Some years ago, I attended a revival meeting in a small, rural, evangelical church to hear my friend’s daughter sing a solo. As to the actual sermon—well, I was more interested in the 4-year-old in the pew in front of me. While his grandmother tried to pay attention, he kicked the pew, laid down, got down on the floor, drew in the hymnal, loudly chewed gum and sucked on a mint, played with Grandma’s car keys, and asked about every two minutes if it was time to go home. Finally, as the preacher started the altar call— congregation standing, every head bowed, every eye closed—the boy stood on tiptoe in the pew and whispered loudly into Grandma’s ear: “Are you sure this is the only way to get into heaven?”
There are many ways to ask this question. Some are religious: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Well, who can be saved then?” “What must I do to be saved?” “How can I get right with God?” Others are not: “What is the meaning of life?” “How can I be fulfilled?” “What does success look like for me?”
In the Gospel, a man knelt in front of Jesus and asked a question to which he thought he already knew the answer. He’s like the wicked witch in Snow White talking to the mirror: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” The rich young ruler believes he is and has come to Jesus for affirmation, not information. He wants Jesus to give him a benediction, a good word. He wants the “Jesus of Nazareth, Prophet and Teacher Seal of Approval” on his life. Much to his surprise, he doesn’t get it, not in the way he had expected.
He rested his claim on inheriting eternal life on the twin pillars of righteousness and riches. Obey the Ten Commandments and enjoy worldly success. The young man believed worldly success is an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and visible blessing. And, honestly, so did everyone else in that time and place. The people in Jesus’ world, including his disciples, believed that morality and material blessing went hand in hand. If you were good, God would bless you with riches and comforts in this world.
So when Jesus said to the young man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor …,” it wasn’t just giving up of his money and stuff that bumfuzzled him. The rich young ruler’s whole worldview, his entire way of looking at how the world works, had been turned upside down and inside out.
After the revival meeting, I chatted with my friend and his daughter outside. We saw Grandma march her grandson out the door—hat squarely on her head, suitcase-size pocketbook on her arm, holding him by the neck with one hand and swatting at this behind with the other. He danced ahead of her with that pelvis-forward, swat-avoiding, Michael Jackson moonwalk we’ve all seen. He yelled back at her, “What you hitting me for? I ain’t done nothing.”
The rich young ruler hadn’t done anything either, and that’s just the point. Though he lived a fastidiously moral life, “I have kept all these (commandments) since my youth,” he had never learned that there is more to the moral life, to life in the kingdom of God, than being good and safe and not wrong. He had never learned to go the extra mile, to take a risk, to boldly go where he had never gone before.
Jesus looked upon him with love and spoke to him out of that love: “You lack one thing.” When Jesus next tells him to get rid of his wealth and give it to the poor, we often become confused about what he sees as missing in the rich man’s life. The man doesn’t lack generosity, he doesn’t lack compassion for others, he doesn’t lack morality. And he doesn’t lack an awareness of the call of God on the Jews to be hospitable to the stranger.
The question for us today is: What do we depend on in our relationship with God? Do we depend on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions? Do we depend on our righteousness, our goodness, our obedience to the Ten Commandments?
This man lacks faith. He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future. He lacks a confident and joyous reliance on God’s love and generosity. He relies upon his goodness and his goods to get him through this life and into the next. And Jesus says, “Friend, that’s just not good enough.”
Why is it hard for a rich person to get into heaven, even harder than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle? Because when you’re rich, it’s really hard to realize how much you need God and other people. Being rich is not evil; it is just exceptionally dangerous to your spiritual health.
The question for us today is: What do we depend on in our relationship with God? Do we depend on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions? Do we depend on our righteousness, our goodness, our obedience to the Ten Commandments? What is it that keeps us trusting ourselves and not fully trusting God? What is the one thing that we lack, the one thing that keeps us from totally and completely committing ourselves to God’s will and way? What keeps us from doing wild and wonderful right things in the name of the living Christ?
The good news is this: Jesus has come to transform the impossible into the possible. Jesus came to release us from the bondage of serving ourselves and our things. Jesus came to take us by the scruff of the neck and drag us kicking and screaming through the eye of the needle, into the center of God’s life and love.
Amen and amen.