Sunday, October 11, 2015

the rich young man

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: inspire the hands in the writing, the lips in the preaching, and our hearts in the pondering so that we may be led deeper into your truth, better know and do your will, and grow in holiness day by day. Amen.

Our Gospel reading this morning begins with the detail that it is just as Jesus is setting out on a journey that the rich man comes to him. And I think we may place some significance on that fact. Jesus, if we look at the passages of scripture that precede this incident, has been going from place to place teaching; he would have, it seems fair to assume, spent a reasonable amount of time in each town or village or place on the road he stopped at. So he has been at the place he is leaving now for a while – many hours at least; possibly days.

But the man must only have heard of his presence. Perhaps he was away from the town on business and had just returned; perhaps other affairs have kept him occupied. Whatever the reason, he heard about the fact that the 'good teacher' is near only very late in his visit; and so he comes running, finds Jesus preparing to leave, throws himself on his knees before him, and asks him the most important question of all: 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus responds to him with what might be described as a summary of the Ten Commandments; and the man replies that he has kept these all his life. And we may believe that he speaks the truth, for Christ looks at him and loves him. This is more than simply the love that God has for all of his creatures; this, I think, is our Lord responding on a human level to a man who not only has tried all his life to be good, but seeks to know what more he must to go to heaven.

Perhaps this love our Lord has for him is evident to all standing there, shining forth in the way he gazes upon this man, and is later remembered and recorded by the evangelist St Matthew as he stands there watching; or perhaps Jesus shares this with his Apostles as they are walking down the road later, on the journey whose beginning the man interrupted. But we can be certain that the Son of God loved this man in a special way and that the answer he gave him was the one he needed to hear in order that he might inherit that eternal life he so earnestly sought.

But the answer he receives shocks him: 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.’ And he goes away grieving. Why grieving? Remember what his question was – what must I do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus, the good teacher, tells him that there is one thing more that he must do, as well as all the rest he does already, if he is to enter into eternal life. And he can not do it; he can not give up the material things of this world.

Why will this man not inherit eternal life? He seems to be a good man; we know he keeps the commandments; and we can trust that a man who does that, who is a faithful Jew, does more as well. He surely gives alms to the poor; and is scrupulous about the paying of tithes. By any objective standpoint he is a good man; and yet, because of the one thing he lacks, he will not, it seems, go to heaven. Why should this be so?

Because, I think, he makes the mistake – a mistake that is common today – of thinking of religion as being an ethical system. That is a common error, even today. How many times have your heard someone say something like 'why do I need religion to lead a good life? I can make perfectly fine moral and ethical decisions without any need to believe in any kind of god.' And that is perfectly true – although, it must also be said that one need only look at the competing ethical systems at play in the secular world today to realise that seemingly any kind of behaviour can be justified if one puts one's mind to it. No, the point is that Christianity is not merely yet another ethical system among many.

Yes, it expects people to behave in a manner that is moral according to the lights of its teachings; but it expects more than that – far more. If it did not, then the rich man we read about today would have had no problem. But the Christian is called not only to be good, but to holiness of life. Think what the Apostle Paul teaches us in first Thessalonians – he asks that God make us perfect in holiness. Think about what God tells us in Leviticus – be holy as I am holy.

And what is holiness? There are many long answers, but a short one would be to be set apart from the world and totally devoted to God. Using that, we can see the difficulty faced by the rich man. Yes, he was good, as the world defines good; but he could not set himself apart from the world. His possessions meant too much to him; and because of that he could not bring himself to devote himself entirely to God by following Christ. This was the 'one thing' he lacked; and even for the sake of eternal life, he could not bring himself to embrace it.

What of us? Must we give up all things to enter into eternal life? Not necessarily. Jesus spoke directly to the man that day, to his specific needs. Perhaps he would say something different to you if you were to throw yourself on your knees before him and ask the question that poor young man asked that day: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' Perhaps it is something that you should do, every time you pray, morning, noon, and night. We can be sure that as you make your request he will look upon you with love, and seek to tell you what it is that you lack. Perhaps it would be as well to pray also that you will not be brought to grief by his answer, because you can not, like the man, find it within yourself to let go of what it is that stands between you and following Christ completely.


To the
Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all Glory, both now and unto ages of ages: Amen.

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