Mark 10:17-22 – Jesus Intervenes

Eastern Orthodox mural of Jesus and the rich man

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (New International Version)

We are all addicts. 

We all have our own sin addictions which keep us stuck in guilt and shame.

We may not all struggle with the same sin. Yet we all have some besetting sin(s) that we must be weaned off of. The most pervasive addiction found in Holy Scripture is neither substance abuse nor alcohol – it is the addiction to wealth and money.

Maybe your initial response was of someone else, besides yourself: “I don’t have as much money as____” or, “So-and-so has a real problem with that!” Those statements are what we call, in terms of addiction, denial. 

In truth, all of us are in some sort of denial about how much we really trust in paychecks, bank accounts, investments, and owning material stuff. I’m no exception. I own more books than I’ll be able to read in a lifetime, and yet, I tend to believe I don’t have enough of them.

Even the poor can have an addiction wealth and money by thinking about it and wishing for it to an unhealthy degree, as if wealth is the thing that will ultimately make them happy.

People in denial rarely have any idea 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. 

Because of denial, people need an intervention. They need to be jolted back to their senses. Intervention is a gift. Someone cares enough about the person to intervene. Yet, interventions don’t always work. The person can choose to walk away and refuse to change.

Jesus did a gracious intervention with a rich young man. The man was addicted to wealth and money, but he didn’t see it. In fact, he thought he was quite godly and spiritual. It’s a sad story because the man walks away untransformed by his encounter with Jesus and did not accept the gracious invitation to follow the Lord. 

Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man, 1879

The man simply did not see himself as hopeless and desperately needing to change. He held to his denial.

The man approached Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Whereas I would probably get all excited about being asked a question like this and launch into some long-winded gospel answer, Jesus immediately picked up on the attitude and the need behind the question. 

What must I do to get? It’s almost as if the man wants to acquire eternal life like he would acquire wealth. “I am a successful businessman with plenty of money, and a respected citizen with lots of wealth – now I want to be a success with God, as well.” 

The question may have been sincere, yet it was misguided. Eternal life is not spiritual real estate for an upwardly mobile person to acquire and possess. The man seems to believe he can purchase eternal life, as if everyone has their price, even God. “After all,” he may have been reasoning, “I have gotten everything else in life, so why not obtain eternal life?”

Jesus questioned the question. He went after the underlying assumption of doing something good to obtain eternal life. The fact of the matter is that the man cannot do anything. He can’t because only God is good. Jesus points him to God by changing the action from getting to entering. And he changed the language from a market acquisition to entering into a journey.

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 get it. And, we too, must be careful not to treat eternal life as if it were a transaction, as if we must get a person to sign on the dotted line through a “sinner’s prayer” or some other formula that will seal the deal for eternal life. 

Instead, eternal life is a walk of obedience with God and his commands.

Jesus responded to the rich man with the Ten Commandments, specifically the ones which focus on human relationships. Jesus wanted him to realize that the path into the kingdom of God and eternal life goes through and not around how we treat our fellow human beings.

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann, 1889

The Lord sought to expose the impossibility of continuing in life on the rich man’s terms. The guy just could not imagine what he might be lacking. So, Jesus helped him out. Christ gave him some major interventional language…. Sell. Give. Follow.

Sell everything. Give to the poor. Come, follow me.

One cannot simply add Jesus to their life, like adding a new car or a new fishing rod. Rather, one’s heart must change in order to accommodate real, genuine eternal life. 

Jesus offered the rich man someone to be, rather than something to get

It’s one thing to give from what you have; it’s another thing to surrender your life and all you have. 

In the New Testament Gospels, there are no easy conversations with Jesus. He gets personal in every encounter and gets under everybody’s skin. Christ doesn’t settle with superficial small talk when there are people whose hearts are little more than idol factories. 

Jesus never leaves us alone, because there is always the invitation to “Come, follow me.”

Christ exposed the wealthy man’s divided loyalties – he was trying to serve both God and money. But he would have to choose between the two. 

And that is our choice, as well. 

The question for us is not, “Am I completely devoted to money?” Instead, the question from our Gospel story today is, “Am I trying to serve God while maintaining a moonlighting job with the world?” 

God wants from us an undivided heart; the Lord desires absolute allegiance.

Jesus is looking for those who are poor in spirit, who recognize their great need for God – instead of believing that they are okay and just need to add a little Jesus to their lives. 

God is looking for spiritual beggars who understand their desperate situation and don’t practice denial by sugar-coating their actual spiritual state.

Like a drunkard who won’t give up his vodka; like a sex addict who won’t give up strip clubs or emotional affairs; or like a workaholic who just can’t come home; the rich man would not give up his disordered love for money and possessions. 

So, Jesus did an intervention. 

The Lord Jesus didn’t ask everybody to do exactly as he called the rich man to do. He didn’t ask the very wealthy Zacchaeus to do it, and he didn’t tell Peter to sell his fishing business. 

But Jesus does tell us to do something which seems impossible. Yet, where the impossible exists, so exists grace.

Blessed Lord, you have taught us that all our doings without loving generosity are worth nothing. Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your gift of love, the true bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whoever lives is counted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-24 – Put Off the Old, Put On the New

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (New International Version)

What breeds ignorance and immorality amongst people?

I’m sure if you asked that question to a dozen people you might get a dozen different responses.

According to the Apostle Paul, it comes from a disconnection from truth. And biblically, since the very character of God is truth, then ignorance and a closed heart also result from estrangement from God.

The Christian tradition informs us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus.

That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. 

We will, then, speak truthfully and live honestly, because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another.

Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other and hold one another accountable. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

Believers are firmly moored to Christ and to Christian community. With the enablement of the Holy Spirit, they are able to forsake the old life with its unhealthy routines of living and embrace a new life with good healthy habits of daily life.

Some people continually struggle to overcome bad habits. In part, it’s because they are living a half-truth life. They might be connected to Jesus as Truth yet remain stubbornly independent. Such persons remain disconnected from Christ’s Church.

One never realizes sustainable holiness over a lifetime apart from Christian community. In other words, real and lasting change comes from both the truth of Christ and the truth of Christ’s Church.

“No one can have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother,” said both St. Augustine and St. Cyprian.

The magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, upheld the ancient teaching of the Church:

“The Church is our mother, inasmuch as God has committed to her the kind office of bringing us up in the faith. This method of education is not to be despised…. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, the one who refuses to be a child of the Church desires in vain to have God as Father.”

John Calvin

This is a consistent understanding throughout Christian history. That’s because the ancient church fathers (and mothers!) knew people are hard-wired for community. What’s more, truth is located not only in the Head of Christ but also in the Body of Christ. Decapitating head from body is to sever the truth in half. Head and Body, Christ and Church, have always been meant to go together as one.

To know the truth intellectually and cerebrally is only half of personal transformation. There also must be a bodily living of the truth – and to do that takes the Body of Christ. Life in Christ is life together as Christians.

Just as it was not our choice to be born into our biological family, so we are born again into a spiritual family, the Church. And just as that crazy uncle, obnoxious cousin, bossy big sister, and the entire family system can be difficult in our biological family, so it is the same in our spiritual family.

We might choose to be estranged from Church, but this in no way diminishes the truth that we need a faith family and a spiritual community.

I very much understand that both biological family and spiritual family can be (and are) toxic for many people. I am not suggesting we passively remain in abusive relationships. What I am saying is that doing away with community altogether is an awfully bad idea.

As much as I, in the past, have wished to run away and live alone in the woods with only bears and raccoons as my friends, I didn’t do it, mainly because I knew better. I knew I needed a supportive community of redeemed people if I was every going to truly honor God and experience becoming holy as God is holy.

If we want to participate in the life of God, it comes with community.

It is, therefore, necessary to hold one another accountable, as well as help each other to be truly holy.

We need to embrace the teachings of the New Testament toward one another:

  • Love one another (John 13:34)
  • Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)

A lack of self-awareness, empathy, and understanding comes from being disconnected from community. Yet, when we embrace the truth of Christ and Christ’s Church, we aren’t fooled by evil, and we discover the strength of life together in the Spirit.

So, like a new set of clothes, take off the old tattered ones and put on the mind of Christ.

Grant, almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world. Guide the people of all nations in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good. And guide us to live together as countercultural models of goodness and reconciliation, in our neighborhoods and beyond, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 5:43-48 – Love Your Enemy

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Common English Bible)

A few rhetorical questions: Have you ever had someone not like you? Offend you? Purposely say or do things that upset you? 

I once had a next door neighbor that was just plain mean. Once, when my dog accidentally strayed into her yard and left a package, she picked it up and placed the package directly in front of my backdoor. 

When stuff happen, it’s easy to respond in kind. Many of us have sly passive aggressive tendencies toward people we don’t like. One of my professors once admitted that he responded to a woman who was bragging to him about how many children she had by saying, “Oh, we don’t place such an emphasis on sex in my house!”

That sort of stuff is rather benign. It’s altogether a different thing whenever someone has deeply hurt us with malicious words or actions. We naturally seek to defend and respond by hurting the other back. 

So then, this is no trite saying of Jesus to proclaim that we are to love the enemy. It cannot be done apart from the God’s grace.

Jesus knows what he is asking of us. And he does not ask of us anything that he himself has not done.

We are often pleased with ourselves if we love our family and friends, because even that is a struggle, at times, for many people. 

Yet, our love needs to expand much further than family. We must treat all people with respect and kindness, even active love, because this is what God does. And if followers of Jesus don’t do this, Christianity is shown, at best, to be just another religion out of many, and at worst, the Church is presented to the world as a fraud.

Those who are poor in spirit, mourn over sin, and display meekness, are those who understand they are no better than anyone else, including their enemies. 

They seek to be right and to do right by:

  • Showing mercy instead of judgment
  • Displaying purity of heart instead of making plans to get back at others
  • Seeking peaceful solutions instead of looking to pick a fight 
  • Accepting insults, persecution, instead of hating (Matthew 5:3-12)

With God’s righteousness as their breastplate, the Christian loves the enemy and prays for those who persecute them.

The Old Testament clearly says to love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Yet, nowhere in the Bible does it say to hate your enemy.

Over the centuries, people began to draw the inference that if we are told to love our neighbor, that therefore, we must hate our enemy, who is not our neighbor. 

From that popular understanding, it was inevitable that Jesus would get asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Christ’s answer to that question was to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The conclusion to that parable is that everyone I come into contact is my neighbor, and so must be shown mercy when they are in need.

It is not for us to judge whether someone is unlovable. It’s not our call to deem another person as unworthy of receiving love. Neither you nor I gets to decide if a person or group of people are too obnoxious or evil for any sort of love.

Nobody can love God by being hateful to another person. Love of God is not measured by zeal against God’s enemies; it is measured by treating all persons with respect and love.

Jesus clearly tells us how we can love our enemies: Pray for them. It is difficult to hate a group of people when we are devoted to praying for them. It’s really hard to call somebody a monster when you are using their name in prayer.

So, if you are struggling with a person or a group of people, pray! If someone is giving you a hard time and doesn’t like you, pray for them. Pray they will see the error of their ways. Pray the Spirit to open their eyes and grant them self-awareness. And, at all times, leave the judgment to God, for that is his business, not ours. (Romans 12:17-19)

Why love “those” people?… Because God loves them.

Loving those who offend us emulates God’s benevolence. Whenever we love our enemies, we are not expecting anything in return.

Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice that pleases God. (Ephesians 5:1-2, GNT)

Love gives life meaning. And love always suffers. There isn’t any love apart from suffering. That’s because it requires a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears to love. Jesus is asking us to suffer for the enemy, just as we suffer for our children and our friends.

If Christians have no love for their enemies, then they are no different than the haters of this world. Followers of Jesus are distinctive because of the way we treat people. We are to model our lives after God’s love, not by the standard of niceness to those who are nice to us. 

God doesn’t expect us to live only through reciprocity, that is, simply giving back to those who already have given something to us. Christians are to give even when persecuted. That’s because God shows no distinction in how he distributes the sun and the rain. 

Showing basic respect and goodness to all people, no matter who they are, is God’s rain showers and sunshine toward others.

I have observed that every church believes they are friendly (even the cold ones) because the members are friendly with their friends. They greet everyone who greets them. This is neither spectacular nor noteworthy. 

Genuine love keeps an eye open for the quiet, the awkward, and the friendless, and seeks them out.

“To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human; to return good for evil is divine. To love as God loves is moral perfection.”

Alfred Plummer

Most English translations has Jesus saying to be “perfect,” because the heavenly Father is perfect. That is an unfortunate translation because a lot of people think “perfectionism.” But that’s not what Jesus was talking about. Christ was referring to being spiritually mature, morally sound, and personally whole and integrated.

“Maturity is looking at every person we meet and saying to yourself, ‘I will never, God helping me, do anything to harm you: not by angrily lashing out at you, lusting over you, faithlessly slipping away from you, verbally hitting back at you, or even justifiably disliking you.’”

Frederick Dale Bruner

So, how do you treat people, all people, even those you don’t like and have hurt you in some way? 

The ability to love the enemy comes from God. Grace is not something we can just conjure up, as if we might will ourselves to love our enemies. It is not natural – it is supernatural, and so must come from a supernatural Being. 

Human relationships easily become subject to verbal violence, bitterness, and destruction, whenever we treat our own life and the lives of other people as properties to be defended, instead of precious gifts to be received. 

We have died to hate. So, how can we live in it any longer? Selfishness, pride, and seeking to control others has been crucified with Christ. 

If we have nothing to defend, then we have no enemies who can harm us.

Jesus, Prince of Peace, you have asked us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. With the help of the Holy Spirit, enable us to do just that. Give us the courage, strength, and grace to love those who harm us so that we may shine as beacons of Christian light in a world of revenge, retaliation, and darkness.

May all people learn to work together for the justice which brings true and lasting peace.

Let us pray for our enemies and persecutors:

We pray for those who have hurt us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who hate us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who insult us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who have stolen from us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord.

We pray for those who will not hear us.
Bless them always and in every way, Lord. Amen.

Hosea 6:1-10 – “I Want Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
As at Adam, they have broken the covenant;
    they were unfaithful to me there.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    stained with footprints of blood.
As marauders lie in ambush for a victim,
    so do bands of priests;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    carrying out their wicked schemes.
I have seen a horrible thing in Israel:
    There Ephraim is given to prostitution,
    Israel is defiled. (New International Version)

My favorite word in all of Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word חסד (“chesed” pronounced in English “kes-ed).  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth and import. 

So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as:

  • Goodness (American Standard Version)
  • Faithful love (Common English Bible)
  • Loyalty (God’s Word Translation)
  • Constant love (Good News Translation)
  • Mercy (King James Version)
  • Love that lasts (The Message)
  • Faithfulness (New English Translation)
  • Loving-kindness (New Life Version)
  • Steadfast love (New Revised Standard Version)

Chesed is God’s committed, gracious, and loving covenant loyalty to people. The Lord’s very attributes are sheer Love.

Since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward one another. In other words, because God is merciful and kind, we, as people created in God’s image, are to be marked with this same character in all we do. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God is calling and wooing wayward people to return to a life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not sending the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner. Instead, the Lord is committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants from people is not simply to go through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor.

Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity. The Lord is deeply grieved when people whore after other gods to meet their needs for love and belonging. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ.

The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions.

Mercy, in Christianity, finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.

But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13, CEB)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities, Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing something that is not right to do on the day of rest—a holy day.”

Jesus asked them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his men were hungry? Haven’t you read how he went into the house of God and ate  the bread of the presence? He and his men had no right to eat those loaves. Only the priests have that right. Or haven’t you read in Moses’ Teachings that on the day of rest—a holy day, the priests in the temple do things they shouldn’t on the day of rest yet remain innocent? I can guarantee that something  greater than the temple is here. If you had known what ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices’ means, you would not have condemned innocent people. (Matthew 12:2-7, GW)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear.

Grace and love reconnects the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment; it’s mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life.

God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace. 

May the result of our return to the Lord be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One. Amen.