Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
Sometimes we’re like the man in this morning’s parable – we’re seekers, willing to work and stretch our horizons, we’re not looking for simple answers or nice-sounding words. We want substance. We need the truth and we want to know what the truth means for us.
This morning’s gospel text concerns seeking the truth about eternal life. The man who meets Jesus, whom Luke described as a rich ruler of the temple, says he wants to know what he needs to do to find a place in eternity. Jesus’ disciples are also seeking and they’ve traveled some distance toward grasping the truth about eternity. Mark says that Jesus loved the man who sought him out, first because he’d done his best to follow the ten commandments and also because he wants to learn more than he already knows. He wants to advance. Both he and the disciples learn that God is eager to give them as a gift the eternity they are looking for.
What an astonishing facet of the truth. Some very important things do actually come as gifts, not rewards or earnings, but gifts from someone who loves us. Maybe a relative gave you a present one time you never expected or a door opened to a wonderful new opportunity. I’m sure you’ve received the gift of love from another person and also given love to someone else. Eternal life, salvation, the forgiveness of sins, new life – all these are gifts from our loving God that we couldn’t possibly earn on our own. A person who seeks these blessings simply holds out his or her hand, so to speak, to receive God’s gracious gifts. And after we seekers have found them – or to put it more precisely, once God has found us to put his gifts in our hands, he then teaches us how important eternal life is for us and moves our hearts to follow Jesus, as our Lord instructed the rich man who came to him to do.
The problem is it’s hard for us to accept gifts. We prefer doing things on our own. We like the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes with our achievements. Sometimes, we’re too proud to receive. We start thinking this way when we’re children and we hear that Santa Claus makes a distinction between those who are naughty and the ones who are nice. We don’t like to think that anything is given to us. The problem is not our culture or the ways of society or the Protestant life-style. The problem is our human nature. We like to earn what we have.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable is a perfect example. He had many things a lot of people covet – money, comfort, the respect of his neighbors. He lived an outwardly righteous life, having broken none of the major commandments in a serious way. He was pleased with himself; he believed that his prospects for the future were good. He wanted to top things off by learning what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He was sorry when he learned that God didn’t esteem the life-ways he valued. The Lord wishes to give us as a gift what we can’t earn on our own. When we go seeking, we sometimes find things we don’t like. It’s no surprise that the rich young man couldn’t absorb the lesson about dependence on God the first time he heard it. We can hope that he went home to mull over what Jesus had told him, for the word of God is powerful and active, but for now he is a seeker outside the Christian flock.
We note, as well, that even the disciples were pleased with their own achievements, for Peter boasted that they’d given up everything to follow him. Even though the Lord brought them to complete devotion to him later on, at this point, admiration for riches still tainted their hearts.
We’ll digress for a moment to about the relationship between a Christian and worldly wealth. There’s nothing wrong with riches themselves. Abraham , Isaac, and King David were quite well-to-do. The question is – what importance do we attach to wealth? We can take from rich people the impression that they are superior beings, while there’s something deeply flawed about the rest of us. Sin touches everyone, but God sees value in all his creation. He died to redeem everyone from sin. Our good Lord hasn’t established a minimum income for salvation. Emphasis on riches keeps people from doing their best. A person who grubs for money or strives to keep up with his or her neighbors isn’t seeking very hard. We’re at our best when we’re creative and independent and rejoicing with thankfulness for what God has given us.
Let’s take the case of Luke the evangelist as an example, since next Thursday is his day on the church calendar. We don’t know if he was rich or poor, but we do know that the Lord gave him a full life. He was a physician; he traveled widely; he was a friend of the apostle Paul; he expressed himself well and was a gifted student of history, and even secular scholars admire the Book of Acts, which Luke wrote as a companion piece to his Gospel. And, of course, he was a devoted servant of the risen Lord.
Luke could have used his talents to build up his earthly standing, but he knew that life is a gift from God, who brought him to serve him. Luke’s secret was the same as every Christian’s secret: he knew that he was a receiver, not an owner. His received all good things from the Lord – his friends, his good life on earth, his zeal for seeking the truth, and his salvation. Christianity changes all God’s people, and this transformation is one of the things that makes us a community of believers, living under one God, awaiting the return of our Lord.
While waiting in faith, we share similar experiences. First, the Holy Spirit shows us our sins and awakens our consciences. Jesus held up God’s law to the rich man in our reading. The man said he’d kept the Ten Commandments all his life. This isn’t true, of course, because every heart wanders. We don’t escape our flesh and the temptations of the devil as long as we live on the earth. The rich man didn’t respond as a believer, and this, not his wealth, distinguishes him from you and me, for we are aware of our sinfulness. We never boast that we’ve kept God’s law. Instead, we confess our failures. Our shortcomings are often before us.
But that’s not the only experience we share in common. We take hold of God’s pardon, which opens the door to salvation. Forgiveness renews and changes us. If we find that we’re guilty of coveting riches, for example, then instead of tormenting ourselves or fretting about our weakness, we take hold of forgiveness in Christ and lean back and rest in God, who helps us to live joyfully the days he has given us. We’re receivers, as we said, not earners. We receive life when we receive forgiveness. Chastened and restored, we return to following the Lord and live in the glow of eternal life.
We don’t say, as Peter did, that we have sacrificed everything for Christ, but that the Lord has drawn us to appreciate the value of sacrifice. What’s more, we don’t really make sacrifices in the sense that we permanently give something up, because the Lord replaces in his own way anything we may have lost. One missionary I read about who spent a lot of time away from home said that he’d never made a single sacrifice in his whole life. He experienced in a personal way what the Lord meant when he said that anyone who gave up home or relatives or lands for his sake would receive a hundred-fold from the Lord in return, along with persecution, of course, for we Christians often pay social penalties, but rather than complain about the unfairness of life, we praise God for his wonderful generosity toward us and the whole world.
To digress again for a moment, some folks outside the church may say that Christian living is all denial and austerity on the margins of society and guilt-feelings about everything that’s enjoyable. This isn’t the case at all, as the people of St. Peter’s can testify. Christians are grateful receivers of God’s gifts. We rejoice that all good things come from him and we give him back thanks and praise.
Jesus’ list of possible sacrifices is a case in point. He spoke of leaving a house or family or friends. He used the word “or” not “and”. Nobody is called to leave the whole list behind, just a part of it, and the Lord replaces what he takes away – and sometimes in a better form.
So, to conclude, we remember that there are many good things for Christian pilgrims like ourselves to seek, especially a deeper faith through the forgiveness of our sins. Times come, though, when the good Lord leads us to give up seeking and simply receive. This is the key to our blessedness before God – not to think of ourselves as doers but receivers. Some of us may be tempted to seek earthly riches for their own sake – an unnecessary quest, dear friends, because the Lord sees us as kings and queens already, a high status we receive now by faith. Why try to look further? Our standing in God’s eyes will be perfectly visible to us later on in heaven.
The world and the devil will surely put many temptations before us, including the temptation to believe that we’re so wonderful that God will automatically reward us with eternal life. The truth is that he is wonderful and calls us to live with him in faith and love. Our lives testify to his generosity and our trust that it will go on and on even after we have received the fulfillment of his promise of eternal life. In Jesus’ name we rejoice. AMEN.The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ