Sermons That Work

He Was Young, Well-Mannered…, Proper 23 (B) – 1997

October 12, 1997

He was young, well-mannered, well-educated, and well-off. He was sincere, honest, and seemingly above reproach. Maybe he also had an engaging personality and a winsome smile. Certainly Jesus found him likable, for Jesus, who was about to set out on a trip, took the time to engage with him. Jesus even tried to recruit him to become one of his followers.

“Good Teacher,” the man began, the man who seemingly had everything, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” In other words, “What must I do to gain a much closer relationship with God?” “What must I do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?” “What must I do to enter into God’s Kingdom here on earth?” Or, “what must I do to enter into God’s Family, God’s Household?” I think you will agree, this is not an inconsequential question. This is a weighty matter indeed.

First Jesus deals with the reverential term the man had used to address him as he said, “Why are you calling me good? No one is good, only God.” But then Jesus went on to address the man’s question. He said, “You know the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, honor your father and mother.”

But the man responded, “Teacher, I have! From my youth, I’ve kept them all!” Then Jesus looked him right in the eye with love. And Jesus said, “There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”

The man’s face clouded over. This was the last thing he had expected to hear from Jesus, this man whom he senses held the answers to spiritual questions. He walked away with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he was not about to let go.

Then, Jesus looked at his followers and said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who `have it all,’ people who have great material wealth, to enter into God’s kingdom, to enter into a close relationship with God?”

Now, most, if not all, of us are taking comfort from the fact that we don’t have the great wealth this man had. So, when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, Jesus was not talking to us. We are not materially wealthy, we say to ourselves, so Jesus was not talking to us. We don’t have to sell all our possessions to get into heaven. This admonition is either only for rich people, or possibly just for that one man. After all, Jesus did not tell everyone he met they had to sell all their possessions. Thank heavens! Jesus does not expect that of everyone. Jesus does not expect that of us.

But, before getting too comfortable, thinking Jesus was only talking to this one rich man who lived almost 2,000 years ago, let us look to see if Jesus is saying something to us here this morning.

First of all, for what are we seeking? Are some of us seeking ways to gain eternal life? Are some of us seeking a closer relationship with God? Are some of us seeking answers to what we might do to enter into God’s kingdom? Aren’t some of us seeking answers to what we might do to enter into God’s Household? Isn’t that one reason we come to church? Don’t we come to church in hopes we will find answers that will strengthen our spiritual lives? One hopes we don’t come to church hoping to “earn points” that will get us into heaven. After all, the keys to God’s Kingdom are freely given by a loving and generous God. We can’t “earn” ourselves into heaven. But, aren’t we concerned with what we must do to avoid that “place down below” so we will find ourselves in heaven one day?

Let us return to Jesus’ conversation with the man. Let us take another look at it. At first, Jesus seems to be saying that keeping the Ten Commandments is the way we gain eternal life. For he says to the man, “You know the commandments.” But then, look carefully, Jesus, in a sense, recites the commandments. But he does not recite them all. He only recites half of them, five of them. Let us look to see which five he recites.

Now, some of you probably know the Ten Commandments by heart. But some of you may wish to open your prayer book. Look on page 350 in The Book of Common Prayer as we follow the words of Jesus to the man.

Jesus says, “You shall not murder,” [That’s the sixth commandment.] “You shall not commit adultery;” [That’s the seventh.] “You shall not steal;” [That’s the eighth.] “You shall not bear false witness:” [That’s the ninth.] “You shall not defraud;” [Quite frankly, I don’t see that one, but let’s go on.] “Honor your father and mother.” [That’s the fifth commandment.]

So, Jesus specifically recites the fifth through ninth commandments to the man. And the man says he has kept each one of these since his youth.

With our prayer books still open, let us look at the five commandments Jesus enumerated and the five he did not. What do the five commandments Jesus recited have in common? And what do the other five commandments have in common? With what do the five commandments Jesus recited have to do? Don’t they have to do with our relationship with other people? Don’t murder, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, and defrauding all have to do with our relationship with other people? And, of course, the fifth commandment has to do with our relationship with our parents.

Now, before we close our prayer books, let’s look at the other five commandments. “You shall have no other Gods than me, [the first]; You shall not make yourself any idol, [the second]; You shall not invoke with malice the Name of the Lord your God, [the third]; Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, [the fourth]; You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor, [the tenth].

Clearly, the first four have to do with our relationship with God. God is to be the only god we worship. We are not to make an idol of anything, since idols are to be worshipped as gods. We are not to use the Name of the Lord in vain (as many of us learned it in our youth). God’s name is holy and is not to be used when we curse or swear. And, keeping the Sabbath holy, setting aside one day for God is a discipline for us to draw closer to God. So, each of the first four commandments clearly have to do with our relationship with God. Then, the next five have to do with our relationship with other people.

But what of the tenth commandment? “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.” When we covet something that belongs to another, unless we steal it, our covetousness does not have to do with our relationship with our neighbor as much as it has to do with our relationship with God since when we covet something, we wish enviously for it. We desire it inordinately or culpably. We feel an inordinate desire for it. It becomes like an idol for us. It is something we must have. We are putting it before God.

Now, returning to Jesus’ exchange with the rich man, Jesus, in a sense, asked the man if he had kept the commandments that had to do with the man’s relationship with others. Jesus did not ask the man if he had kept the commandments that had to do with his relationship with God. Do you suppose Jesus knew the man could not honestly say he had kept the commandments Jesus did not mention? Do you suppose Jesus did not ask him those for fear the man would knowingly or unknowingly lie? It says Jesus looked at the man, in a sense looked into his heart, and then it says Jesus loved him. Jesus gave him the answer to his question. Jesus knew there was something interfering with the man’s relationship with God. Jesus knew about the idols in the man’s life that prevented him from the close relationship with God that he seemed most to want.

Jesus did not admonish the man. He did not condemn him. He said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” Jesus knew the man’s possessions were so important in his life, they were like idols. So, Jesus said, “Go sell the things that are your idols, give the money to those of God’s children who are without material wealth, much less the vast material wealth you have, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me.”

The man, who seemingly wanted treasure in heaven so much, could not do it. Jesus had shown him the key to his salvation, and the man could not do it. His material wealth was too important to him. He could not give it up.

But what is Jesus saying to us? We don’t have the vast material wealth the young man had. So, when we ask Jesus, what must we do to gain eternal life, what must we do to gain a closer relationship with God, what must we do to improve our spiritual lives, what must we do to live in God’s Household, perhaps Jesus is saying to us that we must examine our own lives and see what idols we have that are keeping us distant from God. Perhaps Jesus is saying we should consider whether the material wealth we have, even though it may not seem like much, especially when compared to the man in today’s Gospel, is getting in the way of our spiritual health.

Each year we are presented with a commitment card, or a pledge card. It is the card that asks us to state our intentions concerning the weekly offering we will make to God. It asks us to make note of the thanks offering we will make.

Many of us like to think the church presents us with that card because the church needs money. The church does not need our money. The church will use the money we offer God to do God’s work within the congregation. And the church will give some of the money away to support the mission of the larger church, the diocese, and the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. But the church does not need our money.

We need to give. We need to make financial offerings of our money. It is the way we thank God, not only for the material gifts God has given us, but also for all the gifts God has given us. We need to give if we are to grow into the image of God. God is a loving and giving God. We are created in God’s image. If we are to grow into that image, we must love as God loves. We must give as God gives.

A growing number of Episcopalians are learning to be proportionate givers. They determine what God is giving them. Specifically, they determine the material income God is giving them. Then, they determine what portion, what percentage, they will offer back to God in loving thanksgiving. Another growing number, perhaps a small number, but a growing number nevertheless, finds that ten percent is the level that seems right for them. It is the proportion that expresses their love and thanks to God. It is the portion that, for them, is sacrificial. A growing number of Episcopalians have become tithers because they know it draws them closer to God. They know that their view of money is one of the chief spiritual issues in their lives. They know that by giving God ten percent, they are preventing their material possessions from becoming idols.

When the church next presents you with a commitment card, please see the loving hand of Jesus extending it to you. Please hear Jesus saying, “This card is one of the ways in which you can be drawn into a closer relationship with God. This card is a tangible way you can express your love for God for all the blessings God is giving you. This card is a way for you to reflect on the grace of God, a way for you to express your gratitude to God, and a way for you to be generous. As you do that, you will experience God’s grace anew and will experience life in God’s household.”

Many of Jesus’ teachings have to do with our relationship with money and material wealth. Jesus knows that money is a chief spiritual issue for us. Jesus knows we receive through giving. Jesus knows we experience the grace of God through our generosity. As you make your offering today, and when you complete the commitment card that will indicate your level of giving to God through the church next year, consider the words of Jesus. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” May we offer our treasure to God so that our hearts will be drawn closer to God.

May God’s Holy Name Be Praised!

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Christopher Sikkema


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