Saturday, March 10, 2012

March 11, 2012 Rich Young Man

“Just Lookin’” in the Shop called Heaven
Matt 19.16-24 - The Rich Young Man comes to Jesus

            The tension in the story of the Rich Young Man who came to Jesus is never resolved.
1.      The rich young man might have had a change of heart, sold everything as Jesus instructed, and then followed him as a disciple.
2.      He might have negotiated a different settlement with Jesus.
Either of these solutions would have left us with a happier end to the story. But, it does not end with a happy resolution. The rich young man walks away sorrowful – seemingly, he put his commitment to his wealth above any commitment to Christ. Though scripture does not tell us this, I believe that Jesus also went away sorrowful that this earnest young man refused the invitation to follow him. The Bible story leaves us with all this unresolved tension; the story ends with us not knowing.

            A. In verses leading up to this passage, Jesus has just encountered parents bringing their little children to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples try to shoo them away; the children must not waste the Great Teacher’s time. But, it was Jesus who shooed the disciples away, saying: “Let the little children come unto me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs” (Matt 19.13-15).
            Well, as soon as that moment of Jesus and the children ends, a young man hurries up to Jesus with almost the same question:, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (v. 16). Whatever Jesus has just said to his disciples about receiving the Kingdom as a child has been forgotten. The young man wants to know if there is some deed, which completed, can assure him eternal life.
            It’s a bit odd that the young man KNELT before Jesus. Ordinarily, followers of a rabbi like Jesus would not kneel on greeting him. And yet, we immediately appreciate the earnest impulse that brought him to Jesus. He is respectful and perhaps even worshipful. The rich young man arrives, and we lean close to hear their exchange.

            B. “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question, while earnest, immediately puts us on guard. Jesus has just told the disciples that the kingdom belongs to those who come as children; later he will tell the rich young man that to attain life he must keep the commandments. But, here is this young man asking Jesus for one deed that he can do to inherit the Kingdom. Is he looking for the hero’s challenge? Or is he offering: Let’s cut a deal. What price will get me what I want? This is the first tension.     
[FUNERAL FOR A DOG] Do you remember the story about the woman who called the preacher and began by saying that her beloved poodle Fifi had died? The preacher actually didn’t like Fifi very much, but went ahead to tell the woman that he was sorry that she had lost her well-loved companion.
            The woman asked, “I was wondering if you would do a funeral service for Fifi? She was such a good dog.”
            The preacher was alarmed now: “Oh, no. We can’t do funerals for dogs. Maybe you can go to the Baptist Church. They might do a funeral for your dog.”
            The woman was disappointed but understanding: “Oh, OK. I’ll call the Baptist Church. I was going to make a $50,000 donation to the church in memory of my Fifi,  but I’ll make it over there since they can do a funeral for her.”
            And the preacher caught his breath: “You know, I always did love your Fifi. We can do that funeral after all.”

The rich young man comes to Jesus with an offer that is designed to flatter. Does Jesus have a price? “What good deed can I do that I can have eternal life?”
            [APPLIC:] Haven’t we done the same? Asked the price to see if we are willing to pay it? Or asked the price so that we can haggle it?
  • What do I have to do to get the grade?
  • Who do I have to know to get that job?
  • What do you want in exchange for your vote?
We can haggle with the best; of course, we can haggle with the Master of the Universe on the same terms.

C. But, Jesus sees the flaw in this thinking immediately:
            17 And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good?
            There is only one who is good.

And of course, that only one is God. // Jesus uses this exchange to turn the young man’s attention from himself and his accomplishments TO God and God’s goodness. So, the tension remains.

II. The exchange continues:
            Jesus tells him: If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments."
            18 The young man said to him, "Which ones?"
            And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
            20 The young man said to him, "I have kept all these; what do I still lack?"

Jesus pointed the young man to the scriptures: “God has given the commandments; keep them. That is the way to life.”
            Now, the young man presses Jesus, “Which commandments?”
            So, Jesus answers with a selection from the Ten Commandments. The commandments he chooses are those that have to do with maintaining the fabric of community: murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, honoring father and mother. Then, Jesus adds the Golden Rule: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All of these guide us to keep strong the fabric of the community and family. You might say that Jesus was the first to hold up “family values.”
            Oddly, what Jesus left out of this list are the commandments that speak of honoring God.
But the young man is still not satisfied: “I have kept all of these. What more do I lack?”
            Jesus does not challenge his honesty or his sincerity. He takes him at his word. The young man has asked serious questions; Jesus is giving him serious answers. The tension and the dissonance remain; something is missing. The young man deeply wants to identify it. “What more do I lack?”

III. So, now Jesus replies one more time:
21 "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

He asked for a price, and Jesus has given it to him. But, this tension remains unresolved. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
            Immediately, we are running over with questions:
·         Why does this young man have to give up his possession to gain eternal life?
·         And is Jesus telling all the rest of us, who want to know the answer to that question, that this is our answer, too?
·         Is *selling his possessions and giving the money to the poor* the price Jesus is setting on eternal life?
·         Is that what Jesus meant by treasure in heaven?
            A. The problem is not our treasure; it is our attitude about our treasure that is the problem. // As we accumulate wealth, we are tempted to trust in our possessions and our power to acquire them, rather than in God, for our ultimate security and comforts. This is the subtle sin of PRIDE. Even honestly earned and generously shared wealth can lead to such pride – it happens when we begin to trust in our own ability to earn it and share it by our own skill and hard work. This is the danger of rugged independence. It was never the intention that we be ruggedly independent of God.

            [THE PRAYER]
            I watched a western when I was young. In the course of the movie, the family sat down at the dinner table for a meal. As they began, the father of the house offered the blessing. I can only reconstruct it after all these years, but it went something like this:

            Almighty God, we are here to share this bread,
            We worked the land,
            We harvested the crops when they were ready.
            We protected them from those that wanted to take them from us.
            We built this house and even this table, with our own hands,
            For everything else, we thank you. Amen.

So that was his prayer. “For everything that we could not do for ourselves, we are grateful to you, O Lord.”

Some prayer. Some pride. This is the reason it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The better we are at making a living, the harder it is to affirm that it was God who made our living possible.
            And this is the tension that remains. We have spent our lives working at working, learning our craft, and being responsible. Jesus looks down into the depth of our souls to ask, “Well done, faithful servant. But now, where is your trust?”
+You trusted God that hard work would pay off;
+You trusted God that faithfulness to those faithful to you would build strong community;
+You trusted God that virtue is its own reward;
+You trusted God in your poverty and insecurity;
So, why is it so hard to trust God when wealth and security come?
            C. Faith is not simply an expedient route to fame and fortune. The vision of the Kingdom when we are powerless is still the same when we become powerful. The vision of generosity and community when we are needy is still the same when we are strong enough to stand on our own.
            D. Faith is not simply the price we pay for the good things God can provide. Faith is not merely the crutch of those who have no other options. Faith is the courage to look Jesus in the eye when he talks about our lives and our ways.
            [POINT: KEILOR - Chardonnay Christians]
            Garrison Keilor spoke of this tension one evening in the News from Lake Woebegone. He said: Most of us get religion just to get something:
+peace of mind,
+the promise of heaven when we die,
+or perhaps the right kind of upbringing for the children.
We don’t expect the Christian faith to challenge our pet peeves or to insist that we take *turn the other cheek* stuff seriously.

            In the story that evening, he told the story of the people who had left the local Lutheran Church to start another congregation. In his words, they had moved to the *Chardonnay Diocese.* In this new church, regardless how passionate the sermon might be about the hungry or peace or justice, it is understood that as soon as this is over, we’ll go to the local restaurant where we will order a nice glass of Chardonnay and forget all about that stuff.
            In the Chardonnay Diocese, the faith that *God is within us*, has been reinterpreted to mean that whenever we do something nice for ourselves it is a religious act. When we have a nice meal and we feel good, and we sit down and we have our Eggs Benedict and our sourdough and we have a wonderful wine with a lovely bouquet, . . . we of the Chardonnay Diocese believe that it is a religious act (2). //
E. While back at the old church it’s Lent, and they keep singing hymns about taking up the cross and the Lord who died for our sins, and that the greatest is servant of all, and such.
            Jesus of Nazareth calls us
·         to take up the cross and follow him as learners,
·         to go the second mile,
·         to forgive a *no-account brother* 70 times 7 times,
·         to offer our lives as a living sacrifice to God.
Surely, God invites us to be happy, but not happy that we are fat and comfortable. Instead, let us be happy when God’s kingdom has been brought near. Let us be happy when the name and work of Christ is lifted up. God expects something of us when we become Christians. God expects us to live in imitation of Christ. Just that; all of that.

[CONCL:] So at the end of the encounter, the tension of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man remains. He walked away from Jesus; what a tragedy! Did he ever have a change of heart? Did he ask for a second chance at discipleship? We cannot know.
            The man has walked away, and the tension of this unanswered question now settles onto us. We can almost sense Jesus turning his gaze on us as the Young Man disappears from sight. It’s our turn. Go ahead and ask the Master: “What then must I do to attain eternal life?” Go ahead; the answer may be the same, or it might be different. You know, of course, that it will require just as much as Jesus required of that Young Man.
            You and I have read the stories of Jesus all our lives. We can almost guess the answer he will give. It will be about keeping faith with God by keeping faith with the people of our communities. It will require of us a breath-taking sacrifice. And it will end with the invitation to follow after Jesus as a disciple.
            So, this is the final tension of this story. Jesus turns this gaze now to us. The questions and the answers hang in the morning air. The final answer is the one we must give. Will we turn away from Jesus? Or will we risk whatever Jesus asks so that we can follow him into life? You and I are the only ones left to answer now. What will you say?

2. Garrison Keilor, A Prairie Home Companion, June 15, 2002