|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
|Daily Devotions||Pastor's Page||Ozarks Districts||UMW||United Methodist Church|
Browsing through the typical modern bookstore,
it doesn't take long to figure out that one of the biggest markets of
books is the "how-to," the "self-help" book.
If there is anything that you want to learn how to do, there is likely to be a book that will attempt to tell you how to do it. Indeed, for some subjects there are dozens and even hundreds of books to choose from.
We all seem to be looking for answers to something, and for those answers we look to those who we believe have the answers.
Jesus, as he preached, appeared to be one of those who had the answers, although he was often not all that direct about giving them. Or, when he gave direct answers, quite often those who asked the questions really didn't want to HEAR the answers given.
We know, from the seventeenth verse of the tenth chapter of Mark, that "As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Now, that's getting to the point in a big hurry. And the questioner is demonstrating the ultimate in politeness, kneeling before him and flattering him by calling him "Good Teacher."
But Jesus is not impressed. Indeed, I suspect that Jesus looks upon this questioner with suspicion: that this person wants an easy answer.
"Jesus said to him, "Why do you call ME good? No one is good but God alone."
And in that initial response, I can hear Jesus saying that he isn't going to provide any magic answer. Flattery will get you nowhere, and I won't be able to provide you with an easy answer. But he's also telling us that if we truly seek the answer to this question, we can only find it in God.
But Jesus begins to provide an answer. And he begins by citing the traditional understanding, the obedience to the law:
"You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother."
And we can hear Jesus saying, "You know as much about this as I do. You know the Jewish law handed down by Moses." And at this point the questioner is probably thinking, "Why DID I caLL HIM good teacher? What is he telling me that I didn't already know?"
But when I listen between the lines I can hear Jesus saying, "There is no secret formula." And he is also telling his listener, "I am a Jew, just like you, brought up on the Jewish law, just like you." But by this time the questioner is probably having mixed feelings.
"He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth."
Now on the one hand, the questioner is probably rather proud of the life that has been led, and thinking, "I've got it made!"
But on the other hand, there is probably the nagging question, "Is that all there is to it? Is there a catch in here somewhere? Have I missed the fine print?" And there really are two different kinds of persons here.
There is the person who believes that all that is necessary is to follow the rules and regulations and everything will come out OK. But there is also that person who thinks, "There has to be something MORE to this than just mechanically following the procedures." At this point, we really don't know which of those persons this questioner is, but Jesus forces the issue.
"Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
What a simple answer! But not an easy one. There WAS a catch. There WAS something more. And this is one of the most difficult of scriptural passages for Christians to interpret.
It's easier to ignore than confront; and even when we confront it, we are tempted to ask, "Did he really MEAN it?" And I have to believe that at that time and in that place he really did mean it. Because the gap between the filthy rich and the incredibly poor was obscenely wide. But does he really mean it now? To answer that, I suggest that we look beyond his instruction to "sell what you have"--because that's enough to send most of us into shock--and look at the rest of the passage. Do we give to the poor?
As United Methodists, we certainly do; and many of us probably give far more to charitable causes than we realize. But we also give to our families and our neighbors; and I think that Jesus had that in mind also.
A second question we need to ask is this: "Do we place more importance upon our treasure in heaven or our treasure on earth?" And I know that there are those whose very lives are governed by their financial statements.
God KNOWS we need treasure on earth to live; but does it so overwhelm our lives that we forget the treasures of heaven? And a third question: "Does the stewardship of our earthly and heavenly treasures prepare us to follow Jesus?"
Now, I don't pretend to have the answers to all of this. Like the questioner, I wish the answer were an easy one. Not only do pastors not have the answers, we're often not even very good models.
But at least we do keep trying, which is more than Jesus' questioner did.
"When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions."
In other words, he gave up. He didn't even engage Jesus in further questions. He didn't even try.
"Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"
Now there are two ways of looking at this. On the one hand, we might ask the question, "Does this mean that God keeps rich folk out?" But I don't think that's the case. Rather, on the other hand, I believe that rich folk keep themselves out.
Their earthly treasures blind them to treasures in heaven. For if we become obsessed with the possessions, the things, the stuff of this world, how can we possibly find value in heavenly treasure?
But the disciples, just like us, had some trouble with all this. They "were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Now, there are times in scripture when Jesus will say things once and then just let it go, leaving his disciples and other listeners to puzzle it out for themselves. And there are very few times when Jesus bothers to elaborate on what he means.
And yet, here, he did not let the situation speak for itself, as well it might have. The rich questioner simply walking off would seem to be lesson enough. But instead, Jesus looked to his disciples and proclaimed the meaning of the event.
And then, sensing that he had not made his point, he repeated himself! And finally, as if that weren't enough, he resorted to the proverb of the camel and the needle's eye to provide further impact. This is obviously not a minor issue for Jesus. But, nevertheless, I think it needs clarification. Because I don't think that Jesus is merely attacking riches; rather, I believe the attack is on the failure to SHARE riches.
Indeed, all of us have riches of some kind, talents of some kind, gifts of some kind. The significant question is whether and how we share those riches with others. And Jesus, I believe, is concerned with those who hoard, rather than share, their riches.
But the disciples are concerned in all this. "They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Because they're still hearing, and thinking about, those words, "How hard it will be to enter the kingdom of God!"
And with Jesus being so emphatic about the difficulty of salvation, the disciples want to know who's going to make it. Yet, I almost wonder if they've been paying attention. Or, are they like the rich questioner, wanting a simple answer?
Perhaps the fact that the rich questioner just walked away from Jesus, without engaging him in further questions, left the issue hanging. For here was someone who had apparently been fully obedient to all the Jewish laws; who, so far as we know, had nothing to PREVENT him from inheriting eternal life.
But Jesus has an answer for his disciples. "Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
And he is telling his disciples, and us, that we cannot save ourselves; that in spite of all the neat rules and regulations and laws that we set up to follow, it is not possible for us to create our own salvation. THAT lies with God, and only with God. And it is this truth that is the core of the message of Paul. We are not saved by all the stuff that we do; for our human acts can be measured only in human terms.
Rather, we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in God. And if we look closely at what he told the rich questioner, we find at the end of that passage the instruction, "come, follow me."
It is when we put our faith and trust in Christ that we are opening ourselves up to the grace of God. And that alone will save us.
But Peter needs assurance. "Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you."
And the statement is really a question. He is asking, "Have we done what we need to do?" Indeed, he is speaking for all the disciples, as I am sure that they all had similar concerns. But is he speaking for us, too? I believe that if we look closely into what he has said, he IS speaking for us. However, we need to redefine what he means by having "left everything."
We, obviously, have not left our homes and our families and our livelihoods; but if we are truly Christians, we are continually in the process of leaving behind a world in which material wealth matters far more than anything else, and leaving that for a world in which the love of humanity carries a far higher value. And THAT is what it means to follow Jesus.
And Jesus has an answer for Peter, and for the disciples, and for us: "Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
Jesus may have been saying this to reassure the disciples that they had made the right decisions; but in our time we need to look beyond the specifics of his promises to the spirit of that promise.
And that promise for me is that for all our sacrifices, for all that we feel we are giving up, we WILL REAP REWARDS. And although those sacrifices will not be without penalties, we will find what the rich questioner sought.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" It is my belief that we already have it--IF we want it--and IF we ask for it. But we need to know what it is we want and what it is we're asking for. It is not enough that we go through the motions of living a superficially righteous life if our treasures--our values--are measured on earthly scales. The only way we are going to find eternal life is if our treasures--our values--are measured on God's scales.
With human beings--and worldly values--salvation is impossible, but not for God; for all things--our salvation and the life of our eternal soul--are possible with God.
Return to Home Page