St. John's, Centreville
October 14, 2018
Proper 23 B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" It is a question that is filled with anxiety, of wanting to know for sure that he will enter eternal life at the end of this earthly life. Variations of that question, that many of us probably ask ourselves, are "How do I get into heaven?"; "How can I be sure that death is not the end?"; or "How can I know for certain that I am saved?"
The man wanted to know what he must DO. Jesus refers him to the 10 commandments - you shall not murder or commit adultery, or steal, or bear false witness or defraud anyone. But the man replies that he has followed these commandments all his life. He seems to want a checklist. Give me 10 things I need to DO and I can check them off as I get them done and then I can be assured of getting into heaven.
But that is not the way it works. There is no checklist, no to-do list. We need to follow the 10 commandments, of course. But to inherit eternal life is not something that we can earn. It is given to us by the grace and love of God. It is an inheritance, not something we can buy, an inheritance by virtue of being children of God.
Jesus does not say that if the man sells all his possessions and gives the money to the poor that he will inherit eternal life. Instead, Jesus says to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and then "Come and follow me." Jesus still is not giving the man the certainty that he is looking for - to inherit eternal life. Instead Jesus tells him to "Follow me".
In other words, he is telling the man not to be so consumed by wanting the certainly of eternal life, but to live into the divine realm now, to shift the focus from saving one's soul to forming one's soul in this world. So Jesus changes the man's question from "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" to "How do I become rich now in the things that pertain to my spiritual life?" Forming one's soul is an altogether different project. It is a life-long task of cultivating wisdom, humility, righteous anger, justice, loving-kindness, mercy and hospitality, among other virtues. This is the path that Jesus is trying to point out to the man asking the question.
This man in this particular story seems to be very attached to his wealth and his possessions. It is too much for him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. He just cannot do it. So he turned away from Jesus, grieving.
Jesus knew that for this man, his wealth and possessions stood in the way of setting him free. His dependence seemed to be on his earthly possessions rather than on God. They were a burden, an anchor around his feet, a weight on his shoulders. His wealth controlled him and he could not let it go.
I don't think that Jesus is telling all of us to sell everything we have and give the money to the poor. But he is saying to all of us "Follow me." The culture Jesus lived in is a much different culture than we live in today. Jesus was an itinerant preacher. He traveled around, never staying too long in one place. He and his disciples depended on the hospitality of others to provide food and a place to sleep. There is no way that the man could live this kind of itinerant life with all his possessions.
Today, it's not our culture to open our homes to strangers who may come and go at all times of the day or night, expecting food and shelter. Most people today don't travel on foot or rely on the hospitality of others.
Going back to the question that the man SHOULD have asked Jesus, "How do I become rich now in the things that pertain to my spiritual life?" rather than "What must I do to inherit eternal life?", what might we expect Jesus to say to us? What gets in our way of seeing our total dependence on God alone, of enriching our spiritual lives, our relationship with God? It is a life-long process of spiritual growth and renewal. How do we "follow Jesus"?
We follow Jesus by realizing our dependence on God alone. We follow Jesus by seeing the face of Christ in each other. We follow Jesus by standing up for what is right, by respecting the dignity and equality of every human being, by realizing we are all children of God. We follow Jesus by helping the poor and the destitute, to reaching out to those in need. We follow Jesus by worshipping together as a community of faith, by deepening our spiritual lives by prayer and Bible Study and Christian formation, by spending time with God.
Life in God's kingdom is about caring and sharing, not hoarding our wealth and possessions and wanting more "things" just to have them. Life in the kingdom of God is about transformation, about changing our inner selves to be more reflective of God's love for us and for others.
Jesus invites us to live simply, to free ourselves from the burden that money and possessions can be, to be free of the abuse of power that money and possessions can often have. Our dependence should be on God alone.
Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Then he told him to get rid of what was standing in the way of his following Jesus. But the man could not do that. The power of his money and possessions over him was too great for him to overthrow.
Today, Jesus may not be asking us to sell everything we have and give the money to the poor. But he does call us to examine the role that money and possessions have in our lives. How much power and control do they have over us? What else in our lives might be standing in our way of following Jesus? Whatever that is for us, we must get rid of it and affirm that our dependence is on God alone, and our faith is in Jesus Christ.
Follow Jesus. Live simply. Care for others. Share what you have. For with God, nothing is impossible. Amen.