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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/11/2015

It has sometimes been said that the gospel message should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The reading from Hebrews today compares the word of God to a two edged sword so you could say that one edge is comfort, the other affliction. The obvious conclusion with today’s reading is that it is an example of afflicting the comfortable when Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give the money to the poor. It certainly wasn’t what the young man was expecting to hear; Jesus’ response was a source of affliction for him as he went away grieving, so that’s one edge of today’s gospel.

With the other edge of this lesson there is also comfort for the afflicted. After Jesus says it’s pretty much impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, when questioned by the disciples about that seeming impossibility he says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.” For any of us, afflicted or not, those are comforting words to hear.

What this text really does is to highlight the tension of the gospel, the tension of the two edged sword that pierces until it divides soul from spirit. The two edges are intended to challenge us, to keep us a little off balance as we try to take seriously both the affliction and the comfort. With today’s text that means you can’t ignore the challenge of what Jesus says to the young man and just hear the words of comfort but on the other hand you can’t take seriously what Jesus says to the young man without the words of comfort.

Sometimes this is understood as a classic stewardship text in part because it always comes around this time of year when stewardship becomes a focus in many churches; but it really isn’t a good stewardship text because selling everything and giving the money to the poor isn’t good stewardship; it just creates another problem. I don’t think Jesus was preaching stewardship here. What he identified though, was the rich man’s blind spot when he asked Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” You get the idea that he came to Jesus anticipating praise, perhaps hoping to be told “You can relax; you’ve already done what is necessary for eternal life” because remember, the prevailing wisdom of the time was that if you were rich that was a sign that God was pleased with you.

So there’s that, but also, based on outward appearances anyway, one would conclude that the young man was a “good” person, having observed the commandments, plus the fact that he demonstrated humility in kneeling before Jesus, and the fact that he called Jesus good. We don’t really know his motivation in coming to Jesus but there’s nothing that indicates insincerity on his part. There is reason to conclude that according to most any standard this was a person of character, someone to be admired, someone on a spiritual journey.

But he had a blind spot. His blind spot had to do with money, that was the presenting issue for him, but even more his blind spot had to do with control, his assumption that he could earn his way. The rich young man goes away sad because what Jesus says to him makes it clear that as good as he was, he couldn’t do it, and even more sadly, it sounds like he wasn’t around to hear the good news that with God all things are possible.

The story of the rich young man forms something of a template for the story of Martin Luther and with that template it opens a window to Lutheran theology. Reformation Sunday isn’t for a couple of weeks, but Luther was similar in some ways to the rich young man. Money wasn’t part of his blind spot, but the prevailing theology of his day said that by doing all the right things, you could earn your way, you could do it! What Luther found though was that no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t in control, he couldn’t do it, it was impossible just like the rich young man knew that what Jesus asked him to do was impossible.

That realization of impossibility can lead in one of two directions; it can lead either to despair, or it can lead to gracious God. For Luther, it led him to his theology of justification by grace and the knowledge that while we can’t earn our own salvation, we don’t have to because, by the grace of God it’s been done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Luther came to realize that with God all things are possible, including the salvation of imperfect people.

Based on the text, we don’t know in which direction the rich young man went, but I’m worried about him. We’re told that he went away grieving which is a sign of despair and as I said, based on the text, he wasn’t around to hear “With God, all things are possible,” which is a word of grace. He needed to hear that, but at least for the moment, he didn’t.

But…”Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” It doesn’t get much more gracious than that. Even if the young man went away before hearing words of grace spoken, even if he didn’t know it, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus’ love is enough for any of us. It’s hope for any of us.

It reminds me of a story told about Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the 20th century. He wrote Church Dogmatics, considered to be theological masterpiece, 14 volumes, 9233 pages. I once started to read volume 1 but didn’t get very far; it’s not something I’d recommend to the casual reader but it’s up on my shelf if anyone is interested. Anyway, the story goes that at the end of a lecture he gave at the University of Chicago in 1962, a student asked him if he could summarize his whole life’s work in one sentence. After some thought this author of some of the densest theology you can imagine said, “Yes I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

“Looking at him, Jesus loved him.” “With God, all things are possible.” For me, those are the cornerstones of this gospel text today. We have to hear those words for the rest of the text to be meaningful: “Looking at him, Jesus loved him. With God all things are possible.” They are words of comfort and with that comfort, one can face into the discomfort of some of the words of affliction that surround these cornerstones.

While I don’t consider this a classic stewardship text, Jesus does address the issue of money and wealth here and it should make us a little uncomfortable. For many of us though, when we hear “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God,” right away we think, he’s not talking to me; I’m not rich. But of course by the world’s standard, we are rich. At the pastor’s text study group last Tuesday there was a pastor from Columbia who talked a little bit about the poverty there, people, lots of people, millions, who through no fault of their own have nothing, being victims of civil war, drug lords, political strongmen and corporate takeovers of their land.

We can pretend we’re not the rich young man, that Jesus isn’t talking to us, but he is. Again, I don’t think he’s offering practical advice here, but what Jesus was really good at was giving indirect answers that make his hearers think about things, in this case, to think about the role of money in your life. It is the afflict the comfortable side of the gospel sword.

With that though, I’m cautious about being too heavy handed with a text like this because I know that I’m looking out at a group of very generous people, good people like the rich young man. So maybe Jesus’ response to all of us would be similar to his response to him, a response that would make us more aware of our blind spots, one of which might be the feeling that because we are generous, we’ve already done enough. Jesus would probably give us a response that we might not like very much, it would afflict us, but it would also make us think, and maybe…it would make us act.

For us though, we’ve stayed around long enough to hear the comfort of, “For God all things are possible.” We also know the truth of “Looking at him, Jesus loved him,” we know the truth that we too are in Jesus sightlines when he says that. Because of Jesus’ love we can face into the challenges he puts before us. Because Jesus loved him we can be pretty sure that the rich young man is OK too. I’m not so worried about him after all.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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