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.

Genesis 31:22-42 – On the Run

Jacob and Laban by Nicola Grassi
Jacob and Laban by Italian painter Nicola Grassi (1682-1748)

On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrel and harp? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.

So, Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.

Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So, he searched but could not find the household gods.

Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine and let them judge between the two of us.

“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” (NIV)

Jacob’s in-law issues did not magically disappear when he sneaked out of town with his entire family. I am glad God is faithful and acts on our behalf even when we are fearful with little faith. Far too often we do the right thing in the wrong way. It is far too easy to run away from people we don’t like. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Sometimes we plain need divine intervention to deal with people in our lives.

To Jacob’s credit, he obeyed God and headed back to the land of Canaan. However, he did it in a deceitful way which avoided confrontation. Out of fear of facing his father-in-law Laban and the worry of what might happen, Jacob got out of Dodge. It seems Jacob’s wife Rachel also acted out of fear by taking her father’s idols. Fear can cause us to have some skewed ideas and do some stupid things which get us in trouble.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” –Jerry Seinfeld

Laban found out what was going on with Jacob and was anything but a happy camper. He went after the upstart Jacob with gusto and finally caught up to him. Despite having the power and ability to deal severely with Jacob, Laban backs off because Jacob finally found his voice and took his father-in-law to task. Embedded in Jacob’s rehearsal of their relationship is the God who intervened and took care of Jacob when Laban didn’t.

Jacob Confront Laban by Jan Steen, 1669
Jacob Confronts Laban by Dutch painter Jan Steen, 1669

The lengthy dialogue between Jacob and Laban was a power struggle: Laban wanted to keep the status quo authority as family head over Jacob’s family; but Jacob asserted himself as having his own distinct household.  In the end, they ended-up on equal footing because of God’s intervention.  Whereas Laban had his own intentions for Jacob and his family, God had other plans.  It was God who enriched Jacob with a wealth of flocks and herds, even as he was being oppressed and intimidated by Laban.

The same God, who was with Jacob, is with you and me:

  • God is with us through difficulty, oppression, and injustice.

Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20, CEB)

  • God does not give up on his people. We Christians are often living contradictions, like Jacob, who acknowledge God and give him glory but at the same time act out of fear and insecurity. Out of the compost of human sin, the sovereign God accomplishes his will.

Christ died for us when we were unable to help ourselves. We were living against God, but at just the right time Christ died for us… while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:6, 8, ERV)

  • God cares both about what we do, and about why and how we do it. Ethics is the difference between morality and legality; and, between what I ought to do, and what is required of me. Jacob did what was demanded of him by God; yet, he did it out of fear along with unwise methods.

Anything that is not done in faith is sin. (Romans 14:23b, GW)

  • God’s intervention is needed. Without divine help, we are hopelessly lost. Furthermore, we continue to need God so we can deal with the unpredictable attempts of others to control us and push us into a mold outside of trusting in God.

Give all your worries to God because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, NCV)

  • God instills confidence in us. After twenty hard years of service, Jacob returned to the land of Canaan prosperous and more confident in God than ever. Jacob’s trials with Laban gave him a growing sense of dependence on God. Jacob struggled, suffered, and endured – and came out the stronger for it.

You know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:3-4, NRSV)

God loves us enough to not always give us an easy out because he is concerned for our walk of faith and our education in grace. So, may you discover the intervening God and exercise trust through those times when others give you a hard time.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.  –The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951