The Unsuccessful Sermon

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On 18 November 2011, I gave the second sermon in our series on the Rich Man in Luke. This one was for the final exam of my preaching course and given to an audience of fellow college students. 

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A certain ruler 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 commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’”

He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.”

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.  Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go though the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”

He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.”

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Luke 18:18-30, New Revised Standard Version

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

This passage is frustrating.  It is one we have heard all of our lives.  It is one that permeates culture.  We hear it inside and outside the walls of the Church.  It is so well known in its various incarnations that it is often called the story of the “Rich Young Ruler,” a person found nowhere in any single Gospel.  Rather, in Mark, he is a “rich man.”  In Matthew, he is a “rich young man.”  But here in Luke, he is a “rich ruler.”  Luke tells us that this man came to Jesus asking for “eternal life.”

Jesus tells him that since he has kept all the commandments (something I find to be somewhat unlikely, but that is just me), there is only one thing left to do.  “There is still one thing lacking,” he says.  “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

He says this and we pause.  Like the audience, we stand holding our breath.  The rich man stands in front of Jesus, he stands poised (presumably!) one step away from becoming a disciple of the great Teacher, the Rabbi, Jesus.  He is one step away from being an apostle.  All is silent, the marketplace is hushed.  Jesus and the ruler stare eye to eye, holding each others’ gaze for what seems like eternity.  The rich man looks around at all the people watching.  The little children look up at him, their parents scratch their heads in curiosity, and the disciples look on, urging him to join them.

But he feels a weight in his pocket.  He shifts on his feet and hears the coins bump against each other.  They make that clanging sound.  He puts his hands in his pocket and fingers the coins.  He looks around again and then back to Jesus.

He.  Can’t.  Do it.

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, 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.”

Let’s be honest here.  The rich man was wrong.  He was wrong to not step forward and take up the call of Christ.  He chose mammon over God, money over the Kingdom.  But let’s be honest, what are we going to do?

I struggled a lot preparing this sermon.  I don’t like this passage.  It makes me uncomfortable.  It challenges my preconceptions.  It challenges my lifestyle choices and how I choose to spend my money.  It challenges the notion that it is even my money to have.  It says something clearly that I do not want to do.

So, let’s be honest.  Let’s put aside the masks, the veils, the costumes.  I am not going to do what Jesus said.  I am going to ignore it.  I will acknowledge that it is there and say that I have no earthly idea what to do with it.  But don’t leave me alone up here.  You are not going to do what Jesus said either.

Maybe we will try and explain it away.  Too many commentators try to explain that the ‘eye of the needle’ was a short gate in Jerusalem where camels had to be unburdened to pass through.  Call them on that, because it has absolutely no grounding in historical fact and is merely an attempt to divert the truth of the teaching from grabbing us, shaking us around, and telling us to sell all that we have and distribute the money to the poor.  Even as far back as the first few centuries of the Church, both Clement of Alexandria and Origen themselves tried to make this verse say something else.  The Greek word for camel is just shy of being the Greek word for a thick rope used in sailing.  Still improbable, but not necessarily impossible.  We can still get into heaven, right?

But no … I am going to go do something else after this.  I am going to go to my class on the Middle Ages and conduct myself in the leisurely activity that characterizes the university.  I am going to go do that, probably grab a short lunch.  Then, I am going to go to work to earn some more money.  Then, I am going to go study to get a degree so I can go to another school to get another degree.  And so on  … and so on … and so on … You, too, are going to go do something else.  Eat lunch, go to class, study, hang out with other people.  None of us are going to go sell all that we have and give it to the poor.

That is what makes preaching this passage so difficult.  In the end, this passage will have no effect on us.  We will not sell all that we have and distribute the money to the poor, will we?

Why not?  Because we are wealthy.  We are too wealthy for our own good.  Understand that each of us in this room, unless I have made some great mistake (and if I have, I apologize) are wealthy.  If not compared to the rest of the campus, than to the rest of the county.  If not compared to the rest of the county, than the state.  If not to the state, than to the country.  And if even not to the country, in all likelihood, to the rest of the world.  We are wealthy.  We are rich (and young) rulers.  We are standing before Jesus, looking at him eye-to-eye, feeling the weight of the coins in our pockets.  We are too wealthy for our own good.

Fred Craddock put it this way.  He said, “It is most likely not the case that there was ever a time or place when he said to himself, ‘I chose mammon over God.’”  The rich ruler never ran about flagrantly abandoning the principles of Scripture and grabbing all his money, telling God, “I don’t need you.”  We don’t do that either.  We do not take our Bible and literally put them away and pull out our wallets and say, “I like you better.”  That’s not how it happens.

But it does happen.  Every day you and I choose mammon over God.  Every single day, you and I probably choose money over God.  All totaled, college students in the United States spend upwards of eleven billion dollars on snack foods and beverages per year.  The vast majority of us have a great deal of technology and comfortable things.  We together spend untold millions and billions of dollars on thing we do not need every day.

Our lives are centered around the organizing principles of economics.  When we talk about political issues, it boils down to money.  When we actually want to win an argument, we reduce it to money.  Things like civitas, virtue, and honor once organized societies, but you know what does it now?  Capitalism.  Money.  Wealth.  We make our decisions not based on justice but on wealth.  We too often do not make the sacrifice of a few more dollars to buy what is just over what is cheap.  We want to minimize our financial sacrifices as much as humanly possible.

By simply waking up in the morning, we participate in an unjust and oppressive system that supports a Western hegemony over most of the globe.  Our consumerism and very existence within the United States of America propagates war, famine, and repression.  You could go sit alone in your dorm room all day, aiming to commit no sin but you will still have participated in the injustice that centers the vast majority of the world’s resources into the hands of a vast minority of the population.

That is original sin in its scope, my brothers and sisters, when you woke up this morning, — no, even as you slept — we committed the grievous sin of idolatry.   “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.”  We may have these down, but it is this one that gets us every time: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

“Then who can be saved?”

“Then who can be saved?”

This picture is one of despair.  There is nothing we can do in this moment but continue to exist in our position of oppressor.  There is nothing for us to do but continue in our sin and stare straight through that tiny, tiny, tiny little hole that is the eye of the needle.  So, who can be saved?

If almost all of Americans are wealthy, if everyone in this room is wealthy, if we all wake up in the morning only to further the cause of unjust social systems that Jesus would abhor … then who can be saved?

Let’s take a trip backwards in Jesus’ ministry.  Let’s head back toward the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.  Let’s hear Mary’s song, the Magnificat …

God’s “mercy is for those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty …”
(Luke 1:50-53)

“Then who can be saved?”

Keep going.  What about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he is rejected at Nazareth?  He says,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19)

“Then who can be saved?”

Keep going.  What about the Sermon on the Plain?

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
(Luke 6:20-26)

“Then who can be saved?”

We are on the wrong side of these sayings.  They are not talking about us.  If they are true, it is impossible for any one of us in this room to be saved.  If they are true, we might as well all leave here today dismal and depressed because we are all consigned to an eternity in hell.  If they are true, there is nothing really that we can do.

But, keep reading.  Jesus hasn’t stopped talking yet.  He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

“What is impossible for mortals is possible for God!”  Our God loves us.  Our God cares for us even in the mess and muck of our sin.  God loves us and sees us in the system, trapped into roles of oppressors.  He sees beyond our faults, our misdeeds, our bad habits, our sins.  He sees us and he says, “Yes.”  “I love you, I want to save you.”

God wants to save us.  God wants us to be blessed.  God wants us to be part of his Kingdom.  God wants us to be on his side.  God loves us.

God still loves you and he wants to save you.

And that is God’s business.  That wonderful, saving power is in the hands of God and nothing you say and nothing I say changes that reality.  God loves, and God will win.  God wants to save you, and all of that is up to him.

But wait — there was a whole lot more going on in this passage than that little exchange.  We would do a disservice to the passage and to God himself to fixate upon ourselves in this passage. Remember everything we talked about just a minute ago?  The lowly, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, and the mourners?  They are the interpretive key to Luke’s Gospel.  Let’s not make this about ourselves.

Now, remember all those sayings in the Magnificat, the  inauguration of his ministry, and the Beatitudes?  None of these things seem possible.  They sound nice.  They are idealistic.  They are interesting.  They are statements that turn the presumptions, assumptions, and preconceptions of the world upside down.  But are they true?  Are they true in any useful way?  It is great to say that the lowly, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, the poor, the hungry, and the mourners will be saved, but I look around the world and I don’t see that happening!

Why not?  “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God,” isn’t it?  Then why aren’t these things happening?  Why are the poor not blessed?  Why are the captives still bound?  Why are the oppressed not set free?  Was Jesus wrong?  Was God wrong?  Is he not doing his job?  We can’t talk about the Bible being true when we read these passages and look at the world around us, can we?

I have a feeling that we can take these questions to God.  I have a feeling that he does not mind us asking them.  We can stand before the throne of God and ask him why the poor are not blessed.  Why are the captives still bound?  Why are the oppressed not free?  Why are all these people still not blessed?

And I also have a feeling that God might just turn to us and say, “Same question.”

The Beatitudes, the Woes, the Magnificat, are not meant to be understood as true passively.  We do not sit around with our butts in the pews and say that the poor are blessed.  The duty, obligation, and holy calling of the Church of Jesus Christ is to create a world where these things are true.  The Church is at its best not when a preacher is standing up preaching the Beatitudes but when a congregation is actively making them true.  That is how all of these things are possible, and that is exactly what Jesus is asking the rich ruler to do in this passage.

The command is not simply, “Sell all that you own.”  The command is “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.”  The command itself is not for the sake of the giver, but the sake of those who receive his gift.  Yes, the rich man who sells all that he owns has treasure in heaven, but he does not give it away for that reason.  Don’t you dare sell all that you own so you can “get into heaven” or some nonsense like that.  If you going to sell all that you own, sell it so that you can make heaven on earth.

What does all this look like?

It starts simple.  Maybe it means giving up buying so much coffee and being a better steward of that money.  Maybe it means not buying a new video game, movie, clothes, book, or what have you.  Maybe it means finding what else you have in your life that you wouldn’t be willing to give away.  I cannot tell you what that looks like for your life.  I cannot tell you what it looks like for my life yet.  I am struggling through it just as much as you.  In the end, all we have here is Jesus, and he tells us, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

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