February 6, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
The Free Gift of Grace
When I was in seminary, and taking a New Testament class, we eventually came to the book of Revelation. Before saying anything about Revelation the professor projected a political cartoon on the wall. The cartoon contained a donkey and an elephant, and we all knew what they symbolized. The professor asked a student from South America to give his interpretation of the cartoon, and it was so totally off base and so wrong that we couldn’t help but snicker. The professor then told us that we often make the same mistake as this student. We couldn’t understand how he could say such a thing; we knew exactly what the symbols in the cartoon meant. But the professor pointed out we knew the correct interpretation because they were symbols understood by everyone in our culture. The student from different culture was simply interpreting that cartoon according to the standards of his culture. The professor then told us how we do this with the book of Revelation and other parts of the Bible – we bring our cultural viewpoints into our interpretation of Scripture, which causes us, very often, to miss the real point being made.
That was a great lesson, and I was reminded of it as I thought about our Scripture passage for this morning. This passage is so often misinterpreted, and it’s misinterpreted because of our cultural viewpoint.
How many have been troubled by this story, wondering how much of their wealth and possessions they must give away? Considering the fact that the majority of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, we are the wealthy. How many have wondered if this passage teaches that having money makes it impossible to gain salvation? Our culture, and its obsession with money and the idea that we have to earn our way in life, gives us a particular lens through which we read this story, and that lens leads us down a road of interpretation that is not always accurate.
You may have heard the following explanation for this morning’s Scripture passage – the statement that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God represents this – there was a gate in the wall around the city of Jerusalem that was shaped like the eye of a needle. A camel that is fully loaded with goods could not pass through that gate until it had been relieved of its burden. In a similar way, we must divest ourselves of our dependency on wealth and riches in order to gain entrance to the kingdom of God. Is this what you’ve heard?
Put that out of your mind. Forget that interpretation. For one thing, there is no evidence such a gate ever existed in the wall around Jerusalem. And though the Bible has plenty of passages that speak about money, wealth, possessions – and their attendant dangers – that is not the primary meaning of this passage.
When this man comes to Jesus and asks him the question, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus seizes on the moment as an opportunity to teach an important lesson. And Jesus is not just targeting this man with the lesson; he is really targeting his disciples and everyone else who was listening. It’s a lesson of such critical importance that Jesus makes his point in a very dramatic way.
The lesson Jesus is teaching in this story is one concerning God’s grace, and the reality that God’s grace is freely given to us.
It begins with this rich man asking Jesus a question of great importance. And, we should note, there is no evidence that the man is selfish or self-serving or acting in any way but a very genuine manner. By all measures this man comes to Jesus with a sincere heart, asking a sincere question. He really wants to know how he might gain eternal life.
Jesus answers his question by telling him that he already knows the commandments, and the man says he has kept them as a boy. Jesus then tells him he is only lacking one thing. Now, wouldn’t you think that is really good news? Imagine, Jesus tells you that you are doing so well there is only one thing you are lacking in life. That’s an excellent commentary on this man’s life – he’s only deficient in one area! But what a big deficiency it is. Although he is lacking just one thing, it is this – he must sell everything he owns and then give away all the proceeds. Sell his real estate holdings, cash in his stocks and bonds, liquidate his retirement accounts, sell his coin collection, gather up all his lose change from under the cushions on his couch (and then sell the couch) – everything. He is to make himself destitute.
Does this strike you as unfair? It always seemed unfair to me. That’s not something Jesus went around asking of other people. Other wealthy people came to Jesus, but he didn’t ask them to sell all they had and give away the proceeds. The unfairness of it causes us to invent some qualities about this man to take the edge off. We say, well, he must have been very selfish and Jesus recognized this. He must have worshipped his money more than he was worshipping God so Jesus wanted to remove that barrier from his life. Jesus was testing him to see how much he really loved God. If the test of loving God is selling all we have then I suspect we are all in danger of failing that test.
The deficiency in this man wasn’t his wealth or his attitude about it; his real deficiency was in his theology and we see that deficiency in the question he asks – what must I do to inherit eternal life? The answer is, he doesn’t have to do anything. To ask what one must do is to imply there is something we must do to earn the gift of God’s grace, and we do not have to earn God’s grace; it is a free gift that he gives to us.
The reason Jesus tells the man he must sell all he owns is to drive home the point of free grace to his disciples. When Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God notice the reaction he receives – who then can be saved? They had been told all their lives that if you are wealthy it is a sign of God’s blessing and if you are that blessed you have also been given the gift of salvation. So to be told that a rich person couldn’t enter the kingdom of God was mind-blowing to them. Wealth and salvation went together. The statement of Jesus went against everything they had been taught. If a rich person couldn’t be saved, who could? Everyone listening to Jesus that day had the same thought – if this guy can’t make it to heaven what hope do any of the rest of us have?
And that’s exactly what Jesus wanted them to think. He wanted them to think of it as impossible; he wanted them to think there was nothing they could do. His answer was what is impossible with men is possible with God. Jesus is saying it is impossible for people to earn God’s grace and salvation. How do you earn what’s freely offered? Salvation lies solely in the hands of God; it is not up to us to earn it through any amount of good works. Salvation is freely given.
The truth about salvation is this – you don’t have to “do” anything. “Doing” something implies that it is in our power to earn the gift of salvation. Can I do enough good works? Is there a threshold of righteousness that I can achieve by being nice to people? Can I serve on enough church committees? Can I attend enough church services? Can I feed enough hungry people? Can I give away enough money? Can I help enough people across the street and be nice to enough kittens and stray dogs?
We often think of salvation as having some kind of a graded scale and at some point we are good enough that we cross that threshold and earn our entrance to God’s kingdom. But Jesus flatly rejects that kind of thinking in this passage. The point he is making is not about selling everything you have; it’s about the truth that salvation is the free gift of God that is given to us without any need to earn it.
Have you ever known someone who has spent years trying to earn the love of another person? It’s a sad thing to see, isn’t it? They feel unloved and they work and work and work, all in the hope they will be accepted and loved by that other person.
That is not how God works! We don’t have to earn his love; it is already ours; he has already given his love to us. God is not watching us and saying Oh man, Dave was almost there. He only needed one more good deed this week. If he had just given back that cell phone he found at church before making all those international calls on it first, or if he had just left a better tip at lunch the other day, or responded nicer to the driver who cut him off at that intersection. He was this close to earning my love this week.
This passage teaches us something else as well. This passage pokes a lot of holes in the belief that some people can look down upon others because they are so “good” and the others are so “bad.” This passage reminds us we are all in the same condition, regardless of our moral achievements. I may conduct my life on a higher moral plane than others, but it doesn’t mean anything in terms of salvation. Being a moral person may make us a good citizen and a more productive member of society but it doesn’t earn us salvation. That’s not to say that being moral isn’t good; I think we ought to be moral people, but we must realize salvation does not come from our personal morality but from God’s grace.
The tendency among religious people is too often about who being better than someone else, which is erroneous. Again, I am not saying we don’t have to worry about being moral people; I’m saying the point of morality is not to make us feel better than others.
This was the mistake of so many of the scribes and Pharisees at the time of Jesus. Their emphasis on morality led to an insufferable pride because they were so much better than everyone else, and because they were so much better they believed God loved them more than everyone else.
At one of my previous churches we decided to set up a table in town and give away lunch to passersby. I was not expecting the reaction we received from a number of people, which was distrust and suspicion. Evidently, many people really do believe there is not such thing as a free lunch. One man in particular reacted very strongly. He actually became angry, saying, I think this is a gimmick. You’re just trying to get me in that church so you can get my money!
It’s sad to think that our world conditions people to react with such suspicion about a free gift. The grace of God is free. We do not have to earn it and we do not have to be good enough in the eyes of anyone else to receive it. May we receive that grace with gratitude and share it with others.