Matthew 12:43-45 – True Repentance

Freedom by Zenos Frudakis in Philiadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jesus said, “When an evil spirit comes out of a person, it travels through dry places looking for a place to rest, but it finds none. So, it says, ‘I will go back to the home I left.’ When it comes back, it finds that home still empty. It is all neat and clean. Then the evil spirit goes out and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself. They all go and live there, and that person has even more trouble than before. It is the same way with the evil people who live today.” (ERV) 

Nature abhors a vacuum. A tilled plot of soil will be overtaken with weeds if nothing is planted and nurtured in the turned-over dirt. The pecking order of a brood of chickens cannot handle the death of the top hen without filling the position almost immediately. And, in the spiritual realm, the exorcising of a demon will not simply leave a person empty of evil – his/her life will be filled with something in its place. 

Today’s Gospel story, told by Jesus, about the man who is delivered from an unclean spirit, is a powerful and simple narrative on the necessity of true repentance. Genuine freedom is more than getting rid of something bad and destructive; the evil must be replaced with something good and useful. That is, biblical repentance is both a turning away from ungodliness and an embrace of righteousness.

We are delivered from evil so that we can start living into the righteousness and peace intended for us. 

For example, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesian believers to not only stop stealing but also to get a job and start sharing with others. They were not only to stop lying and using their tongues for gossip and slander and start using their words to speak truth that builds up others. (Ephesians 4:25-32) 

The spiritual principle is the same as the nature principle: A empty vacuum will always be filled. The man who did not fill his life with God ended up having a problem with evil seven times greater than when he started. 

If anything, or anyone, is emptied of its unhealthy elements and practices, it is imperative that the hole be immediately filled with healthy disciplines for life. 

Whether dealing with addictions, bad habits, or any kind of evil influence, a two-pronged approach is needed for its eradication. We expel the evil by replacing it with godliness. The man struggling with pornography or adultery must not only stop the behavior but take up the mantle of being a champion for women’s issues. The woman who has no healthy boundaries and allows herself to be used and abused must not only separate from the problem or person but adopt her identity in Christ as a precious child of God and enforce righteous limitations.   

None of these examples are meant to be simplistic answers to complex situations. Rather, they illustrate why so many people do not experience freedom and continue to have even greater enslavement to their passions and sufferings. 

Freedom is realized through replacing old practices with new disciplines that directly attack the old. 

We all have needs. How we get those needs met is often a mixed bag of both legitimate and illegitimate ways. In a perfect world, everyone would be aware of their needs and be able to express them to one another without shame, anxiety, or anger. Since we live on a blemished fallen planet, we end up trying to meet our needs indirectly through hustling for love, hoarding resources, and controlling others – all harmful ways which destroys souls and relationships. 

So, unless we focus on positively meeting our needs, we must go a step beyond dropping a toxic relationship, cutting up a credit card, or saying “no” to another responsibility. We often get into our mess to begin with because we are out of touch with ourselves and our needs. We need affection and encouragement, and there is no shame in needing this. We need security and safety, and there is no problem in acquiring this. There are some things we need to control, and that is okay. 

If we fail to address our needs, we might do the necessary work of deliverance, then turn right around and become worse off than before by filling the empty place of our lives with:  

  • Being all things to all people, as if we were the Messiah.  
  • Being successful so that we stay ahead of being needy.  
  • Pulling inside ourselves and trusting nobody.  
  • Distancing from our needs and pretending they are not there.  
  • Being continually vigilant so that we are never hurt that way again.  
  • Keeping a positive spin on everything, as if there is no negative stuff in the world.  
  • Challenging other’s opinions and behaviors to keep the focus off our needs.  
  • Becoming a wallflower so that we can never be the brunt of someone else’s vitriol or evil. 

Instead, we can let Jesus fill the emptiness with love, purpose, peace, joy, attention, and grace. Christ is the Savior who delivers us from evil, and the Holy Spirit is the Sanctifier who carefully applies the work of salvation to our lives.

When our hearts and minds are full of God, there is no place for the demons to get in. 

True repentance equally forsakes evil and embraces righteousness; replaces the unhealthy with the healthy; jettisons the illegitimate and seeks the legitimate; and puts away unnecessary suffering and pursues peace and joy in the Spirit.  

O God, I no longer want to live with saying I’m sorry and going right back to the old pig slop of sin. I cannot change on my own.  I need Jesus to both take away the sin and give me a new life of living for him.  Lead me not into temptation but deliver me from evil Help me to make choices that put to death the old way of life, and the courage to live into my forgiveness in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Matthew 19:16-22 – An Intervention by Jesus

Armenian Orthodox depiction of Jesus and the rich young man.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (NIV)

Sin is addictive. Since we are all sinners, we are therefore all addicts. We do not all struggle with the same sin but we all have some besetting sin(s) we must be weaned off of, whether it is what we typically think of as addiction (alcohol, substance abuse, smoking, pornography, gambling) or things we don’t readily notice as addictive (gossip, food, shopping, social media, Netflix). The most pervasive and addictive sin found in Holy Scripture is the addiction to wealth and money.

It would be easy to think of others rather than we ourselves when it comes to the topic of money. “I don’t have as much money as…” or, “So and so really has a problem with this…” perhaps betrays our own denial of having an inordinate concern with wealth. The truth be told, it is likely that all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, and stuff. Even people who truly have little money and few resources can compulsively think about wealth and wish for riches to an unhealthy degree, as if possessing more is the thing that will make them happy.

Persons in denial rarely realize how much they are hurting others, themselves, and God. In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. The great preacher from antiquity, St. John Chrysostom, plainly declared:

“Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”

Sometimes, because of denial, people need an intervention – to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift.  Someone cares enough to intervene. Yet, interventions do not always work. The person may walk away and refuse to see themselves as they are.

Jesus performed an intervention with a rich young man (literally, a twenty-something). The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he failed to see it. In fact, he thought of himself as godly and spiritual. It is a sad story because the man walked away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not follow him.

Because of his riches, the young man did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change, and so, held to his denial.

Today’s Gospel lesson is not merely an ancient story. It is our story, as well. Whereas I would get all excited about being asked a question like, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” and launch into proclaiming the good news, Jesus, however, immediately picked up on the attitude and thought behind the question. 

What must I do to get?  It is almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth.  “I am a successful businessman, and respected citizen,” the young man might have reasoned, “and now I want to be a success with God, as well.” However sincere the question may have been, it is misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile twenty-something to acquire and possess. It seems he believed he could purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God.

Jesus questioned the question by going after the underlying assumption that the man could do something good to obtain eternal life. He could not because only God is good. So, Jesus changed the action from getting to entering; and changed the language from a market acquisition to entering a journey. In short, Jesus was inviting the man to walk with him.

Eternal life is a journey of faith in the God who is good, and not a transaction to leverage obtaining what I want.

We must be careful to avoid the topic of eternal life as if it were a contractual arrangement, as if getting a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula will seal the deal. Because life with God is a walk of obedience to divine commands.

The rich guy wanted to know which commands to obey. Jesus then quoted the second table of the Ten Commandments, the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to see that the entrance to God’s kingdom goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Simple straightforward observance of commands has its limits; it cannot provide genuine life. The rich man seemed to be looking for some extraordinary command. After all, he could do it, no matter what the price was.  The man, in his materialistic worldview, was confused. “What resources could I possibly lack?” he wondered.  So, Jesus straight up told him: Sell everything. Give to the poor. Then, come, follow me.

The young twenty-something needed to shift how he thought about being godly. Jesus is a person, not a commodity one can simply add to a portfolio.

Jesus mercifully offered the man a new way of being, not doing.

Through the conversational back and forth, Jesus exposed the rich man’s divided loyalties of trying to serve both God and money. He would have to choose between the two. And, I will add, this is our choice, as well. The issue is not whether we are completely devoted to money, or not. The question is: Are we trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world? 

God wants an undivided heart with complete allegiance. Jesus is scouting for the poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and do not sugar-coat their spiritual state.

Like an alcoholic who needs sobriety, or a sex addict who needs purity, or a workaholic who needs to stop and go home, the rich young man needed to give up his inordinate love for money and possessions. So, Jesus did an intervention. Keep in mind that Jesus did not ask every rich person to do exactly as he called this young man to do, i.e. Zacchaeus to give everything away, or for Peter to sell his fishing business.

We must face our own compulsions, obsessions, and addictions surrounding money and wealth. Perhaps the best way to grow our faith is to tell a trusted person that you compulsively work in order to feel better, or that you are afraid to give because you worry about the future, or that you love to buy things you don’t really need.

I also want to do a check-in with you right now. With your self-awareness regarding money and stuff, do you feel horrible about yourself?  Do you beat yourself up for screwing up and succumbing to the money master? Grace is the final word on everything. God has unlimited patience with us and never tires of inviting us to follow him. Praise the Lord that divine love and acceptance is not based on our screw-ups but on the cross of Christ.

Camels cannot pass through the eye of a needle through dieting, concentrating harder, or getting lucky. Yet, it can happen, not because the camel can squeeze through the narrowness of the needle’s eye but because there is a wideness in God’s mercy.

Grace will pull you through. And unlike the rich young man, once you hear and understand that piece of delightful news, you do not walk away sad. You bound away with eternal joy.

O Lord, giver of life and source of freedom, I know that all I have received is from your hand. You call us to be stewards of your abundance, the caretakers of all you have entrusted to us. Help us to always use your gifts wisely and teach us to share them generously. May our faithful stewardship bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ in our lives. Amen.

Matthew 19:23-30 – Come-to-Jesus Meeting

Jesus and the Rich Young Man by Chinese artist, 1879

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, 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.” 

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (NIV) 

We all have a chronic struggle and relapse with some besetting shortcomings. We compulsively do them even though they harm us. Whether it is what we typically think of as addiction (alcohol, illicit drugs, etc.) or things we don’t readily notice as addictive (gossip, food, shopping) we need to be weaned off our damaging obsessions.

In Holy Scripture, the most pervasive and compulsive vice is the addiction to wealth and money. 

We all have our own unique tussle with money. If our initial knee-jerk reactions to money issues is to think of someone else (“I don’t have as much money as…” or, “So and so really has a problem with this…”) then this is what we call denial. The truth be told, all of us offer some disclaimer about how our trust is not in paychecks, bank accounts, and material stuff. For me, money buys books, of which my voracious appetite is never satiated.  

Even people who truly have little money and scant resources can have an addiction to money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that would make them happy. Folks in denial rarely have any idea how much they harm others, themselves, and even God. In fact, the consistent witness of the early church fathers is that the sheer accumulation of stuff is the same as stealing from the poor. 

Orthodox icon of Jesus and the rich young man

Sometimes, because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses.  Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough to intervene. Yet, many interventions do not work because the person can walk away and refuse to change. 

Jesus performed an intervention with a rich young man (literally, a twenty-something).  The young man was obsessed with wealth and money, but he did not see it. He thought of himself only as godly and spiritual. It is really a sad story because the man walked away unchanged by his encounter with Jesus. He failed to see himself as desperately needing to change. He held to his denial. (Matthew 19:16-22) 

Jesus exposed the young man’s divided loyalties of trying to serve both God and money. He would have to choose between the two. This is our choice, as well. God wants an undivided heart and loyal allegiance. Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit and recognize their great need for God, rather than believing they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. God wants spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and do not practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state. 

Just like an addict who either cannot or will not give up the addiction, the rich young man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. So, Jesus did an intervention. Christ does not ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich young man to do. For example, Jesus asked neither the wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, nor the disciple Peter to sell his fishing business. However, Jesus does ask all of us to do what seems impossible and let God meet our needs. 

Christ had the original come-to-Jesus-meeting with his disciples in debriefing about his conversation with the rich man. If it is so impossible and so difficult for a rich person to be saved because his wealth gets in the way, who then can be saved, the disciples wondered? 

We cannot save or redeem ourselves. We need grace. We need help. 

So serious is Jesus about this business of genuine discipleship, about what it really takes to follow God that he repeats himself using a colorful illustration: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  Jesus wants us, who have lots of stuff, bank accounts, and so money to see ourselves in the illustration. Only the discouraged, the hopeless, and the helpless will see their absolute need for grace and will seek the miracle of salvation Jesus offers. 

Peter, always the big mouthpiece for the disciples, blurts out that they have left everything to follow Jesus. So, what then will there be for us? What’s in it for me? We may avoid the idol of money only to find ourselves with the idol of pride. Twentieth-century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once said that a person had to achieve a great deal of good to be able to commit the sin of pride. 

Yet, grace always has the last word. Jesus gives grace and assures us of reward even when we are stinkers by asking prideful questions.  John Calvin commented on the rewards mentioned by Jesus: “The promise of a hundredfold recompense does not seem to square with experience. Usually those who for the testimony of Christ are deprived of parents or children and other relatives, or their marriage partners, or have lost all their money, do not recover but struggle out their life in lonely and deserted exile and in poverty. But I reply that if anyone rightly assesses God’s grace by which he alleviates the miseries of His children he will confess that is to be preferred to all the riches of this world.” 

The first step in facing any harmful compulsion is to be honest about it – without telling our story in a way that makes us look surprisingly good so that others are pleased with us. Rather, it is about following Jesus. To follow Jesus, we must not be in denial.  Perhaps the best way to express our faith is to tell someone about our obsessions to work compulsively to feel better and pad our savings, that we are afraid to charitably give because we worry about the future, or that we love to buy things that you don’t really need to feel better. 

An honest awareness of our compulsions sometimes causes us to feel awful about ourselves. We might beat ourselves up for always screwing up, never saying “no” to others, or feeling unable to stop the anxiety. Grace abundantly overwhelms all addictions, shortcomings, and pride when it comes money or anything else.  God has unlimited patience with his people; he never tires of inviting us to follow him. 

God’s love and acceptance is not based on our victories or screw-ups, but on Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. 

Let the words of Jesus sink deep into your life so that you ooze the grace of God in your life. Camels cannot pass through the needle’s eye through dieting, positive thoughts of belief, or luck. It happens not because the camel can squeeze through the narrowness of the needle’s eye but because there is a wideness in God’s mercy. God’s grace will pull you through. Unlike the rich young man, once you hear and understand that piece of delightful news, you do not walk away sad but with boundless joy. 

God of wisdom, help me in the mess of my finances; in my fear of taking charge of the resources entrusted to my care; in my preference for ignorance  over honest acknowledgment of the ways I use and fail to use my wealth; in my anxiety over debt, and in all the pressures of my financial life.  Help me to take one step at a time toward honoring you through my use of money and honoring others from whom I buy and borrow.  Make me humble to seek counsel, grateful for my abundance, prudent with my limited means, and patient with myself as I seek to be a better steward of all you have given me. Amen. 

Luke 18:18-30

            One way of looking at this Gospel story of the rich young ruler is that Jesus did an intervention.  The rich man was addicted to wealth and money, but he didn’t see it.  In fact, he thinks he is quite godly and spiritual.  After all, he’s an upstanding citizen, a religious man, and attentive to God’s law.  It’s a sad story because the man walks away un-transformed by his encounter with Jesus and refused to follow him.  He didn’t see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change.  He held to his denial.
 
            We are all addicted to sin.  If you want to push back on that statement and are thinking, “Well, I don’t have as much money as _____” or, “So-and-so really has a problem with this…” then you are practicing what we call, in terms of addiction, denial.  Truth be told, all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, investments, and a wealth of stuff.  Even people who truly do not have much money can have an addiction by always thinking about money and wishing for it as the answer to their problems, as if wealth is the highest good to attain in life.
 
            Jesus puts the problem of sin out there for us all to see by communicating to us that sin cannot be managed – sin needs to die.  The good news is that through sheer honesty and facing up to our own addiction to things we can find grace.  Grace always has the last word.  Grace trumps addiction to money, stuff, and anything else.  God’s love and acceptance is not based on our screw-ups, but on Christ’s forgiveness through the cross.  Jesus put sin to death.  We are simply invited to bring it out in the open, confess it, and follow Jesus.
 

 

            Gracious Lord Jesus, you invite me to follow you.  All I need do is to let go of everything and do it.  That is exactly what I choose to do.  My life is yours; do with it what you will.  Amen.