“Impossible” October 14, 2018
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
(Heb 4:12 Comm Eng Bible) “..because God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions. No creature is hidden from it, but rather everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.” God’s word is living, active, and able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions – and as the old comedy line goes, “Yeah, I hate it when that happens.” The story of the rich man who asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” is, to me, a shining example of how the word of God cuts the joints from the marrow. It is able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions; and quite frankly, it makes us a little uncomfortable.
Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem and so to his death; and I can’t help but feel that this changes things a bit. There is a sense of urgency in almost everything he says and does. After this man has ran up and knelt on the ground asking the $64000 question to the “Good Teacher,” Christ says to him (vs 18) “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” And right off the bat, we can sense that this isn’t going to go well. Jesus then proceeds to recite the commandments to him and he was ready for that. You could tell he had done his homework when he answered (vs 20) “Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.” Now before we go any further, I have a thought.
Who is this guy? We know by reading the rest of the text that he is well off, and we know that in those times, the Jewish folks believed that if you were right with God, you would be rewarded – and not just with the blessings of the spirit, but with cash, property, and with prestige. Being wealthy was the sign of a good man, and if you were rich and prosperous, Jewish belief held that God honored and blessed you. So what gives here? Don’t you suppose that this man who had been overly blessed by God and had faithfully kept the commandments “from his youth” – don’t you suppose that he figured he was a shoe-in when it comes to this eternal life thing? So my thought is did he really want an answer to a very important question here, or was he simply looking for an endorsement; a seal of approval from Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God? Some kind of certification that says, “Yeah, you’re in, pal. Don’t worry.”
I believe that this man was a good man. I’m sure that if anyone had ever questioned his morality, his compassion for others, his generosity; I’m sure that if you were to accuse him of not doing right with God he could be justified in saying, “Why would you say such things? I didn’t do nothing!” And that’s just the point. He didn’t do nothing.
That’s just the point because although he had lived this meticulously moral life “from my youth,”he had never learned that there is more to life in the Kingdom of God than being good and safe and never wrong. He had never learned to go that extra mile, to step out of the box so to speak, and take a chance. He had never understood that his privilege was just that: privilege. (vs 21) Jesus looked at him and loved him, and spoke to him out of that love when he said, “You lack one thing.” And here’s where it gets a little sticky because when Jesus tells him that he should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, we can get confused about what Jesus feels is missing in this man’s life.
The man doesn’t lack generosity, he doesn’t lack compassion for others, he doesn’t lack morality, he doesn’t lack the ability to be kind to strangers, to be hospitable – what he does lack is faith that is born in suffering. He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future because to him, it’s all cause and effect: I obey the rules and God takes care of me. And confident of his position in life, he lacks the joy and the blessing that comes from relying on the love and generosity of God. Why is it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God? Because when you are rich, it’s very hard to realize that you need God and that you need the community of God. Americans are especially fond of putting the rugged individual and the ‘self made’ man or woman up on a pedestal. Being rich is not evil, but it can be dangerous to your spiritual health. And this, I believe, is what Jesus was trying to show this man when he turned his world upside down by telling him to sell his stuff and give it to the poor: it’s not the stuff that’s the problem, it’s what the stuff is doing to you.
One of the great American pastimes is sitting around with friends discussing what we might do if we were to win the lottery. Let’s admit it – it feels good to let our imaginations go wild with what we might do with, say 20 million bucks. It’s exhilarating to think that you will never need to worry about money again. I wonder if anyone has ever done a study on folks who fared well by winning the lottery as well as folks who didn’t do so well. We’ve all heard the not so well stories. Texas minister Billy Bob Harrell won $31 million in the Texas lottery in 1997. Billy Bob bought a ranch, six mansions and new cars. Friends & family he hadn’t heard from in years hounded him for money and he was unable to ever say no. Billy Bob and his wife divorced, he sunk into a deep depression and unable to cope with the stress from winning the lottery, he committed suicide. It’s not the stuff that’s the problem, it’s what the stuff is doing to you.
When the disciples heard Jesus say it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (vs 26) “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.” And you know, I find myself in that impossible position of identifying with the rich man. Jesus tells him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor and he can’t do it. And I have to wonder – how would I react; how would any of us react?
It seems here that Jesus sets the bar so high that there is no way we can ever reach it. And so like the disciples, we ask, “All right, I give up – then who can be saved? How do I do it?” And Jesus answers, and in a loving way saying, “You can’t. Not by yourself, you can’t. It’s impossible. But not for God; for God all things are possible.” And that’s when I find myself falling back into the arms of grace, God’s saving grace. It’s in those moments when we think we don’t need this gift of grace – that we can make it on our own – it’s in those moments when we find that we need it most of all.
Amen & shalom