Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Good Teacher

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From our gospel lesson this morning [Luke 18:18-27] we heard that a certain young ruler came to our Lord and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This was one of the better questions that anyone had ever asked of Jesus, and we get the impression that it was a very sincere one as well. While the scribes and Pharisees often questioned Jesus and even at times tried to flatter Him in their efforts to trip Him up or expose errors in His teaching, this man genuinely considered Jesus to be the Good Teacher who held the answers to eternal life. Though he was a wealthy ruler, we learn from Mark’s parallel account that he ran out to meet Jesus on the road and knelt before Him in the dust. No Pharisee ever did that! Over the course of his young life this man had done everything he knew to please God but somehow felt that something was lacking, and equally felt that this Jesus could tell him what that was.

Jesus also saw something special in this man. Mark’s account tells us that Jesus looked upon him and loved him. We are told also that Jesus invited him to become His disciple and to join His closest followers. Obviously this man had great potential and, but for one remaining thing, was very close to the kingdom of heaven.

The young man told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments of God from his youth. Our Lord did not dispute this or regard it as a boast, for likely it was true. However, even if the man had kept all the commandments perfectly, he still had not been perfected by them, because a vital component was missing. Jesus pointed him toward the one thing he still lacked. “Sell all that you possess and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” He instructed him. What was the purpose of this severe commandment? It was to give the man what he lacked: not just treasure in heaven, but love for others above himself.

Love was the missing element in this man’s life. Elsewhere Jesus taught that the fulfillment of all the commandments of the Law is to love God and your neighbor as yourself. The man had kept the commandments of the Law, but in a rather abstract and external way, as if they were only for the purpose of making him clinically righteous, rather than leading him into the communion of love. We might say that it didn’t yet “click” with this man that the commandments were all about loving God and loving one’s fellow man. This is what Jesus sought to make right.

Unfortunately, the one remaining thing this man needed to fulfill all his good efforts and make him a true follower of Christ was the one thing he was most reluctant to surrender. He was very rich, and quite naturally loved everything that his wealth provided him. How could he be expected to give all that up on the word of one rabbi, even such a great rabbi as this? Jesus perceived this, and that is why He gave this man a little something extra to think about.

“Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone.” As we know, Jesus did not generally walk around telling people, “I am God; obey Me”. Such an action would not only have been contrary to the divine humility, but also would have been a rather forceful violation of human free-will. John wrote that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. This means that the deity of Christ is less a doctrinal proclamation than a spiritual revelation. One cannot evaluate Jesus and His teachings solely on an intellectual basis alone, as the heretics mostly do and thus fall into error. What is required is for a man to first find his heart and then open it to the Spirit of God, that he might begin to perceive the hidden reality that all the external evidence points toward.

The young man had called Jesus “good” and this was certainly true. Everyone could see the goodness of Jesus. Sinners saw it and were drawn toward Him. His enemies saw it and felt threatened by Him. His goodness was undeniable, and was the very thing that caused this man to seek Him out in the first place, that he might learn from Him the way to heaven.

“Why do you call Me good? What is the source of My inherent goodness? What makes you see Me as the good authority on the kingdom of heaven and life everlasting?” These questions were not a denial of His divinity, but a bold affirmation of it to one who was so close to grasping it. It is as if Jesus told him, “Think man; do the math. If no one is good but God, then Who do you say that I AM?”

This man could not immediately put the pieces together. Or perhaps he did, which made his sorrow even greater. If this Jesus truly was the Son of God in the flesh, then there was no longer any excuse not to obey Him. He must be followed and His word must be kept. Nevertheless, the man went away sad, because he feared giving up so much.

We have all come so far in our efforts to follow Jesus. But is there anything remaining in our lives that holds us back from perfecting our love and obedience to Him? Is there anything we refuse to surrender in order to submit ourselves entirely to Christ? Are we reluctant to freely offer our tithes and alms to God, thus putting our needs ahead of the needs of others? Do we refuse to quit immoral thoughts, relationships, or the demonic lure of pornography? Are we unwilling to quit the emotional manipulation of others in our efforts to make them behave in ways we feel they should? Do we hang on to anger and resentments as if being hurt was our right, and resist the dying to self that forgiveness seems to require? Do we refuse to give thanks to God in all things, feeling that we have certainly deserved better? Is there anything we will not submit to our father-confessor merely because we are unwilling to repent and take his counsel and penance to better our way of life? Simply put, is there anything that keeps us from the pure love of God and from making our repentance as complete as we possible can?

This is what we should consider as we read this gospel story of a man who walked away from Jesus sad because he was unwilling to take that last small step toward the perfection of love. Jesus was also made sad when he saw the man’s reaction, for He witnessed a man who was so close turn away from Him. “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!” He exclaimed, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” It is possible He was not speaking only of material wealth here. Our treasured sins are a kind of wealth as well, for they give us a sense of independence and self-reliance as intoxicating as the delusion of wealth itself. When I resist God I feel strangely powerful, for a moment. When I set aside His commandments I feel deliriously like the master of my own life, for awhile. When I disobey God’s Church I feel like I am greater than that Church and all those saints who gave up their lives for it. They died, but I live, and I am rich!

Lord have mercy! Those feelings are just the vain imaginings of a darkened soul. They are not true. I am of all men most to be pitied, for I resist the self-death that can grant me everlasting life, and reject the hatred of sin that can lead me toward the perfection of love.

This story of the rich man is a very personal one, revealing the folly of closing our eyes to the goodness of Jesus, and of withdrawing from Him in fear of what our total obedience might cost us. If we had been there, our impulse might have been to stop the rich man and reason with him, yet we just as often need someone to reason with us and turn us back to Christ. How many times do we walk away from Jesus to preserve treasures of far less value? Of course any treasure which keeps us from fully loving God or our neighbor as ourselves is a false treasure and needs to be abandoned. May God help us to inventory the storeroom of our souls and without fear rid ourselves of everything that stands between us and the perfection of love in Jesus Christ.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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