the Church:

[Christ] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the [edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man [i.e. to the fulfillment of our calling] – to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the trickery of men in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4;11-16)

The Lord tells this man, “If you want to be perfect” – if you want to fulfill the purpose you were made for, grow up into the likeness of God and achieve the goal God has in mind for you, personally – “then go sell everything, give to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.” That’s the word of the Lord to this specific man.

Jesus doesn’t engage with this man’s record of obedience to the commandments; he goes to the heart and addresses the love of wealth and comfort that is displacing love for God and others, and is keeping this man from fulfilling his destiny.

The Lord doesn’t want to make us good people. He wants to make us saints.

There is a difference between a good person – which means you follow an ethical system of certain morals –­ and being holy. Holiness is a participation in the life and love of God.

The problem of the ruler is not what he’s done or not done: It’s not his performance, but what he neglects – the conversion of his soul, a change of heart, and love for God and for others.

*        *.       *

I read a sociology paper called “The Origins of Religious Disbelief.” 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 in many cases driven by witnessing fewer credible cultural cues of religious commitment. 

That is, it wasn’t really a matter of personalities or intelligence or education; it was growing up in a family or church that did not have a costly faith.

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; there were 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. They taught their children, by their actions, how to do love.

We can teach the little ones to sing “Jesus loves me,” and show them how to make the sign of the cross and come to Communion. We can teach them the rules. But what we need to teach our kids and ourselves is to love the Lord with all our heart and to love our neighbor.

I’ve said this before, and I won’t stop now: All our disciplines and commandments, all our canons and fasts and traditions are not the measure of our genuineness as the people of God. On the Judgment Day, no one gets a gold star for perfect performance of Christian duties. Fasting and going to church and guarding our tongue are not ends or goals or virtues on which God will judge us. They are strategies and tools, methods that experience has given us to form the love of God in us. 

My concern is that — having fled from the kind of religion that invents and reinvents itself and imposes arbitrary rules, and having taken refuge int e Church, where are all the proven tools and exercises and the art and science of saving the soul — yet some of us tend to mistake the tools for the task; we mistake the road for the destination. If our practice is not kindling any mercy and love in us, in an image of the goodness and compassion of Christ toward us, then we are doing it wrong. Compliance with a system of morals won’t save your soul.

If you broke your ankle, and your physical therapist gave you a set of exercises to do daily, and you didn’t do them – you probably wouldn’t go to hell for it. But if you want to walk again, then with just a little diligence you do the prescribed therapy, and your body – which wants to be healed – grows strong and you can walk.

When the Church prescribes some therapies for you, to build in you the love of God, and then you bring just a very little courage and determination and do what little you’re able – then Grace meets you. You’ve probably experienced this: You committed to begin the day with just the least bit of prayer, or to fast in some small way, and you experienced some comfort from God.

Then you stumbled, condemned yourself for your poor performance, and felt like a failure. But the Lord was never grading your performance, and He’s ready whenever you are. Get your eyes off your performance and look to your Provider.

Last week I was reminded of the shortest Psalm in the Bible. In the Hebrew version, it says:

My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul. I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord from henceforth and for evermore. (Psalm 131mt)

“Like a weaned child.” A nursing child is hungry and comes to mama to be fed. But a weaned child isn’t hungry; she comes to be comforted and held; in her mother’s arms she can still and quiet her soul.

The young man came to ask, “As a keeper of the commandments, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

“Now this is eternal life: that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

To souls weighed down with a weight of duties and expectations, the Lord says, “I am the good shepherd. I know who is my own, and my own know me… For thus says He who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and with the one who is crushed and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to give life to the brokenhearted… Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (John 10:14; Isaiah 57:15; Matthew 11:28-29).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.