Saturday, December 11, 2010

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 man approached Jesus with a question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” On the surface, this might seem like a wonderful question right at the heart of the Christian message. However, things are not always as they first appear to be. We know that throughout the three years of our Lord’s ministry, many people approached Jesus with requests of one sort or another, but they nearly all pertained to earthly needs: “Lord, grant me my sight,” “Lord, heal my daughter,” “Lord, tell my brother to divide our inheritance with me”. Jesus saw it all, from the plaintive cries of truly hurting people, to the selfish desires of the utterly clueless. By comparison to these, it might seem that the young man in today’s lesson really had his act together. Nevertheless, if we dig a little deeper into the story we find that this man too had some serious misunderstandings regarding the person of Jesus Christ and His message concerning the kingdom of God. This accounts for the rather curious responses which our Lord gave to him, which were intended to help the man connect the dots and come closer to the truth.

The man first greeted our Lord saying, “Good Teacher”. Immediately Jesus asked him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God”. The heretics who deny Christ’s divinity love to twist this verse to make Jesus say, “Don’t call Me good. Only God is good and I am not God”. But of course that’s nowhere near what He actually said. Jesus did not say “Don’t call Me good” but instead asked the young man to consider, “Why do you call Me good?”

The goodness of Jesus was obvious to all. Repentant sinners saw His goodness and were attracted to Him. Even His enemies could find no fault in Him. Jesus’ goodness was equal to that of His Father’s. So also was His love, His holiness, His wisdom, and His power. What Jesus sought here was to make this man stop and think about what the source of this undeniable goodness might possibly be. “If you call Me good, and only God is good, then Who do you say that I am?”

The young man did not quite figure it all out at that moment. But if he was to keep the commandment that Jesus gave to him--sell all that you possess, distribute to the poor, and come, follow Me--he would soon need to put it all together in his heart. No mere rabbi had the authority to ask of this man what Jesus had dared to ask. If this young man was to come around to obedience, he would have to come first to the realization that this Jesus could only be the Son of God who comes forth from the bosom of the Father. If Jesus were truly that, then obedience to Him would be the only acceptable option. I would hope this is our conclusion as well.

Why did Jesus tell this man to sell all that he possessed and distribute to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven? It is because the young man had a false concept of the kingdom of heaven. The rich naturally want to live forever. This is why they plan carefully for their retirement, stay fit in the gym, and even have plastic surgery or take medications to continue the illusion of youth and vigor for as long as possible. For those who are poor or who have suffered much in this life, the promise of comfort in the life to come is most appealing. But the rich only want to continue enjoying the good things of this life forever. Notice that the young man did not ask, “How can I enter the kingdom of heaven?” or even, “How can I be saved?” but only, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” To a rich young man who had inherited everything else he enjoyed, the thought of sealing this forever by adding eternal life seemed to him like icing on the cake. Although he was not fully aware of this, he very much wanted heaven on his terms, which is a persistent human problem even to this day.

Jesus had to show this man that such selfish motives would not bring him into the kingdom. He also had to show him that the kingdom was not about earthly riches or pleasures extended forever, but about love and mercy, and the transformation necessary for those who lack such love and mercy. These concepts were likely beyond the capacity of this man to understand just then, so Jesus put it to him in a way that perhaps he could understand.

The young man was a lover of money, so Jesus told him that if he distributed his goods to the poor, he would gain treasure in heaven. This brought to the table two vital Christian concepts that should never be neglected. The first is that the life we prepare for ourselves in the kingdom of heaven is of far greater importance than any life we make on earth. The second is that whatever wealth we might now possess is not given by God for our own exclusive enjoyment, but also to share with those in need. The uncertainty of financial well-being in this life and the reality of death should be enough to convince us that we can truly possess nothing for very long. The money we have should be used to maintain a house of worship and to care for the poor, and then to meet our own needs. If we live in this order, we will not only loosen our white-knuckle grip on the fleeting things of this life, but will grow in the love and mercy that is found in God.

This is important to all of us. Often when confronting this lesson in the gospel we like to distance ourselves from it a bit by saying that the Lord didn’t give this commandment to sell all and give to the poor to every potential disciple, but only to this man. We then say it that must have been necessary to this man because he was especially rich or greedy or worldly-minded. We conclude by comforting ourselves that as long as we drop a dollar in the tithe box now and then and bring a few canned goods to the monthly collection for the poor, we fulfilling our religious obligations.

We should ask ourselves if this explanation isn’t just a little too convenient. If our desire is to hang on to what we have in this world but still be rewarded with heaven, how do we differ in any substantial way from this man? We want to keep all that we have and enjoy even more; so did he. We are fearful of giving generously and suffering want; so was he. We tend to care more about what we have than what our neighbor doesn’t have; so did he. The difference between us is what, exactly? It may be that, like this man, we also want heaven on our terms.

Some of us are facing real financial struggles in our lives to the point that we may not have much to spare. When we experience such difficulties, it is important to see that even these are from the hand of God for our salvation and to form in us a love of the kingdom to come. If in the midst of poverty we can still force the habit of regularly giving even a little bit with faith and love, we make the declaration that we will not allow circumstances to dictate our obedience to Christ. This is incredibly important, because we can just as easily form the habit of blaming God for our misfortune, and grasping at every penny as if our life and well-being depended on it. If we choose the former, we will grow in faith, in thanksgiving, and in the blessings of God. If we choose the latter, we will shut trust and confidence in God completely out of our lives.

And just as we have some who cannot give much, we also have many others who could give more, but do not because of financial priorities that do not place the kingdom of heaven first. Jesus taught that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also [Matthew 6:21]. This is an inescapable fact of life. If we do not place the kingdom first in our finances, it will not be first in our hearts no matter how devout we imagine ourselves to be. Giving is irrevocably connected to our devotion to God and our growth toward becoming people of the kingdom. This is not something that we can set aside or place on our own terms.

Perhaps we are not called to give all that we possess, but we are all called to give. We need to learn to place the kingdom of God first and be faithful stewards of whatever He has entrusted to us. Furthermore, our giving should always be more faith-based than strictly budget-based. When the budget comes first, we will never find the means to give. If we allow faith to lead even in small, faithful steps, we will find that these steps are leading us toward God and toward becoming rich in His kingdom. Giving can seem to us to be such an intensely personal subject, but in fact it is fundamental to the gospel and our Christian faith, and is something that all of us should be participating in as faithfully as possible. May our gracious Lord guide us in this most important Christian duty and lead us all toward becoming cheerful givers, that we might gain treasure in the kingdom of heaven.

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