Thursday, October 19, 2006

Reflections on the Rich Young Man

Mass this past Sunday gave me an incentive to pick up on my promise to deal with “holiness” in the Christian life. My friend Rob preached in the place of our vacationing pastor. And, as is so often the case, he gave me boat loads to think on.

Rob is a fine preacher and presider. As a preacher, Robis remarkable, to my ear, for his ability to be speak in a formal and elevated style (which also characterizes his presence) while employing a plainspokenness and accessibility in language and structure that together give the sermon a sense of importance and of its role as a liturgical act. That was true of Sunda’s sermon, too (which you can read here). As usual, nothing he said was wrong. He engaged the text and spoke from there, wrestling with the “troubles” in the text, and not taking the easy way out. But still, I hoped for a little more. All I can wish is that I could convince him to be a little less either old-school Lutheran or in thrall to Robert Farrar Capon (whom I know he likes, even if he didn't quote him in this sermon).

Yesterday’s texts included Amos’ advocacy of economic justice and the famous encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, who went away sad when he could not sell all that he owned and give the proceeds to the poor. It was a textual convergence to make the heart of a North Dakota democratic socialist sing. And there were many good things in the sermon to hearten a jaded Minnesotan sick of hearing about how the gospel really boils down to a salve for our neuroses.

Rob correctly pointed out that Jesus did not offer the standard “Lutheran” answer to the young man’s inquiry, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”: “Nothing! There’s nothing you need to do, nothing you can do. Eternal life is a gift. It’s all about grace, you see.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the answer, I suppose, for Lutherans. There is, of course, nothing that we can do to inherit eternal life; it is most certainly pure gift.

The only problem is that is not what Jesus says in the pericope – as Rob correctly and diligently pointed out. Instead, echoing Amos’ jeremiad (to mix my prophets), Jesus calls on the young man to keep the commandments. Then, when the young man says that he already does so (how cocky of him so to think, a Lutheran might say!), Jesus calls on him to divest himself of all his property and to give the proceeds from the divestiture to the poor. Jesus notes that fulfilling the law of God requires freedom – freedom from the constraints of this world and freedom for service to God. He commends a kind of freedom that is built on an ascetic release of and from “stuff” (as Rob called it) – i.e., material, social, spiritual, and emotional attachments that get in the way of worship. Stuff is one measure of our disbelief in the Gospel: It is likely that the more we “need” or crave stuff, the less our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths are screwed in correctly and the less we worship only the true God.

When the young man goes away, Jesus reflects on how difficult it is for rich people to attain heaven, but he then concludes on the hope-filled note that with God, what is impossible for people is radically possible. (Too bad the young man didn’t stay around to hear!) And Rob did an eloquent, almost poetic, job of expositing how that possibility has worked itself out in history – e.g., in conception by a virgin, in conversion of water into wine, in resurrection from a crucifixion-caused death.

And then Rob concluded by rephrasing this positive note as an answer to the young man in all of us:

So then, who can be saved? Can that wealthy man who walked away from Jesus be saved? Can we? Can we be saved, Brothers & Sisters?

For humans – we who are sinful, selfish, scared, & stubborn – were salvation all up to us – that would be impossible.

But, thanks be, it’s not up to us. It’s up to God, and with God – who is demanding, dedicated, full of amazing grace and steadfast love – with God nothing is impossible.
Hear the good news,with God nothing is impossible.


And so the sermon ended. And a good, orthodox ending it was – except … .

As my wife said to me later, “Rob let us off the hook.” There are in this conclusion overtones of the very Lutheran answer that Rob suggested was not quite on point: Don’t worry if you are over-invested in your possessions. God can make salvation happen regardless of what we do or don't do. Jesus did not let the young man off the hook: He waited until the young man had gone to make his point about how nothing is impossible for God. The existential hook of the Gospel was preserved for the young man. But implied in Rob's conclusion was that we need not face such an existentially troubling problem.

Is that enough said? Is all Jesus' talk (e.g., here and in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain) just meant, in terms of the classic satire of Lutheran ethics, to suggest that there’s nothing we can do, so relax because there’s nothing to do? Or, an even worse parody, is Jesus’ talk about the need for holy living merely “aspirational” or (in lawyer talk) “precatory” – good advice, but not finally existentially demanding? Since there’s nothing we can do to be saved, does it ultimately not matter how we live?

What’s missing from this approach – and from Rob’s sermon – is the recognition, affirmation, and integration that “with God,” giving up the stuff of this earth is not impossible. Because the same Jesus who deterred that rich young (earnest, sincere) man is the same Jesus risen from the dead, we are ABLE to reduce our dependency on material, spiritual, emotional, and other “stuff” that trips us up on our duty to and journey of following Jesus. If the Gospel is true, we can sell all (OK, as I note below, I’ll compromise on that “all”) that we have and give it to the poor and then follow Jesus. And this is so, not so that we can somehow “earn” eternal life (for that has already been given), but because Jesus lives. Because Jesus was raised, not only are the commands of the Lord binding, but they are also possible.

Now, I admit that we live in the in-between times, so “perfect obedience” to the law of God is impossible – and, even with God’s help, unlikely – because Sin continues to have some power in the world (even in its death throes begun with the Resurrection). But by virtue of baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit which baptism bestows, we are already (in anticipation of the final times) empowered to grow in grace, to grow in our ability to live in faithfulness, to do what is impossible. Furthermore, because of the company we keep – viz., the very continuing Body of Christ in the world – we are encouraged, upheld, corrected, reconciled,, to live the life that God the Father intends. We are made holy – not just in some theoretical or forensic way, but in earthy and practical ways. We have, for example, available to us the service of the Holy Spirit to address our financial insecurities so that we worry less about remaining financially “liquid” and more about sharing our wealth with those who are not as wealthy as we.

The call to repentance and belief (which is what Jesus was calling the rich young man to) is not a call to hang in there, doing what we’re doing, counting on God to look the other way(or at least hoping he does), to change his mind, to re-think his commandments. It is, instead, the call to lay hold of the power of God precisely to live as he has set out the way. The people of God are a holy people – “holy,” not just by virtue of his claiming them (a conviction I do not deny), but “holy,” too, because in them He has invested his Spirit that they might be his reflection, his image, in the world. We are the Body of Christ, not just in metaphorical terms, but in actual, literal, and “real” terms.

It is not impossible: We are not prevented from being a holy people; we can give up (at least much of) what we own and give the proceeds to the poor – or even give that very “stuff” to the poor – and follow Jesus. (A serious question, of course, is whether we can retain hold and ownership of our stuff and yet follow Jesus: It is difficult, per Jesus, to be wealthy and to enter the kingdom of heaven. And that we are all wealthy is, I think, indisputable. It may be that to raise the question at all is to deny that we wish eternal life -- except, that is, on our own terms.)

Nothing that I have said denies anything that Rob said in his sermon. But my concern is that such “free grace” preaching hardens hearts – or at least leaves space for Satan to harden hearts – to the radical demands of God that his people be holy even as he is holy. It requires no real death, no metanoia, no difference. And that, my brothers and sisters, is cheap grace – which Bonhoeffer ought to have convinced us is not Gospel, no matter how secure and comfortable it makes us feel. And “cheap grace” leaves us in our damned old condition.

Of better news is that the grace of God has been released in the world (together with or as the Spirit of God) to redeem us, lost and condemned creatures, and to make us into the Body of Christ, the very means of bringing the Gospel to the world.

And as much as I enjoyed the journey on which Rob took our congregation, that’s the direction I wish he had pointed and pushed us.

A final, personal note to Rob, if you read this: Of course, one cannot say everything in a sermon, and I am holding you to what may be an unreasonably high standard. I acknowledge that. You have given me the launching pad for my criticism of most preaching I hear in the Church today -- preaching that ignores the fundamental power of the Spirit to make the Church the Church, in favor of a lame feel-good, pseudo-psychology. You are in no way particularly guilty of that problem (in fact, I’d say you are much less inclined than most I hear!). So please try to take this commentary in the spirit in which I offer it, but poorly express it – a plea for more Lutheran reflection on holiness or sanctification!


Anonymous said...

One of our sisters in Christ (one well acquainted with the task of preaching) said as she left mass that day, "At first I thought you let us off the hook. Then I realized you didn't. It was subtle, but you didn't let us off the hook!"

That was the intent. To NOT let us off the hook. What I said, just before the conclusion you quoted in your post was this:

" And can we His followers who are wealthy, we who cling to our possessions like a security blanket to protect us from vulnerability, can we be moved to free ourselves from the burden of possessions so that, liberated, we can bless the poor and can follow after that One who has the words of eternal life.

Well, you see the pattern – for humans that seems impossible."

So the imperative to sell all, to give to the poor, and then to follow Jesus stands. Should we think such an imperative impossible, as did the rich young man, we should hear the good and challenging news that God both demands it and will somehow empower us to fulfill it.

I was decidely NOT saying, "Don’t worry if you are over-invested in your possessions. God can make salvation happen regardless of what we do or don't do." I WAS saying, "Worry if you are over-invested in your possessions. God calls you to sell them all - lock, stock and barrell. But is such a transaction impossible? For you alone, maybe. With God on your side - it IS possible."

In fact, the point that I intended in this sermon, that Jesus DOES call us to action - to DO something to work out our salvation - contrary to stereotypical Lutheran salvation - is one I learned from you!!! I thus sought to let Jesus' words stand - sell it all! - rather than say that grace alone sufices. We in fact DO "face such an existentially troubling problem." Impossible to solve?? Not with God on our side.

I was trying to made the very homilitical point that you are making in this post: that we're not let off the hook but because of God's love, we're not left as camels too big to fit through the needle's opening.

Maybe I was too subtle...


Dwight P. said...

You're of course right: It was there, I heard it and read it, but I didn't get it. And part of that is that I am not a good sermon listener. But I will turn it around on you, too.

We -- both the specific "we" of Mount Olive and the general "we" of the Church -- are not used to hearing that. And unless it is made more particular, more concrete, most of us will miss it.

I simply ask you to consider the amount of time/print you invested in that particular claim versus how much on setting up the problem. The "reply" must be commensurate in both to the problem stablished.

But I think I, too, gave you inadequate credit for pushing this "agenda" (also known as "the Gospel"). It's there as you make clear in your reply. And may you and we have many more opportunities for you to prove me even wronger!

Peace, brother.

By the way, as I was dashing this off, I considered some kind of crack like this: If Athens has trouble understanding Jerusalem, perhaps Gettysburg has trouble understanding Luther (sem). I chose not to. And then when I got to the "word verification," I was asked to enter "jrsem" -- as in "junior seminary" -- and I had to come back! Just what am I to make of that coincidence?

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "I simply ask you to consider the amount of time/print you invested in that particular claim versus how much on setting up the problem. The "reply" must be commensurate in both to the problem stablished."

Agreed. If I had it to do over again I would make the "we DO have to sell everything" point more emphatically.

Please do know that the seeds you endeavor to plant are taking root and even bearing some fruit, however subtle!


Paul of Wannaska said...

Why all this damned fuss about "letting us off the hook"? Rob, if by the end of your sermon you've let your listeners "off the hook" of the law and its demands, then good for you, and thanks be to God. Preachers who try to leave their congregations "on the hook" need to consider how far the law (whether it's moral exhortation, holding out our potential of regeneration, describing what will happen to us in sanctification, or what have you) can actually go. The cross is the final limit on human dreams of progress--the disciples had been listening to Jesus for some time (including his moral lessons) and nevertheless fled when he was arrested. Yes, we are sanctified, but God does the sanctifying through the preaching office. We need preachers who hand over the law with all its demands, including the demand to give up everything and care for the poor. When the law has put us to death, though, we also need those same preachers to give us a word that frees us, lets us off the hook and destroys the hook. If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Dwight, I do agree that serious preaching of the law is absent from pulpits, but even when it's absent, God has plenty of other ways to condemn, show us our limits, and put us to death. But only through the preached word of forgiveness (in word and sacrament) has he promised to raise us up as new people, people who actually keep the commandments and give evereything they have to the poor. When I've seen people give everything they have (and I have seen it in my congregations), it's not because of any cheerleading on my part; at those moments I can only sit back and think: My goodness, God is actually doing what he promised to do, that is, make new people out of these sinners, people who truly love God and love their neighbor, and I can only guess that he's done so through the means he's told us about, that is, the means of word and sacrament.

Anonymous said...

Brother Paul, just a note:

I don't guess I know what you mean by "God does the sanctifying through the preaching office." That does not seem at odds, really, with anything that's been said here. But that's a different thing from letting them off the hook. It appears to me that the plain words of Jesus are that we are expected to live the salvation -- or justification -- that we have been graced with.

Does sancification have any visible signs or is it an inward reality? Do you grant any sense in which growth in grace is a manifest difference in the life one leads -- one that more (perhaps only slightly more) nearly approximates what Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount?