In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
No matter how many times I say it - and moreover, no matter how many times the stories of the Bible say it - one thing about the Christian experience seems to remain surprising for a lot of people (or at least we tend to act as if it’s surprising). That is, quite simply, that it’s not easy to be a Christian. It never was, and really, it never was supposed to be.
But somewhere in our history, we seemed to have forgotten the call to sacrifice. Somewhere along the way, Christianity became another of the many products that we consume, rather than a way of living in response to the amazing grace of God.
There are certainly signs to suggest that in the past sixty years, or so, this consumerist approach to Christianity moved from mere tendency to widespread epidemic; but the truth is, the tendency has always been there. We need only look to the story of the “rich, young ruler” to see the seed of that dysfunction at work even in the earliest days of our faith.
The three synoptic gospels refer to the man in the story we hear today as either “the rich man”, “the young man”, or “the ruler”, but tradition has conflated them into “the rich, young ruler”. But whoever he was, the essence of the story remains the same: a generally pious man, who follows the law, comes to Jesus for assurance of his place in heaven. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Giving the stock answer, Jesus tells him about the commandments.
Perhaps feeling a wave of relief that he’d been right all along, the man says, “Oh I’ve been doing that forever!”
And then the Gospel says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘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.”
Mark tells us that on hearing this, the man was shocked and went away grieving. He had done so much, and still it was not yet enough to earn God’s favor.
These words and this story are still as shocking for us today as they were to that rich, young ruler. Is God really so insatiable that even the good and pious people among us aren’t doing enough? Are we all meant to live in poverty?
The logical side of my mind begins to fall into some circular sequence of events: God seems to have this preference for the poor. So to gain God’s favor, the rich must become poor. But if God’s wishes were followed, then the poor, whom God had favored, would no longer be poor. The rich who gave away their possessions would be poor. So does God’s favor shift? Then the now rich, who had been poor, to gain God’s favor, must give away their possessions to the now poor, who had been rich. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, it seems that the cycle of falling in and out of God’s favor could go on and on and on! It doesn’t seem like a very efficient strategy for the salvation of God’s people.
Upon closer examination, this story doesn’t seem to hold up as either a call to generosity or a parable of economic justice. It just doesn’t make much sense if you interpret it solely in that way.
The answer seems to come a little later. The disciples, who had been watching this whole exchange, are understandably perplexed. They talk it over with each other and with Jesus, who explains to them how incredible difficult it is for people to do all that is necessary to “enter the kingdom of God” - or to earn God’s favor.
Jesus says, “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.”
Finally the disciples get to the right question: “Then who can be saved?”
Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
That’s Jesus’ answer to the rich, young ruler. He had asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But he was asking the wrong question. It couldn’t be answered with a sound bite or a bumper sticker. The answer was to follow Jesus and to learn to ask better questions. The answer is that there is nothing that we can do as individuals to earn God’s favor. God’s favor comes from grace - not as the reciprocal end of some divine transaction.
We don’t consume salvation - we bask in it. And we live our lives in such a way that we share the truth of it.
There’s a part of me that grieves this interpretation of this story. The truth is, we could all use another call to economic justice, and we could all stand to be a bit more generous. There is soul-wrenching poverty all around us, and as the hands and feet of Christ in the world we are called to ease it. There is an epidemic of enslaving excess in all of our lives and we would all be stronger and healthier people if we would surrender some of it.
That’s what it means to live our lives in such a way that shares the truth of salvation.
But doing so won’t earn us God’s favor. There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor.
That’s just not the way it works.
We don’t live generously and answer the needs of the world to earn God’s grace, but in grateful response to God’s grace.
The rich, young ruler did everything right, but it wasn’t enough. And it never would be enough. There’s always something more that God is asking of us. There’s always something more that we can give.
It’s not easy to be a Christian. It doesn’t fit in a simple list of rules, or in a sound bite, or on a bumper sticker. “W.W.J.D.?” - “What would Jesus do?” - is easy to ask, but harder to answer.
But, through the grace of God and through the generosity of the Holy Spirit we keep finding new questions the longer we follow Christ. And that’s the answer. Amen.