September 24, 2017 “Walking with Jesus” – Matthew 19:16-30
“Walking with Jesus”
September 24, 2017 – Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
We have a house full of stuff and I’m fairly sure that, when we retire and downsize our living space, our daughters won’t want half of it. My great aunt’s paper thin crystal goblets aren’t going to transport well across the continent. They will have no interest in a box full of old Boy Scout memorabilia. Nor will they want to keep several decades worth of past issues of Arizona Highways, much less 30 or 40 years of the journal Faith and Philosophy.
We baby boomers have accumulated a lot of stuff and now our children don’t want it. That’s the sad fact that made its way around our Facebook crowd this summer. New York Times and Boston Globe articles tell us that as people just a bit older than I retire they have houses full of heirloom china, furniture and mementos which they are discovering are unwanted by their adult children.
The temptation is to think that something has gone wrong with recent generations; that they fail to see the inherent value in all these treasures we’ve saved for so long. But our text this morning, Jesus’ directions to a rich young man, suggest that the problem may be ours. All that stuff may be weighing us down in a way that keeps us from following Him as He wishes.
Verse 16 opens with a person coming to Jesus with what seems to be a pretty reasonable spiritual question. “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” We might say, “How do I get to heaven?” or what the Philippian jailer asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?”
Mark and Luke tell the story a little different from what we read here Matthew. In those other Gospels, it’s Jesus whom the young man calls “good,” a good teacher, rather than asking about a good deed he needs to do. But in all cases, Jesus points him back to the ultimate source of all that is good. Here in Matthew in verse 17 He says, “There is only one who is good,” meaning God. Then Jesus tells the earnest young man to do all the good things that God has already said to do, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
As we often do when we are young, the man has another question in reply, “Which ones?” There are a lot of commandments in the Old Testament. There’s a Jewish tradition that you can count 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. So, just like the first question, this second one seems pretty reasonable. What are the important good deeds to do? Which of all those commands are the essential ones?
In verses 18 and 19, Jesus went right to the heart of Old Testament law, zeroing in on five of the Ten Commandments and then adding the one He says elsewhere is the second most important of all, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19 verse 18. You might note that Jesus is focusing on commandments that have do with one’s relationship with other people rather than with God.
The man’s self-justifying answer, “I have kept all these…,” reminds me a bit of myself at the start of third grade. When it came time for our first reading lesson that year, Mrs. McElroy handed out the third grade books to the class and told us which pages to read for the next few minutes. I raised my hand and she came over. I quietly whispered that I’d like to go outside and play. She asked me why. I told her that last year in second grade my teacher had given me the third grade book and I’d already read all of it. So I’d just like to be excused because I already had it done.
Mrs. McElroy smiled at me and gently told me that she thought she could probably find something else for me to read during that time. I hadn’t quite read every book that might be offered me in the third grade. There was plenty more to learn.
In Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus must have smiled at the earnest young man’s reply. Mark 10:21 says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The Lord knew what the man hadn’t yet discovered. Even when you’ve kept what you think are all of the important rules in life, all of God’s key commandments, there is more to learn and further to go.
As I said, Jesus gave the young man commandments mostly from the second part of the Ten Commandments, the ones that deal with how we treat other people. And four out of six of them tell us what we are not supposed to do to other people. They are negative commandments, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness.”
In the practice of medicine there is a kind of first principle that’s often heard, maybe in Latin, “Primum non nocere,” “First, do no harm.” That’s the starting point for all medical ethics and decisions about patient care. You don’t do anything which will bring harm to the patient. The state of Oregon threw that principle out the window when it legalized physician-assisted suicide twenty years ago next month. Be that as it may, the directive to do no harm should still be the first principle of medical practice. But you have to remember that it’s only the first principle.
If all doctors and nurses did was to be very careful not to harm anyone, they would not be much good. A negative directive is not enough. Medical practice has to provide some positive help in order to be successful. The practice of faith, of keeping the commandments of God, is the same way. If you think that just not hurting anyone makes you a good person, you’ve missed something, you are still lacking something, as the young man seemed to understand.
Jesus had given him a clue in the fifth and sixth commandments he mentioned. Honoring your father and mother is not only about doing no harm to your parents. It clearly involves showing respect, obeying them, treating them well and probably taking care of them in their old age. It’s not the sort of command about which a person, especially a young person, can easily say, “I’ve already done all that.” It’s very likely there is still more to do. And doing no harm is only the barest beginning.
The biggest clue to what the man lacked was of course that last commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus didn’t directly confront the man’s claim that he had kept that one, that he had already completed that assignment, but He showed him just how far he still had to go in that direction. So we get the very specific and very difficult command in verse 21, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
That last bit, about following Jesus, is the connection this morning to our church vision statement, that “We are a family walking with Jesus…” What we’re saying we want to do is exactly what Jesus asked the young man to do, to come and walk with Him, to join Jesus on the journey that He took through this world.
To walk with Jesus means, among other things, to do all we can to do what the young man desired, to keep His commandments, to do what our Lord tells us to do. And while not hurting anyone else is very good, it’s just the barest of beginnings, the very first of first steps along that path with Jesus. There’s plenty more to learn and do.
So the step with Jesus in this morning’s text is the basic idea that if you want to walk with Jesus, you will have to travel light. As I said at the beginning, it seems that my generation of Christians in America did not learn that lesson completely. After all that young earnestness that had “Jesus people” living in community and sharing everything, we managed to fall pretty hard back into the mainstream and acquire a lot of stuff.
I don’t mean to criticize my brothers and sisters at all, because what I’m trying to say is that I’m in the same boat or worse, but our Jesus People USA Covenant church now owns some pretty pricey property in Chicago and our dear friends at Church of the Servant King here in Eugene, who give up what they have into a community life together, have built a publishing business that makes a lot of money. We, and I do mean we, haven’t quite sold all we have and given it to the poor.
At this point, the huge temptation is to do exactly what the first person to hear it did in verse 22. “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He walked away shaking his head and gave up on the idea of walking with Jesus. You and I may feel the same, ready to walk away this morning, away from this bit of God’s Word, shaking our heads and wondering how we could possibly do what Jesus asks and walk with Him.
Verse 23 doesn’t help us much. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” And that famous image in verse 24 is even worse, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Let me encourage you to forget some of the stuff you’ve heard about the camel and the needle. There was never any little gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye” and no one had to unload a camel to get it through. Jesus wanted to paint a picture of something that is absolutely impossible, not just hard. He wanted us to understand that in our own strength and power we simply cannot follow Him, we can’t walk with Him into the Kingdom of God carrying all our stuff.
It wasn’t just the rich young man who was dismayed and confused like we are by this. The disciples were too. In verse 25, they asked Him, “Then who can be saved?” I hope you and I can feel some of the force of that question, some of the challenge to who we say we are and what we are about. I hope we can feel a little like the disciples, worried about whether we actually can walk with Jesus and go where He goes.
Our only hope is what Jesus told them and tells us in verse 26, “For humans it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Wealth and all the stuff we own really does make it hard, make it impossible for us to save ourselves and walk with Jesus. Our only hope is that God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
We are talking about grace. It’s the same forgiving, free, unmerited grace of God which deals with the fact that it’s actually impossible for anyone to do what the young man claimed and keep all God’s commandments. In the same way, it’s impossible for anyone with money and possessions to walk with Jesus into His kingdom. We simply cannot do it on our own. We completely depend on God. If our failures to keep the commandments are forgiven, if we do in fact get to walk with Jesus, it is only by His grace.
Yet grace was never meant to be and is not an excuse for doing nothing about God’s commands and about all the stuff we hold onto. If we are going to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, then we will have to let Jesus push us past just doing no harm to thinking often and well about how we can positively do them good. That very likely means giving up stuff so that we have something to give to those in need.
Walking with Jesus is like backpacking. A few weeks ago on our church backpack trip, I carried a fifty-pound pack up the trail. I know better. That’s not how I was taught fifty years ago in the Boy Scouts. My first trips when I was eleven years old were led by a Scout leader who taught us a minimalist conception of packing. Before our long multi-day excursion each summer, we had to bring our fully loaded packs to a troop meeting for inspection. We emptied everything out on the floor, while older, experienced boys checked it over and told us to leave behind things like a heavy metal canteen (get a plastic water bottle instead) or in my case a big book to read, or an extra pair of jeans.
It didn’t matter much last month on the two-and-a-half mile walk to Indigo Lake. I could get away with a heavy pack. But if we had been setting out on a twenty-mile excursion, I would have left behind some items, like my fishing gear, my extra shoes for swimming in the lake, and my Kindle Fire tablet. Even a tent is not absolutely necessary on clear summer nights here in Oregon. To go any distance, I would need to get rid of some of my load. Walking with Jesus is like that.
Unlike Jesus talking to the rich young man, I can’t tell you exactly what you need to give up or get rid of to walk with Him. I’m just sure there is something. Along with you I’m still trying to figure out just what needs to go. It maybe gets a little clearer as I get older, but it doesn’t get much easier.
The disciples already understood better than they thought. In verse 27, Peter was able to truthfully tell Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” And they had. They had left family and fishing boats, homes and fields in order to walk with their Lord down a road to which they saw no end. So when Peter asked, “What then will we have?” Jesus gave him the wonderful promise in verse 29 that everything left behind would be restored over and above what they gave up. We can walk with Jesus in that same promise.
Please excuse another backpacking story. Twenty-five years or so I went with Jim, a fellow from our church in Nebraska, on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Our plan was to arrive and car camp for a night and then put on packs and climb into the mountains.
In a public campground the first night, we had to buy wood from the campground host to build a fire. There wasn’t any wood lying around for us to pick up. When we got up the next morning to pack and hit the trail, Jim started to worry about finding wood where we would camp that next night. Jim is a neurosurgeon and a super-smart guy, but despite my assurance there would be plenty of wood where we were going, he picked up three leftover logs from what we had bought and put them in his pack.
A half-mile up the trail, I looked back to see Jim falling behind me. I could hear him breathing hard and he was bent way over under his pack. I held up my hand and said, “O.K., that’s enough. Take off that pack and sit down.” Then I opened the top of it, pulled out those logs one by one and slung them as far as I could into the forest around us, which, as I pointed out to Jim, was already full of more than enough down and dead wood for a dozen campfires.
Jim simply wasn’t going to make it up the mountain without getting rid of that unneeded wood. There was plenty where he was headed. You and I aren’t going to make it into the kingdom of God, walking with Jesus, trying to carry a bunch of stuff we don’t need. As Jesus told the disciples, there is plenty of everything where we are going. So I invite you today to walk with Jesus, leaving behind whatever you need to. He’s got more than enough waiting for you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj