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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 7, 2018

 When the Going Gets Tough

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

            In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert writes one of the most truthful and brutally honest sentences: “Of all the winds that blow upon love, the coldest is the request for money.”  Money is important, and has a certain unmistakable power.  We give much of the energy of our lives to making enough of it.  Few of us accumulate money just for the sake of accumulation.  We have all sorts of good reasons for the acquisition of material blessings – putting food on the table (which is a challenge for few in this congregation), providing a “good life” for our families, ensuring security for ourselves in our old age.  These are all good reasons for accumulating money.  But money is also seductively powerful.  And money has a way of revealing our true selves, whether we want it to or not.  We all know that when somebody says, “It’s not about the money; it’s the principle,” it almost always is precisely about the money!

            An older friend of mine, quite wise, once said to me, “Todd, I have been blessed, in that I have always had enough money, and never had too much.”  Money above all is a responsibility.  The more of it you have, the more of a burden taking care of it well can be.  That same friend said, “Money brings out some of the best things we do, as well as some of the worst.”

            It is often hard to know the best way to handle money.  I can say I am being prudent – investing my resources wisely in order to provide for my family.  But how do I know that I am not being fearful and even greedy, and how much money is enough?  There is something about money that reveals the complexity of life, and how easy it is for us to deceive ourselves.

            It is not just money itself.  It is when you take money and set it next to Jesus – that is when money gets really complex!  And Jesus talked about money a lot – probably because Jesus knew how important and powerful it was – and because He wanted it to be a blessing to us and to our families, and not the curse it too often becomes.

            Mark simply tells this man’s story.  He tells us the man “had many possessions,” and implies later that the man was “rich.”  Matthew tells the same story and adds the adjective “young” to the man.  Luke tells it, and tells us that he was also a “ruler.”  So we have conflated all three Gospel accounts in the life of the Church, and we call this the story of “the rich young ruler.”  I think in some ways this is regrettable, because if we can give the man a name, like “the rich young ruler,” then we can distance ourselves from him.  We can subtly say, “Well, I’m not a rich young ruler,” and dismiss this account as being about someone else.  It also paints him as someone we do not want to like.  We may like some rich people – I confess I admire and like to listen to Warren Buffett.  I loved his biography, Snowball.  But few like young people who are rich.  Think of Mark Zuckerberg, and you have “the rich young ruler”!

            Note his question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It is the same question that the lawyer asks of Jesus in Luke, when Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Like that parable, Jesus’ response to this man’s question turns the focus away from the questioner’s concern, with his own salvation, toward gracious, generous behavior toward others.

            Maybe there is a lot to this idea.  The man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And Jesus mentions six of the Ten Commandments.  The lawyer asks Jesus the same question in Luke, and Jesus tells a story about a foreigner who acts with generosity and compassion to a stranger in trouble.  Maybe eternal life is not something we should be trying to “gain” for ourselves.  Maybe eternal life is something that is given to us by God when we are living the life Jesus taught and came to share with us.  Remember the Catechism?  “What is the chief end of man?”  Our “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  Life is not about us – it is about a gracious, loving God who gives it to us, in order to live it to God’s glory.  It is about enjoying God, not being all caught up in ourselves.

            What must I “do”? the man asks.  So Jesus answers: “Sell all you own and give the money to the poor….  Then come, follow me.”  It is a hard, demanding statement, if all you read is that one line.  But did you catch what Mark says about Jesus and this man first?   “Jesus, looking at him, loved him….”

            This man appears to be a good man.  He does not steal or lie, he loves his family, he tells the truth.  He has spent his life doing what was expected of him.  And he wants to know from Jesus what he can do to “inherit eternal life.”  Who can blame him for wanting it all?

            We are told Jesus loves this man.  Jesus looks upon him with love.  But Jesus also wants to offer this man the truth.  That is what love does.  The truth is that we all can lie to ourselves about all manner of things.  We all need to be saved, and, first and foremost, we need to be saved from our own self-deception.  John Calvin said that the human mind is a veritable factory of idols.

            It is very easy to turn money, wealth and possessions, into an idol or a false god.  “Money makes a good servant, but a poor master,” said Winston Churchill.  Churchill said this because he knew how easily our money can become our master, how easily we can turn to it for security and to assuage our fears.  And if you are looking for money to deliver you from your deepest fears, you are certain to end up terrified and greedy to boot!

            “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  What can anyone “do” to inherit anything?  “Inheritance” is by definition a gift.  (The question makes me wonder if his wealth was inherited!)

            What Jesus said next, he said not once, but twice.  So let’s lean in and listen to Jesus: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”  Maybe it is because one of the particular sins of the wealthy is a sense of independence – a desire to be able to depend on no one else, to be able, “to take care of myself.”  I have used those very words in talking to Connie about my own retirement!

            And they are words of self-deception.  None of us can “take care of ourselves!”  We all need help!  I need Connie just as much as she needs me.  I need our children and grandchildren’s love to make the rest of my life worth living.  I need friends, good, trusted friends, more for the next chapter than I ever have needed them before in my life.  And underneath and above all of that, I need God, who alone is “my refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.”  More than anything, I need God’s help … and so do you!  Without God, you do not have a prayer!

            The disciples heard Jesus’ truthful, loving words to the “rich young ruler.”  They are the same words Jesus would speak to you.  When the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus said, “For mortals, it is impossible.”  You cannot save yourself, no matter how good you tell yourself you are, no matter how much money you have.  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

            We ought to wear these words upon our hearts: “For God all things are possible.”  Say it!  Say it again.  Let it seep into your heart.  Let it rid your heart of every last lie that says somehow that you do not need God for everything.  Then give thanks that “God alone is good.”  And God is generous beyond your wildest dreams!  God looks on you and loves you.  Trust God.  With everything!

                                                                                    Amen.

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