Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Our readings this morning are all about judgment and redemption—or, more specifically, our wrongful doings and God’s judgment of our actions and forgiveness of our wrongful doings. In a slight twist on this theme, our Gospel readings are about a young man who comes to Jesus with what he thinks is a deep and challenging question about forgiveness: “Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to get into heaven?” In other words, what must I do to get God to forgive me so that I can get into heaven.
It’s really a wonderful question to ask in church because isn’t that really what we all want to know? I mean, on some level, aren’t we all here because we have, at some time, asked ourselves “What must I do to get into heaven—whatever you perceive heaven to be?”. We think about that question, we lose sleep over it, we talk about it with people who we consider to be learned about such things and who we hope will give us an answer that we can live with. It’s one of the most basic of yearnings for humankind that draws us to religion. What must I do to get into heaven? And it is certainly a valid question. There is just one problem. The problem is, we are never really going to get an answer because the question itself is flawed. The questions “what must I do to get into heaven” is flawed because the truth is: THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO GET INTO HEAVEN. Being granted life in heaven is NOT determined by what YOU DO. Being granted life in heaven is determined by what has already been done for you.
If you think you earned points for getting into heaven by being in church today, you are mistaken. If you think that volunteering at the local soup kitchen will put you on God’s “favored” list, you are wrong. If you think that putting a great, big check in the offering plate today will get you through the pearly gates, you are in for a big surprise. Although, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to give that one a try.
You see, I believe that if we read the scriptures accurately, we come to understand that heaven is not a matter of doing, heaven is a state of being. If God has come into your life and is renewing and transforming your life, you are already living in the kingdom of God. Jesus was very clear about that. Jesus said you are already “doing” what God hopes and dreams for you.
Looking again at our gospel story, notice the focus of the young man’s question. He’s not interested in pleasing God, or growing in spirituality, or pursuing truth. He figures he’s already got everything this world has to offer. Now he wants to ensure that he has a firm hold on the next life. And what is Jesus’ response?
“You know the commandments,” he says. So, live by them. ”But Teacher,” the man replies, “I’ve never once broken a single one of those laws.”
You see, like this man, we all too often get stuck on what it is we have or have not done. We project our experience in this life into what we think life with God will be like. The problem for us, as with this man, is that frankly, we have had too much success in this life. If we really admit it, compared to many parts of the world where simply staying alive is a daily struggle, life has come pretty easily to a lot of us. We’re relatively financially comfortable. We’re relatively well educated. We’re relatively successful in our professions. And that success in this life has made it all too easy for many of us to avoid asking really difficult questions. Never having to honestly question life’s many injustices (like Job had to do). Never honestly asking if we are living into the promise that God has for us (like the author of the letter to the Hebrews did). You see, the problem is that for many people, the world they live in is too much like the world that wealthy man lived in. It’s a world of simple answers and over-simplified theology. It’s the kind of world that assumes that all you need to get into heaven is just “do the right thing.” You know? We talk a lot about that in our country. If you work hard and you do the right thing, you can get ahead, right? That’s all well and good for THIS world. But remember, as Jesus tried to remind us time and time again, in the kingdom of God, things are turned upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. The kingdom of God doesn’t play by the same rules of “pay the price and get the prize.” Why? Because what we always fail to remember is that in the kingdom of God, the prices has already been paid!
So, the young man asks Jesus, “What do I have to do?” And, how does Jesus answer him? How does Jesus answer someone who seems to have everything, seems to get everything right? He says, “You lack only one thing, go and sell all that you have and give the money to the poor—then come, and follow me.” And like someone who has figuratively just had the rug ripped out from under him, the gospel writer says, “the man’s face fell and he went sadly away.”
Now, it’s easy to turn this story into another legalistic burden. “Okay, if you really want to be a Christian, begin by getting rid of your money.” It’s true, money can be a big impediment for some people in their call to follow Christ. But it’s hardly the only one. For many people, it’s not even close to being the chief impediment. We’re not even sure that money was the chief impediment for this man. And that’s my point. Maybe this man’s attachment to his wealth was only symptomatic of a much deeper need. You see, that’s what Jesus is really getting at here. Jesus challenged that man, and He challenges us to ask, what are you so attached to? What is so important to you? What do you think there is no way you could possibly do without? Ask yourself that question. Because once you discover what that thing is, you will discover the one thing that will keep you from God’s kingdom.
And it need not be a “thing” either. It could be Control? It could be Authority? It could be Certainty? It could be Respect? There are any of a number of things that people set up as idols before God. Things we THINK we cannot live without. Problem is, the truth is those are the things we cannot truly LIVE WITH because of how easily they can take the place in our lives where God rightly should be. That is why Jesus says to the man, “go and sell all that you have and THEN come and follow me.” Put aside those things that you think you cannot live without . . . and then, put God in their place. That is what Jesus is saying.
There is a never-ending list of things (both material and existential) that we can say we lack. But if the one thing we lack is love, if the one thing we lack is trust—especially trust in God, if the one thing we lack is an openness to the love of God in other people, then no amount of power or certainty or things will fill the empty spot in our heart. If the one thing we lack is joy? Joy in knowing that God loves us more than we can ever imagine. If we lack that, then all our achievements in this life will not satisfy us.
If this doesn’t do it for you, maybe look at it this way. Many times we miss the power of this Gospel story because we focus on the young man’s need to give up what he had. Truth is, what we actually need to focus on is what was the one thing he lacked? THAT ONE THING WAS THE ASSURANCE OF GOD’S FORGIVING, ALL-EMBRACING, RECONCILING LOVE IN HIS LIFE. This man lacked the ability to trust in God rather than trusting in his own ability to please God.
Just a few verses before today’s passage, Jesus blesses some little children. Children are important to this story too because children know that they are dependent. There are any number of things that children cannot do for themselves. So children are forced to learn how to receive gracefully. And somewhere along the line, as adults, we forget that and we start having trouble receiving help, or gifts, or blessings. Even from God. We’re much more comfortable with a relationship where “You do something for me and I’ll do something for you.”
But, you see, it’s impossible to DO anything for God. God’s gift of forgiveness is far too big for us to ever earn.
Jesus gave this man an impossible task to accomplish not because he wanted him to be discouraged, but because he wanted to show him the inadequacy of his question. That young man needed to see that his good works could not earn him a place in God’s Kingdom. What he needed was simply to receive the forgiveness that God was already prepared to pour out upon him.
When the rich man had gone, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Dear children, how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples were incredulous! “Then who in the world can be saved, if not a rich man?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently, and said, “Without God, it is utterly impossible. But with God everything is possible.”
And that is the point. With God everything is possible. The rich man kept all the commandments from his youth on up to the present day, and yet he still lacked one thing. That one thing was God.