Matthew 19: 16-30
January 16, 2011: Stewardship Sunday
Once upon a time there was a man—young, rich, powerful. He was basically living the good life.
And he had good manners, followed all of the rules. He went to church almost every week probably even tithed ten percent of his income. All the people who knew this man thought that he had it all together. But he wasn’t quite sure. To him it felt like there was something missing.
One day he heard that the traveling preacher, Jesus, was going to be coming through town. He knew Jesus was someone who knew the scriptures well; someone who performed miracles and taught truth. Many people claimed that Jesus has a special relationship with God. So this man decided that he would try to talk with Jesus about his life. Ask Jesus what might be missing.
When Jesus arrived in town, the man went to the place where Jesus was teaching. He jostled his way into the crowd and stood on his tiptoes to look over the heads of all the people and see Jesus.
He was astonished. Jesus, this renowned religious teacher, was not proclaiming the scriptures or preaching a sermon. He was not laying hands on a blind man or healing a broken leg. This rabbi was sitting in the midst of a gaggle of kids–talking with them, blessing them.
The man began to have his doubts about Jesus. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. But he had come this far already, so the man pushed his way through the crowd. Finally at the front of the crowd, the man tapped his foot and looked at his Rolex, waiting for his chance to address the great teacher.
As soon as the children dispersed, the man walked right up to Jesus and asked his question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”
See, this young man thought of religious devotion as something he could do on the side to earn “spiritual points.” Eternal life was something he could earn–like he earned all of his money. “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
“Wrong question,” said Jesus. Well, O.K. That’s not exactly what Jesus said. He said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
The man thought he had this covered. He’s all about following the rules; but just to make sure he asked Jesus, “Which commandments, exactly.”
Jesus responded as one might expect, starting with commandments from the Big Ten: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.” And for good measure Jesus threw in: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Even now, two thousand years later, you can almost hear the man’s sigh of relief. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve got all of that covered.” And then watch the look of concern slowly settle on his face. He has done what Jesus said he needed to do to have eternal life. So why did he still feel so unfulfilled? Why did it still seem like something was missing? So he asked Jesus another question: “What do I still lack?”
I can imagine Jesus considering his response. What would it would take for this guy to get it? This guy whose life looks so good from the outside. This guy who views the commandments of God as a checklist rather than a lifestyle. This guy who thinks that salvation is something he can buy with a good deed and add to his portfolio.
Maybe this guy didn’t hear the final commandment that Jesus said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment that is at the core of our spiritual morality; this commandment that encompasses all other commandments; this commandment that ultimately demands a full commitment of our lives. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” said Jesus.
“Yeah, yeah,” said the man. “I’ve already done all of that stuff. . . . What do I still lack?”
He wanted a straightforward, concrete answer from Jesus. He wanted this famous rabbi to tell him the one thing he could do to acquire eternal life, to add “spiritual fulfillment” to his many possessions.
Jesus surely knew what the man was looking for. And so, Jesus gave him the kind of answer that he wanted. Something straightforward, something concrete, something the guy could go off and do right away to get eternal life for himself.
“Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor. Then come follow me.”
It was the kind of answer the man wanted. But it was not the answer the man wanted.
Because, while selling all of his possessions is a time-limited, concrete action, it is an action that will completely destroy the life he has so carefully built. It is not something he can do as an aside to his regularly scheduled activities. It requires full devotion to Jesus above everything else.
And so we read that, “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
That’s an interesting word, I think–“grieving.” It’s one I hadn’t really noticed before.
The Greek word used here for grieving is a serious, heavy word–it’s what the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would be killed; it’s what they felt when Jesus said one of them would betray him; it’s what Jesus felt when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
This young, wealthy, good, religious man was grieving as he left Jesus.
It may seem a little odd. He’s not in any physical pain. Nobody has died. Where does this grief come from?
Well, my dad, who served as a Hospice chaplain for most of his career, would explain to you that any time we lose something, there is grief involved. If a loved one dies, of course we grieve. And also if we lose a marriage because of divorce. If we lose a home. If we lose a job. If we lose the ability to hear or see or walk as well as we used to. We grieve.
Even if we are getting divorced from an abusive spouse. Even if we move out of our one bedroom home into a three-bedroom because there’s a baby on the way. Even if we are leaving a job we hate to take a job we think we will love. There is still loss, and we still grieve.
And this man who came to Jesus was grieving because he has lost something, too. With these few words from Jesus, the man has lost the entire future life he imagined for himself. Thus far, he has been holding to his wealth and possessions while he followed the commandments. He has envisioned a future in which he has prosperity, power, prestige–and eternal life.
Jesus says that’s not how it works. If this guy wants to be perfect, he’s got to give up his possessions. And thus, if he keeps his possessions, he will have to give up his aspirations of perfection–his view of himself as a devoted, faithful person.
He was grieving because his idea of how life works had been shattered.
Not only did Jesus shatter this guy’s ideas about life, the universe, and everything, but he confused the disciples as well.
As the man walked away grieving, the baffled disciples turned to Jesus. Matthew’s gospel does not say that they asked him any particular question, but their expressions must have indicated that some sort of explanation was necessary. Because Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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, we’ve heard this saying many, many times. Many of us are partial to a reading of scripture that highlights Jesus’ preferential attitude toward the poor. We function in religious, academic, social spheres that tend to be critical of extreme wealth.
“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.”
“Sure,” we would say. “I mean, it’s probably classic Jesus hyperbole–exaggeration–but to the basic concept? Sure.”
But that is not how Jesus’ disciples heard it. In their world, wealth was a sign of Divine favor. And thus their astonishment, and their question: “Then who can be saved?”. If even the wealthy have not earned God’s favor, then who can be saved?
Poor Jesus. Nobody seems to get it. Not the rich young man. Not the disciples. Can you hear the sigh? “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
And then it started to sink in. Jesus’ point slowly became clear–or at least a bit more clear–for the disciples: that money cannot buy you favor with God; and that God does not reward people with money; that the rich have no special claim to a relationship with God; that, in fact, it is more difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom than it is for the poor.
Finally, the disciples realized that what Jesus said was good news for them. “Hey, wait a minute,” they said. “We have left everything and followed you. That means we . . .”
Jesus affirmed, “You will indeed inherit eternal life.”
Good news for the disciples who have already chosen to leave behind their possessions and follow Jesus. Not such good news for the rich young man.
His conversation with Jesus did not go quite as he had hoped. This thing Jesus told him to do was difficult–perhaps too difficult. “Sell your possessions.” Hmmm. “Give the money to the poor.” Well. “And come follow me.” Ummm.
So the young man went away grieving. He went back to his McMansion, snuggled down in his Lazy Boy, and flipped on the big screen TV, never to see Jesus again.
That’s the story we’ve heard, right? Not exactly.
We only know that the man goes–which is actually what Jesus tells him to do. “Go, sell your possessions.” And we know that he is grieving.
We assume he is grieving because he is not willing to sell his possessions, which means that he will not gain eternal life after all.
But it is also possible that he is grieving because he’s really going to miss that TV. He was so enjoying the new surround sound stereo system that he got for Christmas.
The story simply does not say. None of the three versions in the gospels say whether the man went and kept his possessions or went and sold his possessions. The text says only that he went away grieving.
It is interesting to me that there is such a broad belief that he rejects Jesus’ instructions. Some scholars even refer to this as a “failed call narrative.” We fill in the end of this story in our heads without even realizing we are doing it.
Why? Why do we all fill in this story automatically? And why do we all imagine the same ending?
I think . . . now I’m not saying this is for sure the case . . . but I just wonder if . . . now I don’t want you to take this the wrong way . . . but it occurs to me . . . knowing how I live . . . having been to many of your houses . . . looking at the cars here in the parking lot . . . as people who, like the man, have many possessions . . . I think it’s possible that we assume the man keeps all of his stuff because . . . just maybe . . . that’s how our story would end.