October 21, 2012: 20th Sunday after Trinity

Let us pray: Dear Savior, it is in our genetic make-up to always take credit for Your blessings and to always turn Your gifts into a payment for our behavior and attitude. Lord, such an approach belittles Your gracious favor and demeans the sacrifice You freely made for us on the cross. Today teach to us recognize and avoid such behavior while opening our hearts to freely receive mercy from You with total thanks and appreciation. Amen


TEXT: Mark 10: 17-27

Dearly Beloved By Christ:

It’s hard to buck conventional wisdom. It’s hard to go contrary to the crowd. And if you do, you’re often left feeling out-of-place and sometimes even branded as a jerk. Let me explain.

At a traditional Lutheran funeral we don’t do eulogies. In other words, we don’t go on and on telling spruced-up stories about the deceased and how wonderful they were in life. You know what I’m referring to.—“They were especially kind on Halloween to children and small animals so obviously God will reward them with heaven.” No, instead we talk about how Jesus Christ changed their life for the better, freely forgave them, blest them, and how their life of faith gave glory to God. In other words, at a Lutheran funeral we give all glory to God, not to the dead person. Some today might call that insensitive. True Christians would call it: being honest.

Our genes seemed to be programmed into a mentality of: if I do external acts of service to others I’ll reap a reward in this life and in the one to come, regardless of having faith in Jesus Christ. It’s almost like having a rich uncle that you dutifully dote on—running errands for them, bringing them food, buying them little gifts, etc. all because down deep you believe: “He’ll have to remember me in his will, after all, I’ve done so much for him!” This common attitude was the mindset of the rich young man in our lesson. Note well how he approaches Jesus. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The key word there is “inherit.” In the original Greek it means exactly as it is translated. But, is an inheritance a gift freely given, or is it payment for services rendered? That’s the real question, isn’t it?

Jesus answers in a manner designed to draw out the motivation behind this young man’s lifestyle. “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” The rich young man answers back this way: “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Really? He’s been a perfect, model son, friend, neighbor, and human being since he was a boy? He’s not a sinner? He’s never made a mistake or flubbed an opportunity to help someone in need? This young man is so full of himself that he’s dishonest with himself.

Then we’re told: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Yes, our Savior has compassion on all humans because we’re all delusional. None of us are totally honest with ourselves, others, or God. We hide our selfish motivation and think no one, including God, sees the ego-driven agenda behind what we do. But, Jesus came to seek, save, and help people just like that, people just like us. So, He goes on to ask another haunting question to reveal this young man’s hypocrisy. “One thing you lack, 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.” Elsewhere Christ says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This young man was what we could call: a doer. And you should recognize him because he’s you and me. In fact, all people are doers from birth. We naturally do for others not out of free love but to get something back in return. We think of life in terms of doing something that society labels “a good deed” and then receiving some sort of recompense in return. After all, that’s the way the world works, isn’t it? No one gives you something for nothing. We learn that from babyhood on. This young man is so immersed in that attitude that he has externalized his entire life into a series of deeds that he, at least, believes he has kept and done. But, Jesus is primarily concerned about his heart and his attitude. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So, Jesus hits him where it hurts the most—in his rich man’s wallet, in his human wealth. “Give it all up and follow me.”

We’re told the rich young man was stricken to the quick and went away sad. He was ready to do for others and show his generous nature to anyone and everyone—as long as he got something out of it—an ego boost, congratulations from others, and yes, the reward for it all of heaven. But Jesus sees through this self-deception and says: “Change your attitude! Do a 180! Trust in Me and not your human wealth. Trust in God’s promise of grace, His undeserved love, to you. And then you’ll know what a grateful heart really is!”

The rest of the text outlines how human wealth often corrupts a person’s total reliance upon God and upon His grace. The disciples grasp the import of all this as is seen by their question: “Who then can be saved?” But, it’s really the old Lutheran truism that: “works do not save us, only faith in Jesus Christ saves.” And since faith is not a work or man, but a gift of God alone, ultimately our salvation is a free inheritance guaranteed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Again, Jesus has all this in mind when He concludes by saying: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

This lesson is not a tale about how rich people are bad and poor people are good. It is not a story about how a personal code of outwardly moral human conduct is worthless in this life, either. No, it is a story about how we all stand before God and how God saves our souls and makes our earthly lives richer. And that “how” centers around God’s gift of eternal life won freely by Christ for you and me on the cross and how by having Him humble our ego the wealth of faith will transform our lives and flood us with blessings.

My grandfather, Willard J. Fox, was a prideful, boastful man. He was self-made, never admitted a mistake that I ever heard, and was known by all as a real “doer.” When he lay dying, alone in the middle of a horrific winter at the hospital, I sent him a letter in which I outlined the basics of the Christian faith. I told him how Jesus wanted to give him a gift called heaven which he could never pay back, but that such humble acceptance of it would guarantee his inheritance of eternal life. To this day I trust that the Holy Ghost caused him to listen to those words and to take them to heart. May it be so for each of you. Amen