February 17, 2008
As we continue to think about “breaking through the wall” in our understanding of faith, we encounter the question of Jesus and his mission. What did Jesus think he was doing while he wandered around the towns and villages of 1st-century Israel? What was he trying to accomplish? How did he understand himself?
Last week we examined the question, “Why a Messiah?” and now we turn to the question of mission. We have talked of the self-understanding of Jesus in terms of three central ideas:
• Reconstituting “Israel” around himself
• Reestablishing the mission of the covenant people
• Proclaiming that the time had come
Last week we examined the first of these points: reconstituting Israel around himself
• E.g. Calling the 12 disciples
• E.g. Re-establishing relationships with Samaria
Now it is time to move to the second point: reestablishing the mission of the covenant people:
• E.g. Luke 4:43 “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God …For I was sent for this purpose”
[Later we will turn to the third point: Proclaiming that the time had come: E.g. Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel” but we wont do that today]
Jesus seems clear that he is centrally interested in “the good news of the Kingdom of God”, which we see referenced in various ways in the gospels:
• The Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew)
• Eternal life (John)
• Not a place but rather a state of being in which God reigns completely
• Jesus teaches Kingdom principles in his words and through his actions
It may be helpful to think about the concept of the Kingdom as having a past/present/future aspect, as follows:
• In the past – coming into focus in the person of Jesus
• In the present – when God reigns in our lives
• In the future – when God will reign fully over all of creation
Alternatively, we might think of the Kingdom as a worldview personified by Jesus such that to approach the Kingdom of God we live into the vision of the future cast by Jesus and in so doing make that vision reality (in church language we might say that we “usher in” in the Kingdom).
Although we do not have time on one day to talk through the various aspects of the Kingdom that Jesus personifies, it seems to me that the focus areas in the teachings of Jesus are as follows:
• Works of mercy
• Peace and justice
I usually describe these main areas in metaphorical language:
• You can’t get to the Kingdom alone
• You can’t own the Kingdom
• You can’t get to the Kingdom at the head of the pack
• You can’t get to the Kingdom by violent means
• The Kingdom welcomes the “least of these”
• The motivation within the Kingdom is love
• There is only one Kingdom
The teachings of Jesus challenge conventional wisdom and offer new ways of thinking and living. Tonight’s Scripture, the “The Rich Young Ruler” narrative, appears in all 3 synoptic gospels and assumes that we understand the 1st-century collective wisdom on what it means to be “rich”.
What is the “collective wisdom of a culture”?
• Unquestioned assumptions about how to live
• Societal rewards come from adherence to this structure
• The structure establishes boundaries and hierarchies
For example, “All good things come from God …” was an unquestioned assumption in the time of Jesus:
Deut. 6:10-12 … the Lord your God has taken you into the land which he gave … with great and fair towns which were not of your building; and houses full of good things not stored up by you, and places for storing water which you did not make, and vine-gardens and olive-trees not of your planting; and you have taken food and are full…
And societal rewards come from adherence to this structure…hence the idea that:
• Those with many good things must be favored by God…
• And those without good things must have done something wrong in God’s eyes…
We see these ideas played in the story of Job (especially in Job 8:1-6).
That such structures establish boundaries and hierarchies is shown in the idea that it is better not to have anything to do with those who have incurred God’s displeasure (i.e. the poor; widows, the sick, etc.) just in case it is contagious… (We see the reaction of Jesus to such thinking in passages like Mark 1:40-45, Jesus and the leper).
We can see how Jesus subverted this worldview as follows:
All good things come from God [OK!]… So those with many good things must be favored by God [NO!] … And those without good things must have done something wrong in God’s eyes [NO!] …Better not have anything to do with those who have incurred God’s displeasure just in case it is contagious [NO!].
In the “rich young ruler narrative, we see this new worldview come into play:
• All good things come from God [OK!]… “A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. “
• So those with many good things must be favored by God [NO!]…“Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
• And those without good things must have done something wrong in God’s eyes [NO!]… “Sell all that you own [i.e. become “poor”] … you will have treasure in heaven…” [See also Luke 6:20b-21a where this is made unambiguous: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”]
• Better not have anything to do with those who have incurred God’s displeasure just in case it is contagious [NO!]… “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” [i.e. go out among the poor and marginalized yourself].
Jesus accepts the conventional wisdom on the goodness of God but rejects the conventional wisdom on how this plays out among the people and the consequences of this for how people interact with each other:
• Conventional wisdom: God’s blessings are related to how much you have
• Subversive wisdom: God’s blessings are related to what you do with what you have
G. K. Chesterton wrote “It may be possible to have a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. Alas, it is impossible to have any sort of debate over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble – there is too much evidence on the subject and it is overwhelming”
Why are rich people in trouble? Because they mistakenly hold to the idea that God’s blessings are related to how much you have and they miss the subversive wisdom of Jesus that teaches that God’s blessings are related to what you do with what you have!
Put another way (as we did at the start), Jesus teaches that you can’t own the Kingdom … so here’s the question: How much is enough?
No, seriously, “how much is enough?” When will we each say that we have enough and that we don’t need or want any more. The pie is only so large and the more I take, the less there is for you – or looked at on a larger scale, the more we take as a society, there less there is for the rest of the world.
When asked the question, “How much is enough?” Nelson Rockefeller, heir to the Rockefeller fortune, is reportedly said to have answered…. “Just a little bit more”.
J. Paul Getty, the American business executive who earned his first million by age 23 and died in 1976 with a multibillion-dollar fortune, said: “If you can actually count your money, then you are not really a rich man.” But in contrast, we find that John Wesley (Sermon 50 – THE USE OF MONEY), when he preached on Luke 16:9 (“I say unto you, Make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into the everlasting habitations.”) said the following:
I. We ought to gain all we can gain but this it is certain we ought not to do; we ought not to gain money at the expense of life, nor at the expense of our health.
II. Do not throw the precious talent into the sea.
III. Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then “give all you can.”
Wesley’s teaching is often summarized by saying “earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can” – good advice from one whose words and actions continue to reverberate across the world some 300 years after his birth.
In the end, we see this controversial teaching of Jesus, “You can’t own the Kingdom”, played out in many ways. Let’s finish by recalling Matthew 6:24 (c.f. Luke 16:13) “No one can serve two masters for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” And ask ourselves which of these masters we follow. Be honest now!