“Managing” the Gospel
As he 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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Once when I mumbled about how hard it is to put together a sermon, a parishioner overhearing it said, “I thought you just got them off the internet.”
That wouldn’t occur to me! But I do gratefully use on-line resources—like workingpreacher.org. It’s produced by a team at Luther Seminary, St. Paul MN. They post short, thought-provoking commentaries on the week’s scriptures written by scholars and pastors with a wide range of perspectives. Since the same texts come around every three years in the lectionary cycle, they also include links to commentaries from the past.
So I found one originally posted in 2018, by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, the young pastor of a Lutheran church in Tokyo. With stunning candor she wrote that today’s gospel is “a killer”.
Why? These words even threw the disciples for a loop:
10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
10:25 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.”
Hinlicky said this passage doesn’t so much invite us to faith as to prove how impossible faith is.
“Manage” Jesus’ Message
As a result, she wrote, preachers and listeners tend “to manage” Jesus’ message, to soften the hard edges. She gave some examples of how we may do that. Here are a couple:
- “Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, but only to him. It makes no claim on anyone else; [it’s] an object lesson on acquisitiveness.”
- “It was a real command, but it applies only to the rich. All of us can think of someone richer, so by contrast we don’t qualify.”
Most of Us Are Good People
Like the young man, most of us are good people, following the commandments, giving our time, talent and treasure to the church and to other worthy causes. But among the billions of Jesus’ “followers” over the millennia, how many have actually done what he asked?
Jesus said “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
If Jesus said the same to me today would I do any differently than the man?
So let me “manage” this gospel for myself and perhaps for some of you by pleading that I’m a work in progress.
By this gospel’s criteria, I simply don’t qualify for the kingdom of God. I’m not in the 1% or 10%, in the USA, but I am financially comfortable—and indisputably rich by the world’s standards.
As for possessions, at 73, I’m more inclined to be letting things go than acquiring. And when I see the weight that property and possessions can lay on us as we age, I vow to purge my own stuff…when I can get around to it. But de-accessioning when it suits us is not what Jesus was asking.
Nor was Jesus just talking about material matters—property, stuff. “Possessions” are also symbolic of power and of control over one’s life. That’s the “killer” for me. When I left the art world and accepted the call to the priesthood I got a momentary inkling of the beautiful truth of losing my life to find it. But surrendering power and control are not a “one and done” deal. If I even try, it’s an unending challenge.
Jesus knows how hard this is. The gospel tells us that Jesus loved the man even as he gave him the hard news. That tender compassion may give each of us some comfort while we struggle with it ourselves.
A little story. There was man who lived near a monastery. He often went by and would linger out of curiosity. One day when he was there a monk came out. The man screwed up his courage and asked what they did in the monastery. The monk replied, “We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up.”
How do we meet the challenge of giving up our lives for the sake of the gospel? We fall down and we get up. We accept that we continually fall short, and that we can do better with God’s help: one day, one word, one thought, one choice, one action at a time. I truly believe that God loves us, and will walk with us on the way to transformation.
Key to that is listening to God’s call, committing to times of silence daily, shutting out the distractions and competing clamor of contemporary life. Then acting on those calls.
In this stewardship season, as you pray about how you will share your earthly treasure and your time with Emmanuel in the coming year, I hope you will also renew your commitment to daily prayer, taking time to hear God’s ever-faithful call.
And remember “for God, all things are possible”!