In the Sunday noon service the readings were Psalm 90:12-end, Hebrews 4:12-end, Mark 10: 17-31. The sermon I preached is reproduced below.
Jesus met many people in his earthly ministry, some of whom we learn quite a few details. A certain rich young man approached him hoping to find out how to gain eternal life. Unfortunately, he had not reckoned with the challenge that he would receive from Jesus, a challenge he simply could not meet. Jesus loved him too much to lower the standards he was asking, and instead allowed the young man to walk away. After this encounter Jesus pointed out to his disciples that it was very difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Before you breathe a sigh of relief because you aren’t rich, read on and see what I had to say in my sermon.
A very rich man knew that he would soon die and he became sad because all the money that he had worked so hard for in his life would have to be left behind. He really wanted to be able to take some of his wealth with him to heaven. He’d heard the saying that there are no pockets in shrouds but he wondered if earnest prayer would make a difference.
An angel heard the prayers of the rich man and appeared to him in a dream. The angel said, ‘No one is allowed to take their wealth with them when they die, so I’m afraid the answer is no.’
The man carried on praying more and more earnestly, adding a plea to the angel that he might go and see God and ask for the rules to be bent a little on this occasion. The angel returned another time in a dream and informed the man that God had allowed a slight change in the rules. The man was able to take a single suitcase with him. The man was full of joy and set about filling a suitcase with gold bars which he put beside his bed.
Not very long after this the rich man died and found himself at the gates of Heaven, facing St Peter. St Peter took one look at the suitcase and told the man that he was not allowed to take it through the gates. The man explained to St Peter that he had a special dispensation from God to bring this case in. Peter went off to check and came back. ‘As it turns out, you are right. God says that you have permission to bring in one bag but it has to be checked first. Please open the case so that I can see what’s inside of it.’
The man opened the case to show Peter what he had chosen to bring with him because it was too precious to leave on earth. Peter looked inside and exclaimed, ‘You’ve brought paving slabs?!’
The young man who came to Jesus was a great contrast to the children whom Jesus had been talking about just before this incident. He had pointed out that to enter the kingdom of God it was necessary to do so with a childlike trust. The rich young man came to find out what more he could do, what other effort of his own he could make, in order to inherit eternal life.
It’s a dangerous thing to talk to Jesus, who is the Word of God. As the passage in Hebrews tells us ‘it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’ Jesus could see right into this young man and read his motives and priorities clearly. In the first part of their conversation, Jesus commented on the young man’s use of the word ‘good’ when referring to Jesus. Whether he realised it or not, the young man was indicating that Jesus is God as only God is truly good. Right at the beginning, Jesus was pointing out that it was not right to address him as ‘good’ unless the young man was prepared to acknowledge and act upon who Jesus is. Knowing it or not, this young man was talking about the Law to God himself, the giver of the Law.
Jesus talked to the young man in terms that he could understand: keeping the Law, doing things. He listed the commandments, or at least some of them. The young man was able to affirm that he had kept all of these. That seems like a very tall order from our point of view, but St Paul made a similar claim. It’s likely that the form of the Law the young man had kept would be the one which the Pharisees advocated and which Jesus often criticised because it included loopholes and advantageous interpretations. It was possible to go through the motions of keeping the letter of the Law and totally miss the spirit of the Law in this way.
If you notice, Jesus only highlighted the laws which affect other people, not the first four which concern our response to God. The young man was no doubt proud of the fact that he was a good Jew, keeping all the laws by dint of his own effort. Suddenly his bubble of pride and self-satisfaction was burst by Jesus’ challenge: ‘Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor.’ The man’s money represented all that he had worked for, and also would have given him status in his society and would have indicated God’s favour. Jesus had found the one barrier that prevented the young man entering the kingdom, his love of and dependence on money. In his condition at that time, the young man was unable to keep the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’
Jesus had only this one requirement of the young man, to turn over his life and heart to God entirely, but he could not meet it. He was probably moral and genuinely seeking eternal life, eager to please God by what he did. The fact that Jesus loved him suggests that Jesus saw someone who really wanted the answer to his question. Unfortunately, he was like the monkey who could not escape a trap because he would not let go of what was in his paw in order to draw it back through the bars. In order to keep his many possessions, he had to go away ‘shocked and grieving’, trapped in the same state as when he approached Jesus and asked his question.
Jesus loved this young man but that didn’t mean that he was prepared to change the requirements to make it easier for him to enter the kingdom. Jesus loved enough to challenge and give advice that was difficult to listen to and act upon, but was in the young man’s best interests. He was prepared to allow the young man to walk away as there is only one standard by which to live.
Jesus said that it was well nigh impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, but with God all things are possible. You might be breathing a sigh of relief, knowing that you are not rich. However, I don’t think we can risk being too quick to think that this incident has no application in our lives.
Money prevented the young man trusting in Jesus completely. He needed to be sure that he had food, clothes, a place to live and so on. What about those people with great intellects? They think a lot about faith, they read, they ask questions, they debate, they try to reason their way to God or possibly reason with God. Our faith is not unreasonable, but there comes a point where a leap of faith has to be made. That very last gap between a person and God cannot be crossed by reason. In this case it’s as though Jesus is saying, ‘One thing you lack: stop reasoning and trust; come, follow me.’
There are others with a very strong work ethic. They work hard for the Church, they do jobs for others, they are always busy, always volunteering for extra tasks. They are working their way to Heaven. To them Jesus is saying, ‘One thing you lack: stop working, rest in me, and you will have eternal life.’
Then there are those who are of good character, kind, loving, friendly, honest. They look at others and see that they do not have the faults displayed there. They see themselves as good people, worthy of eternal life. Jesus says to them, ‘One thing you lack: humble yourself and accept my forgiveness for your sins, then come, follow me.’
All of us are at risk of putting a barrier between ourselves and fully trusting in God. That barrier is built by relying on our gifts rather than on the Giver, by worshipping the created world rather than the Creator.
What was true for the rich young man is true for us when we meet the loving and challenging Jesus. He ‘is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor