Proper 23b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to the rich young man, ‘You lack one thing...’+
Have you ever been shopping, and arrived home with your arms full of packages, only to be faced by the locked door, and the realization that your latch-key is in your purse or your trouser pocket? The only way to get into the house is to put the packages down while you get out the key and open the door. In effect, this is what Jesus said to the man who came running up to him in today’s gospel, asking him what he had to do to inherit eternal life.
This man, as the gospel tells us, had many possessions. You probably didn’t have to be a prophet to tell: no doubt he had a fine suit of clothes, maybe a couple of servants following him at a respectful distance. Here was the proverbial “man who had everything,” and yet Jesus knew he lacked the one thing he needed most of all. He was like a man accidentally locked in a storeroom full of canned food, starving to death because he didn’t have the one thing he needed — a can-opener. What this man needed was the grace to give up what he had so that he could follow Jesus. His arms were so full of his possessions he couldn’t set hold of the key to eternal life. He went away shocked and grieved — he couldn’t let go; he couldn’t put it down, though his life depended on it.
Now, it would be easy to say that this gospel only had to do with the wealth of this world — the physical possessions that weigh us down and keep us from following Jesus. We might remember poor old Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” He learned too late that the wealth that he should have used for the well-being of his community had instead became a “ponderous chain” he built up link by link in this life, and which kept him shuffling and clanking in his dreary afterlife, doomed forever to witness the suffering that he might once have eased — he “took it with him” and in the grave it kept him.
Yes, it would be easy for us to look at this gospel story as a warning for somebody else — for the rich — since few if any of us here are wealthy by the world’s standards. And it would be easy for me to turn the gospel on its head, and pat myself and all of us on the back just as the apostles did at the end of the reading.
But I would rather invite all of us to look at this message from the gospel a little more closely. Look more closely, and you’ll see that Jesus’ message wasn’t just about the wealth of this world, but about another kind of wealth, a kind of wealth that can get in our way and fill our arms with so many bundles we can’t make it through the door.
The man who came running up to Jesus was carrying more than gold and silver. This man was carrying a mountain of invisible packages, things he didn’t even know he was carrying. And they were good things, too! That’s part of the problem. This man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and called him, “Good teacher.” And right off, Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good?” That should get our attention right away. What an odd thing for Jesus to say! But this odd saying of Jesus is the key to today’s gospel, to see that it is about more than money. What we have before us is nothing less than the difference between goodness and grace.
This man came up to Jesus with his arms full of his good deeds. And let’s make sure we’ve got that clear: he was a good man. He had done many good deeds. Jesus looked upon him and loved him. He was a model citizen, a faithful and obedient son of Moses, one who, as the prophet Amos said, “loved good, and established justice in the gate.” And yet his arms were so full of his good deeds, he was so proud that he had kept the law, that he couldn’t see the most important thing of all, the thing he’d neglected in his race to be a perfect “self-made man,” a good citizen.
The one thing he missed was the grace of God — a free gift that you can’t buy with all the money in the world, the free gift you can’t earn with all the good you do or try to do. This man was so conscious of his good works that he forgot his need for grace. As the collect for today reminds us, grace must “always precede and follow us” so that “we may continually be given to good works.” So that... Without that grace, no good can come.
This man thought the good works he did were his — he forgot that without God’s grace he could have done nothing at all worth doing. For not just his good works — but everything he was came from God. He thought himself a self-made-man, but he forgot that even his existence was owed to God, and God alone: God made him, and no one else.
And God would continue to give him all he needed. But when Jesus told him the one thing he lacked, to give up everything he was carrying and to follow him, trusting entirely in God’s grace and providence — not his own wealth, his inheritance, his skill, his wisdom — but in God’s grace, with no visible means of support, he just couldn’t do it.
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Have you ever sent someone on a shopping errand? Perhaps a youngster, or a brother or sister, or your spouse? You might say, “Oh, Alicia, would you run down to the store and get me a bottle of Pine-Sol?” And off she goes, and an hour later comes back with shopping bags brimful of all the wonderful things she’s found, the incredible bargains, and the once-in-a-lifetime offers — she’s got everything, except, can you guess? — the Pine-Sol! Now, she meant well; she made some wise purchases, perhaps she even saved you some money on a few bargains. But she didn’t bring what you asked for.
Jesus asks for one thing from us, one thing more than anything else — he wants our hearts, our trusting hearts — to follow him. Yes, he wants us to do good works, and he honors and welcomes those good deeds; he loves us for them as he loved the rich man in the gospel, who had done good with all his might from his youth on up. But Jesus, our gracious Lord, our savior who gives us grace without counting the cost, knows that our salvation is a gift that is in his hands to give. And with it all the rest will come, all those other things from God — the houses, brothers and sisters, and fields (with persecutions!) — all of that will come if we first give up what we have. We are not saved on account of our goodness — goodness has nothing to do with it, as Mae West once observed. Only grace — only Christ’s blood shed for us, can purchase our salvation — and this is a purchase Christ makes with what is his: his life, his blood, laid down for us. When we depend on our own goodness, on our own store of virtue, on our own spiritual riches, we are in danger of becoming too rich for Christ’s blood; and of forgetting that all the good we do comes from him in any case.
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Let me tell you a parable. There was once a man who wanted to become a great fisherman. He was a successful businessman, who had always dreamed of his retirement and the happy hours he’d spend fishing. So when he finally retired, he bought the most expensive fishing tackle, the finest high-tech carbon-fiber rod with the flashiest stainless steel reel, the most elaborate tackle and exquisite lures and lines of finest monofilament. And he went out to fish one day, but he couldn’t for the life of him catch a single fish. And to his amazement, when he looked downstream, there, in a quiet eddy of the very same stream, was a little barefoot twelve-year-old boy with a bamboo stick, a length of string, a can of worms, a bent safety pin — and a pile of fish! And the man yelled out, “How is it that a little kid like you with a stick and a piece of string can catch all those fish and I can’t get a nibble?” And the boy hollered back, “Well, Mister, I guess you have to be where the fish are!”
To be where Jesus is—that is the one thing necessary. And to be where he is, you have to follow him, right? — because he doesn’t stay still, does he? Jesus is on the move, and to follow him we need to be light on our feet, not weighed down with possessions or pride, but free to follow him where he leads. You remember the old hymn, “Where he leads me, I will follow; where he leads me I will follow...” Well, he’s leading; but are we following or just singing? We need that one thing — grace, the grace to follow him. It’s the same “one thing” Jesus told Martha — another person who had her hands full — remember Martha? — Jesus told her that “one thing” was needful: to be with him. That one thing is grace, the grace to be where Jesus is, to follow him and to accept what he offers: without this grace all the good deeds in the world will get you nowhere. But with this grace, we can go anywhere our Lord would have us go! Because he is marking the way before us, and all we have to do is be free enough to follow him.
This is the wonder of grace: It is impossible for us to save ourselves, but God, through grace, will save anybody who wants to be saved. With God’s grace, we need do only one thing: accept Christ’s invitation to follow him to the banquet. Light on our feet, we can follow him down the king’s highway, empty-handed and open-handed, ready to help our brothers and sisters, ready to do good, not because we win heaven thereby, but because the gracious good news of God is too good to keep to ourselves— and the more of it we give away the more of it we seem to have.
We have a choice to make. Would you rather enter into life empty-handed, or spend eternity with the camels parked outside — the camels who can’t fit through the gate? I think I know the answer. I know where I want to be, and I think you do too. “Where he leads me I will follow...”
So as you journey through this world, stay light on your feet and keep your hands free. Don’t stop doing good, but once you’ve done it, forget about it and put it down. You remember what Jesus said that in doing good we ought not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Don’t carry your good deeds around; keep both hands free to take Jesus’ hands in yours when he reaches down into the grave to lift you up to the risen life. If you do have too many possessions, if wealth is getting in your way, for the love of God, put it down. If you are conscious of your own good works, if you feel like maybe God owes you something because of your goodness, then for the love of God, and goodness gracious, put it down. If you carry anything, anything at all, then for the love of God let it be nothing other than the cross of Christ, the cross you take up each day as you follow him on the road that leads to the heavenly kingdom of his Father, to whom as is most justly due, we now ascribe all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+