David A. Davis
March 11, 2018
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I wonder if he heard it. The promise I mean. The ruler. The certain ruler who was very rich. I wonder if he heard the promise, if he heard from Jesus about God’s grace. I sort of don’t think so. I don’t think he heard it. Maybe he was gone by then. Maybe he walked away. Stormed away. Or in all the sadness, the shock, the grief that washed over him, he just couldn’t hear it. He certainly didn’t like the answer Jesus gave and I bet he never heard the promise.
According to Luke, the ruler was listening to Jesus tell a few parables. Jesus told the one about the persistent widow who kept coming to the judge for justice. “And will not God grant justice to God’s chosen ones who cry to God day and night?” Jesus said. And Jesus told the parable about the self-righteous, arrogant Pharisee and the humbled tax collector who went into the temple to pray. Jesus said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then all these people started bringing babies to Jesus so he could touch them and the disciples sternly ordered to stop. Jesus said “no, no” and waved in the parents carrying the children. “Truly I tell you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
It was then that the ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus corrected his theological grammar before he tackled the question as he pointed out no one is good but God alone. Don’t call me good. Now that’s not the first theological corrective that comes to mind here. After all, Jesus’ identity and relationship to God is rather…complicated throughout the gospels. When it comes to the “fully God” part of Jesus, well, “good” seems appropriate. The ruler’s word choice that Jesus chose not to pick up on right away was the “what must I do” part. The “do” part. Jesus could have said to the man, there is nothing you can “do” to inherit eternal life. You cannot earn it.
Jesus rattled off a few of the Ten Commandments, a few intended to represent all. “You know the commandments” Jesus told him. Of course the man knew the list. He knew them all. He knew the Ten Commandments and told Jesus with confidence that he had kept all of them since he was a kid. He’d kept them since he’d learned them. I’ve got them covered. I’m batting a thousand. I’m a A plus when it comes to the Ten. Ten for Ten. I’m 100. “It’s all good, then”, he said to Jesus. Actually, it was more than good for the ruler, for the rich ruler, for the very rich ruler. Life had treated him very well. He was very successful. He was doing just fine. That’s how he knew he was okay when it came to the Ten. That’s where his confidence came in responding to Jesus about the Ten. Because by all measure, God had blessed him. God had rewarded him for killing it with the Ten. God had blessed him because of his piety. His wealth was a sign of God’s favor. Tucked inside this account of the rich ruler’s conversation with Jesus along the way is a biblical example of what we call now “the prosperity gospel”, the “health and wealth gospel”. In his case, the prosperity law; keep the Ten and God will make you rich. So, yeah, “Teacher, I’ve kept all those since I was a kid. See?”
“When Jesus head 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.’ ” When the man heard that, when he heard Jesus refer to his money, when he heard Jesus starting to mess with his stuff, when Jesus started meddling, when the “Good Teacher” talked about the poor, when the man heard Jesus mention “wealth redistribution”, when he heard Jesus tell him to sell everything and give it to the poor so that he could have treasure in heaven, the man “became sad….for he was very rich.”
Sad. What an odd expression. He was sad. The word doesn’t come up all that often in the New Testament. Sad. When Luke tells of the Risen Jesus approaching the two men along the Emmaus Road, when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about along the way, Luke writes that that “they stood still, looking sad.” But that’s a different word in Greek. They had a gloomy look on their face. The word here for the rich ruler indicates he was deeply grieved, stricken with grief, he was overcome with grief. Sad doesn’t really begin to describe it. Mark uses the same word to describe King Herod’s reaction to his daughter asking for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The bible says “The king was deeply grieved.” Both Matthew and Mark use the word to describe how Jesus was feeling in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus told the man to get rid of all his riches and even at the thought of it, he was as distraught as if a loved one had died. He wasn’t just sad.
“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 through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Others of course were listening in on the conversation. Others who must have known the rich ruler who was now doubled over in grief. Others who cut their own teeth on the “keep the Ten and you too can be rich” approach to life and wellness and success. Others who were trying to wrap their heads around the camel and the eye of the needle thing that Jesus just said. Others suddenly worried about what it might all mean for them, for their salvation, for them and God? If not him, if not this guy, then who, then what about us? “Then who can be saved?”, they said.
So this is what I don’t think he heard. I don’t think the rich ruler heard it when “Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’” Abraham and Sarah heard it when the Lord told them they were to have a child even when they were old. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” was what God said to them. Mary heard it from the Angel Gabriel. “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Only God can save and with God nothing is impossible. Drowning in his own complete heart break when it came to the things of this world, the man must not have heard the promise, the promise from Jesus, the promise about God, the promise of salvation. “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” He must not have heard it because that’s right when he would have said to Jesus, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
Whether or not the rich ruler heard the word about grace, Peter heard it and apparently didn’t like it. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Look we have left our homes and followed you! We dropped everything! Everything! And your telling us that rich guy has a chance? Salvation could be his as well?” Peter heard about the impossible saving grace of God, a suggestion that God’s saving grace reaches beyond what even the closest followers of Jesus can imagine. And he didn’t like it. He suddenly worried about what it all meant for him, for his salvation, for him and God. And he was… sad. First Jesus disappointed the rich ruler and then he disappointed Peter.
Jesus said, 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.” There is no one who makes a sacrifice for the kingdom of God who will not get back very much more in this life and in the life to come. There is no one who takes a risk for the kingdom of God now who will not get back very much more and then in the world to come, all the more. No one who gives of themselves for the kingdom of God will be lost in this life or in the life to come. “For nothing is impossible with God.”
Jesus, the rich ruler, and the camel going through the eye of a needle. I wonder what those fundamentalist, scripture is infallible and you better take it literally preachers do with these bible verses? They must give mulligans for this one too. The truth is, though, preachers and theologians have been working pretty much since the Apostle Peter to explain it, make it more palatable, more understandable for life and faith. There was that historical effort to argue for an actual city gate called “the eye of the needle” where a camel might actually be able to walk through. Or there is the overly spiritual approach that would offer a pat on the shoulder and something like “now, now don’t worry about your money, it’s more about whatever holds you back, whatever hinders your relationship with God. For some of us it would be that Reformed theology on steroids approach that affirms that at the end of the day that its not about your wealth at all but any part of you that falls back into that trap of thinking you can earn, or merit, or deserve God’s saving efforts. Don’t worry about the money its grace alone!
Of course, there is always the cut and paste approach. The just ignore it approach. The try to pretend “Jesus talked more about your sexuality than your money approach.” This story of Jesus disappointing both the Ruler and Peter with his comments about riches, it appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in the three year lectionary cycle of assigned Lord’s Day gospel readings, it appears only once. Mark’s account. Once. Luke’s rich ruler never gets a shout out, nor Mathew’s. Just once in three years. And that’s probably a good Sunday to preach from the Epistles or the Old Testament. Jesus so disappointing that we pretend it just isn’t there.
I’m not a literalist but I’m not going to just explain it away either. Sometimes you just have to sit with the most difficult, the most challenging parts of the teaching of Jesus. You just have sit and stew with it, stew in it. I can’t just explain it away. I can’t just make it all better. Mostly, frankly, between you and me, I can’t just explain it away because I’m just trying to think of the last time I sacrificed anything, anything, for the kingdom of God, the last time I took any risk for the kingdom of God, the last time I really gave anything of myself for the kingdom of God. How about you? How about us?
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