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Our New Testament reading this morning has often been misunderstood.
The story begins with Jesus leaving town to set out on a journey, perhaps in the early morning.
We can imagine Jesus and his disciples, not far past sunrise, gathering up their belongings
and beginning to walk from the village where they had stayed for several days.
Suddenly, a man comes running up out of nowhere.
Matthew tells us he was a “ruler”. Luke tells us he was young.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that he was rich, that he had many possessions.
Had the man been waiting all night for Jesus to emerge from the home where he had slept?
Had he heard Jesus speak the day before or seen Jesus heal someone?
Whatever the case, this well-heeled young man, probably one of the most powerful men in his village,
comes running up to Jesus, a penniless rabbi without even a house to go home to,
and kneels before him. Hear the Word of God.
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.’
Did you notice the phrase, “Jesus looking at him, loved him…”?
Neither Matthew nor Luke includes this little detail when they tell this story.
And yet, as the Cornerstone Class was discussing last week,
the Gospel of Mark is most likely the gospel that was written first.
Matthew and Luke had access to Mark, it seems, when they wrote their gospels.
Why did Matthew and Luke not include this small detail, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him”,
from the typically more sparse Markan narrative?
The Greek word here for “love” is a form of agape – self-giving, unconditional love.
Jesus looked attentively at the man, his heart warmed to him, and he loved the man.
We know very little about this man. We don’t even know his name.
Since he is called a “ruler” by Matthew, he likely holds a respected position in his community.
From his conversation with Jesus, we discover that he is very faithful in his religious observance.
He claims to have obeyed all the laws since he was young.
But something is unsettled in the man’s soul. He is not at peace.
On the morning Jesus is leaving town, he runs up to Jesus and kneels at his feet.
No self-respecting man in a first century Jewish village runs anywhere nor kneels before anyone but God.
Nevertheless, this man runs and kneels, then cries out: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Have I done enough? I am already doing what is required of me, but what else must I do?
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
What can anyone do in order to inherit anything?
As one commentator stated, “Inheritance is more about belonging than it is about earning…”
(from Workingpreacher.org October 11, 2015)
It is worth noting that just before this text we read the story of Jesus welcoming the children.
The disciples had spoken sternly to children whose parents were bringing them before Jesus,
but Jesus became indignant with his disciples and told them not to stop the children.
“For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you”, Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child
will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them.
The children did not have to do anything to earn Jesus’ love and blessing.
They had not lived long lives of righteousness
nor did they have an abundance of worldly goods to proof their worth to God and others.
They just were. They were who they were; they were children of God.
Jesus, looking at the man, probably like he had recently looked at the children, loved him.
As Vernon Gramling regularly reminds his Faith in Real Life groups:
“The first job of a Christian is to receive love.”
This young man had spent his whole life trying to be good, seeking to earn love and favor,
seeking to justify himself in the sight of God and others.
He had kept all the commands; he had “minded his p’s and q’s”, he was a good man,
and Jesus loved him!
But unlike the children who had come before Jesus empty-handed,
with nothing to offer Jesus but their admiration and love, he had come “full of himself”, so to speak.
In the first century Jewish culture, wealth was a sign of blessing, a sign of favor with God.
In the typical Galilean village, if one had many possessions, many flocks, many servants,
one was considered truly blessed by God.
It was easier to be faithful to the law if one had possessions.
If you had means, then you could offer a prized calf for a sacrifice at the Temple instead of a pigeon.
If you had means, then it was far easier to remain ritually pure in order to be allowed
to enter the inner sanctum of the temple.
Shepherds and other poor folks were almost always deemed “unclean” because they handled animals,
and they were rarely allowed in more favored places.
It was not then and it is not now easy to be poor.
Being poor was not considered a sign of God’s blessing.
If a person came before God at the Temple poor and empty-handed,
then that person was looked down upon, considered unworthy even.
In the face of this prevailing cultural attitude, Jesus remarks,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than someone who is rich
to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The eye of the needle always catches people’s attention in this passage.
Some scholars will say that if you take one letter from the Greek word for “camel” and change it,
the word becomes “rope.” This interpretation lessens the effect, saying “it is easier for a rope
to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Other scholars claim that Jesus was probably referring to a small door in one of Jerusalem’s gates
called the “needles eye”. They claim that Jesus was saying that it is easier for a camel,
unencumbered of all its load, and kneeling down on its knees,
to squeeze through that “needles eye”, just barely, than it is for a rich person
to unencumber themselves and enter the kingdom of heaven –
again trying to lessen the effect of the passage.
But the passage probably should stand just as it is.
The plain meaning of the phrase is that it is literally impossible
for a person with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
The disciples and everyone who heard these words were astonished.
Even today, people read this passage and say,
“Well, that was a particular problem of a particular man.
For this young man, his possessions separated him from God.
Therefore, the passage is a particular statement regarding one person’s particular unholy grasp
on possessions, so you and I can just sort of set this passage aside.
The passage might give us pause and instruction,
but then we can conclude that we are not really like that man after all.
It is not impossible for you and I to enter the kingdom of heaven…or is it?
Here is where many get off track in this passage.
We make the fatal assumption that we might actually be able to follow Jesus.
We think that by a sheer force of will or a strong character
or through good education and a solid family background,
that we could actually obey God’s commands and squeeze through the eye of that needle.
Here is the good news and the challenging news of the gospel:
We cannot squeeze ourselves through the eye of that needle!
Squeezing through the needle’s eye, entering the kingdom of heaven, is impossible for you and for me.
This is why Peter cried out, “Who then can be saved?” Who can inherit eternal life?
Jesus’ response was, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The good news of the gospel is that there is hope for that rich young ruler
and there is hope for you and me!
But our hope is not based on our worth, not based on how good we may be compared to our neighbor,
not based upon how hard we’ve tried to obey God’s laws,
or how often we have showed up to Sunday School and church.
Our worth is based upon one thing alone – the undeserved love and grace and mercy of God.
Jesus, looking at the man, loved him…
That’s all the man needed to enter the kingdom of heaven…to receive that love,
to respond to that love, to let go of all the other ways he was trying to justify himself or prove himself,
and simply rest in the goodness and grace of God.
When you love someone, you want the best for them. You desire for them life abundant, life eternal.
You want them to know the joy of being loved fully, the freedom of being fully forgiven.
Jesus was offering this joy and freedom to the man.
Go, he said, free yourself of all that human stuff that makes you feel like you might be worthy,
then come, follow me, just as you are, without one plea.
The man was shocked; he went away grieving.
He rejected unconditional love for a life full of conditions.
He turned away from the joy and freedom of life with Jesus in order to continue a life of duty and law.
His mindset was stuck on works righteousness and self-justification.
I cannot possibly sell all I own and give it to the poor…the law does not require that.
I have worked hard for these possessions; they represent my hard work and my worth;
they represent my family’s standing in the community, and I would be nothing without them.
Standing before Jesus, nothing that we have, nothing that we have done,
nothing that we have accomplished makes us worthy of his love, worthy to become his follower.
His love alone makes us worthy.
And he wants us to free ourselves from anything…or any mindset…or any relationship…
that stands in the way of us receiving that love.
This freeing ourselves is not simply another form of works righteousness;
we cannot simply give away our possessions to the poor so that we earn a place among the disciples.
Rather, Jesus calls for true repentance, for a turning away from that which has defined our life in the past
and a turning toward the free reception of grace.
Jesus, looking at the man, loved him, and bid him turn to him and follow him along the way.
Jesus desired for the man to receive unconditional love,
and to begin to love himself and love others as Jesus had so graciously loved him.
Go, unencumber yourself from whatever separates you from the love of God,
then come, follow me….
This would be impossible for the man to do on his own.
This remains impossible for you and I to do on our own…
but thanks be to God, for God all things are possible.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
October 14, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
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Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
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