Monday, January 29, 2007

The Rich Young Man: What Good Thing Must I Do?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

March 12 Sunday Sermon Notes

The text is Matthew 19:16-30. I won't input the whole text. I will comment that it is a carefully crafted pericope (teaching segment) by Matthew. Each line, each phrase so revealing, so full of meaning. How in the world can I take all of this cool insight and only preach a twenty minute sermon? I'll get my initial thoughts down on paper, and then we'll go from there.

According to Matthew's version of the story (Mark and Luke record similar versions), a rich, young man asks Jesus "Rabbi, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"

What a question!

What does he mean by "what good thing"? What is he getting at? Later on in the story we find out that the man is very conscientious law abider, very intent on keeping the whole law, and keeping it with the right heart. So why ask this question? According to Jewish thought, there was one good deed, that if committed, would automatically get you into heaven. The deed was so good, that performance of it was enough to guarantee eternal life. What was that good deed? Well that is what the man is asking Jesus. What does this imply about the man's perception of Jesus? Apparently Jesus is known as an exceptional Rabbi (Jewish tradition always has one or two of these guys in a lifetime). The man must have thought that Jesus would have deep insight into this question.

It also worth pointing out that the man was inquiring about the one good deed for the sake of acquiring eternal life. What is eternal life? This man wants eternal life, and he is afraid that despite his efforts at keeping all the laws, and keeping them with a right heart, that he may still not get eternal life. Why did he want eternal life so much? What is so great about eternal life? Eternal life implies that my life continues beyond death, and not only do I have unlimited timespan of life, but I also have unlimited quality of life. The longer and longer I live, the better and better it gets. In Jewish custom, to be wealthy (as this man was), was a sign of God's blessing. Thus eternal life would also be a life of ever increasing wealth in the new world where God reigns supreme. The man wanted a guarantee that the good life he was living now would endure forever. If only he could unlock that one elusive good act, all would be secured.

Jesus' response is very insightful, as it should be - he is a brilliant teacher, a genius.

Essentially, the man was onto something: there is one good deed that can guarantee eternal life: Follow Jesus. Jesus both affirmed the man's request, but also pointed to a deeper truth. Jesus is more than a Rabbi, he is Eternal Life. If you want Eternal Life, you want Jesus. Thus to follow Jesus is to be led into Eternal Life. Jesus says to "abide in him", and he will "abide in us", and hence we will have a life that increases in both quantity and quality.

Jesus instructed the man: "if you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven and come follow me."

The man wanted to be perfect, he wanted to observe the whole law, as well as observe even more acts of goodness beyond the law, he was willing to go to extreme lenghts to guarantee that we would get eternal life. But the man had a tragic blindspot, he had a fatal flaw in his belief system: he assumed his wealth was a blessing from God as a result of how he lived; and it was this very wealth that kept him from being blessed by God-Incarnate, and thus receiving the very gift he had so diligently and persistently pursued.

Jesus understood that people want to do something to guarantee eternal life; so he gives us something to do - Follow Him. But to follow him is such a radical action that it can only be done as an act of trust. To Follow Jesus is to Trust Jesus. To Trust Jesus about what he says and does. Jesus says that he has come to rescue us from the evil one. So that means that if we are not following Jesus, we are following the evil one. We must be rescued from the Evil One, the Piped Piper who plays a tune which we CANNOT resist apart from the intervention of Jesus Christ. And so the Pied Piper plays a tune which keeps our eyes off Jesus and onto whatever our "tune" is: wealth, power, approval, sex, money, stuff, etc.

For this man, his stuff was both a sign that he was blessed by God, but it was also his stumbling block. And, apparently this man did not think that the accumulation of his stuff was sufficient sign that his being blessed by God guaranteed eternal life, YET he was not willing to depart with this stuff in order to be guaranteed eternal life. How ironic.

Jesus dispels the myth that the abundant accumulation of stuff (Mamon) is a sign that we are blessed by God. Mamon is the result of hard work, discipline, frugality, stewardship, and many, many, many other factors beyond our control (military factors, national and international economic factors, stable weather patterns, etc). Mamon is also in direct competition for our allegiance. And Jesus knows it. If we are going to follow Jesus, we must not let anything get in the way between him.

Here is another irony: The rich young man could have kept all his wealth and still followed Jesus! What was the condition for the man selling all his possessions and giving to the poor? "If you want to be perfect..." The rich young man could have given up his effort to be perfect in order to attain eternal life! He could have replaced perfection for trust! He could have kept all his wealth and followed Jesus, and instead of his wealth and desire for perfection (which seemed to be connected) as an obstacle to following Jesus (getting eternal life), his wealth could have been a resource for him and others to follow Jesus.

Plenty of rich people followed Jesus. Mary Magadelene, according to tradition, owned a olive field, and used her wealth to finance Jesus' ministry. As well as a woman connected to the royal family of Herod. Josepheus the of the Sanhedrin was a follower, as wel as Nicodemus. They used their wealth as a way for them and others to follow Jesus. They had no probelm spending their wealth on jesus and his work. They had placed their treasures, their heart, their life in Jesus' hands. They trusted Jesus with their life, and he in turn gave infinite value to their treasures.

What does that mean for us? Our wealth is not automatically a sign of God's blessing upon our life. Our wealth can be a powerful opponent to our trusting in Jesus Christ. Our wealth can be an obstacle to our following Him. OR, our wealth can be a resource for following Jesus Christ. All of our stuff can be placed in God's hands, given to him for both safekeeping and regulation, so that we don't worry about them, and we then spend our stuff, our wealth on Kingdom work.

What compels us to follow Jesus? What compels us to get eternal life? What compels us to trust God with our treasures?

Jesus said, "it is hard for a richman to enter the kingdom of heaven". The disciples were "greatly astonished", shocked, rattled, shook up...sputtering, "who then can be saved?" (they were rattled because they assumed that a rich man was blessed by God, and that the riches were a guarantee of God's favor, of eternal life. Thus, if even a rich man can't get into heaven, who can, if a man clearly blessed by God can't get in, who can?)

Jesus says, essentially, "To follow me, to give up your treasures upon the earth for treasures in heaven, to trust me for eternal life, this is impossible for man to do on his own. But with God, all things are possible."

Why follow Jesus? Because I sense his invitation. Why have treasure in heaven? Because Jesus invites me to it. Why trust Jesus for eternal life? Because Jesus invites me to it. It is not man's mere rational decision to follow Jesus, the obstacles are too high, the deception of the Devil to powerful...we can only follow and trust Jesus through his initial intervention and ongoing work (which is why he says that he must abide in us, and we must abide in him if we are going to bear any fruit).

Why is eternal life attractive to me? I am naturally opposed to death. I want to stay alive, as imperfect as this life is. Something in me yearns for eternal life. Ecclesiastes instructs us that God has set eternity in the hearts of man. The Devil seeks to cause despair or self-destruction concerning eternity. Only Jesus offers us eternity that fulfills all that is good about our current life. Jesus says in Matthew 19:28 " the renewal of all things...", all that is good about this life will be purified of all that is evil. What is eternal life? It is this life, but without the evil one at work. Why do we work to improve this world? Because it is a picture of what God will complete in the next life. What should I spend my life and wealth on? A life that will pass away? Or spend it on the One who will take my wealth and my life as a seedbed for "the renewal of all things"?

Hopefully the insights have been..well...insightful. Some of this is undedited rambling. Some. But it has been helpful for me to sort out what will be helpful for the sermon on Sunday. Let me know what you think about this insight and this text. And how it can be applied in life.


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