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.

Addiction – Going Back to Egypt

With a miraculous hand and outstretched arm, God brought judgment on the ancient Egyptians for keeping the Jews in bondage and, through Moses, led the Israelites out of Egypt and on their way to the promised land.  There was just one little glitch to the plan:  Israel would have to take a rather circuitous route to get there.  Even after another miracle of walking through the parted Red Sea, Israel experienced a failure of faith.  On the first sign of hardship in travel when there was no water, they grumbled and complained.  “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children die of thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).  In fact, they complained about everything to the point that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God, the people became impatient and hatched a plan to go back to Egypt.

It is easy to read the narrative of the exodus and see a bunch of stupid, ungrateful people in light of all that God had done for them.  A return to slavery looks pretty foolish when we see it in other people.  Yet, this is what the addict needs to see in himself each time he goes back to repeating the addictive behavior:  it’s a return to Egypt, to the bondage of self-soothing through a familiar activity.  Getting mad at himself and feeling bad about the behavior is just that; it doesn’t bring him into the promised land of freedom from addiction.  To set out on a biblical course of change, people caught in vicious cycle of addiction vitally need to begin defining and identifying themselves as more than an addict.

God has redeemed us from the slave market of addiction through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Just as he brought the ancient Israelites miraculously out of Egypt, so in Christ God has brought an exodus to us and set us on a road to the promised land.  In Christ we have been chosen to be holy and blameless; we have redemption through the blood of Jesus; we have been adopted into God’s family through Christ; and, we have been given the Holy Spirit to come alongside and help us live on the holy road that God set for us (Ephesians 1).  However, there is a hitch to it:  you must believe all this.  The road to the promised land of freedom requires faith, and that faith will be tested and tried.  It won’t be easy.  The Christian life is a road that must be traveled with others, and not a spiritual lightning bolt that erases all addictive desire.

We are forgiven.  Forgiven of all those lapses into addiction.  It is grace that saves through faith.  And it is grace that we must all focus on, or we will be sorely tempted to go back to Egypt.  Here’s the deal:  whatever wins our affections will control our lives.  Addicts are addicts because they are controlled by their beloved behavior, whether it is alcohol, pornography, food or smoking.  The only way out of such a destructive relationship is to be moved in the affections even more by the grace of Jesus.  And that only comes when we make the choice to swim in the gospel of grace through thinking about it, meditating on it, and talking about it more than we do our addiction.  In other words, know, really know, what God in Christ has done for you and take the narrow road of genuine faith in Jesus.

This is where the church comes in.  It is always better and more effective to walk with someone rather than walk alone.  Pyramids of pride keep us apart from one another in a cycle of shame, but Christians were meant for community, not isolation.  Affections for Christ are more fully stoked in the furnace of similar affections in others.  So, don’t go back to Egypt.  Don’t spend your time and effort fashioning a golden calf.  Spend it on pursuing grace.  It may take awhile to get to the promised land, but there can be joy in the journey.  Journey well, my friend.

Addressing Addiction

Addiction is as much a part of our culture and society as dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, or weeds in the garden.  For the person who wants to encourage and help someone caught in a destructive pattern of alcoholism, pornography, drugs, smoking, or any other addiction it is absolutely imperative to understand and use the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to address the situation.  This is not to say that approaching addiction from the medical end of things with a sensible regimen of appropriate meds is not necessary; in fact, it is.  However, people are not only fundamentally physical creatures; they are also spiritual beings and, therefore, addiction needs to be addressed from the spiritual angle with a vigorous biblical regimen.  It is important to understand that theology is not just something to passively believe but a powerful reality to be actively lived.  Here is one of the most incredible summaries of the gospel and shortest theological statements for our daily practical lives that you will find in Holy Scripture from Romans chapter 8, verses 1-4:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was  powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.


          The culprit of addiction is sin.  The answer to addiction is grace.  Radical, unconditional, unlimited grace.  In fact, grace is the answer to everything.  Law can’t save a thing; it isn’t designed to do so. Yet, the addict tries and tries to will himself to change but cannot.  He cannot because he is weak, and the law doesn’t help since it is inadequate to counter addiction.  It only hinders genuine help.  Sin is all too ready to attach itself like a cancer to the weakness of the flesh (NIV – “sinful nature”).  And it uses the law to do so by believing that addiction can be overcome through sheer willpower, effort, and turning over a new leaf.  So, the addict may get caught in a vicious cycle of sin, regret, expressions of never doing it again, and then returning to the addictive behavior.  The availability of sin plus the lack of accountability combines with a lethal dose of the flesh to equal addiction.

Only God can save.  Its called grace.  God sent his Son to deal with the the problem of sin and addiction.  He shared our humanity, and the weakness of being a flesh and blood person.  Jesus experienced human frailty to the full; he knew, personally, what desire and enticement is – and he never sinned.  Moreover, Jesus became a sin offering for us.  So, he condemned addiction in the flesh.  The power of addiction has such a hold on us as people that there is no other path than destruction if we go the way of the law.  The law itself is not evil (it shows us how sinful we are), but is not able to bring deliverance.  New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn describes the work of God using the metaphor of disease:  “God is the divine surgeon who recognizes that the cancer of sin has so eaten into the flesh of humanity that there is no salvation for humanity other than by radical surgery, by the complete destruction of that cancerous tissue.  That radical surgery took place, as it were, on the cross.  The humanity which emerged from the operation is free from the cancer.”

Through Christ, and only through Christ, we are free.  It is our task, then, to enter into this grace and forgiveness through faith in the cross of Jesus.  That’s it.  God has brought an intervention through Jesus Christ in order to rescue and rehabilitate.  God’s rehab program is the Holy Spirit, which deals with the weakness of the law from within the life of the believer in Jesus.  In the Spirit, using the gospel of grace, we have the resources to put to death the sinful nature of addiction.

If you are helping a person caught in some addiction, here are some practicalities to consider:

  • If the person does not know Jesus, or you are not sure, start with communicating the gospel of grace – that there is forgiveness through the cross for all the addictive behavior and thoughts and offenses.
  • Have the person commit the entire chapter of Romans 8 to memory.  Focus on discussing aspects of this material in several conversations.  Memorize it yourself, and meditate on it regularly.
  • Be an accountability partner and an encouraging person; do not condemn.
  • Help the person think through what things need to go and what behaviors need to change, so that the flesh has no opportunity to rear its ugly weak head.
  • Pray with and for the person consistently.
          If you are a person caught in an addiction, seek the help of a trusted Pastor or church layperson immediately.  Christianity is not a private religion; it is designed to be lived and practiced in community.  The reason your private efforts have failed is that you have been created in the image of God and hardwired for relationships and community.  Find a church with a support group that addresses your addiction.
          Remember, Christianity is a paced journey of walking, a long obedience in the same direction, and not a magic pill to swallow.  Let us journey together along the road until we reach the heavenly city where there will be no more addiction.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.