21st Sunday after Pentecost
Are you familiar with the epic poem Dante’s Inferno? If you’re not, it’s the fictional tale of a man who’s led on a guided tour of hell. While it’s certainly not inspired Scripture by any means, the 14th century author Dante does have some interesting things to say, and the fictional tale has a few grains of truth in it.
Upon his arrival in hell, he and his guide pass beneath an iron gate with this message emblazoned upon it, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter” – he passes into the first circle of hell and sees the people there. Amongst them he recognizes the “shadow of him who made the great refusal.” He’s talking about the rich young ruler in the text for today. In Dante’s story, the rich young ruler never repented of walking away from Jesus. So he is grouped amongst those who were bound so tightly to the things of this world, in the first circle of Hell. They were so concerned for themselves that they out of cowardice, never committed any great extreme wickedness or any extreme evil, nor had they done any surpassing righteous acts, rather they were only focused on their own well being. They were on no one’s side but their own chasing after the temporal, the earthly, the perishable riches – Dante likens these people to never really being alive.
Did this rich young man eventually find himself in hell as the fictional tale of Dante’s Inferno supposes? I don’t know, but fiction or not he’s right about one thing. When we become enamored with or focused on or bent on the physical things of this life, and value them over God who gave them, well, we are not really living. Our souls end up being mired down with many pointless and frivolous concerns. That is not living! Jesus doesn’t want us to live like that. He wants us to live in him. This incident with the rich young ruler, shows us today that Jesus wants us to Let go and live: Let Go of the riches and even let go of what we think is possible.
This incident with the rich young ruler, happened almost immediately after Jesus blesses the Children. Fitting, seeing as how Jesus said there that, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Those who seek God and trust in him with the faith of a child are the ones who will inherit eternal life.
Part I: Let go of riches
And Spiritually speaking this rich young man, was a child, a very confused child. He thought that he was more spiritually mature than he actually was. So much so that he asks what he must “Do” to “Inherit” eternal life. What kind of conundrum is that??? Is an inheritance not a gift given in thoughtfulness or out of love – with no strings attached? How do you “Do” anything to earn it?
Either way, this young man has a spiritual problem. One that makes itself blatantly obvious when he claims to have kept all the commandments. As he says, “20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” See, he thought he was not only physically rich, but spiritually rich as well. Really, he was spiritually bankrupt.
Now, what might you or I say to someone who claims to have kept all the commandments from the time they were little? We might immediately say, “I’m sorry friend but I don’t think you understand the nature of God’s law.” As a Pastor, I might launch into an explanation of where sin really begins. It’s not about the outward action, it’s about what is in the heart.
But Jesus, masterfully addresses this young man in a way that you or I never could – namely because he’s God. Verse 21 says, “21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Jesus looks at him as he does all sinners floundering in their sin! He loved him, even though he knew this man came to him with some ulterior motives and shoddy understanding. Jesus knew that he lacked more than “one thing.” He really lacked everything. This young man came to him asking for some outstanding good work to do, so Jesus gives it to him. Jesus tells him how he might keep the second table of the Law, love thy neighbor as thy self, in some way. This command, or preaching of the Law was so great that it must have made that young man realize that in his heart of hearts he hadn’t kept the least letter of the law. It must have made him realize that he didn’t love his neighbor as his self, nor had he loved the Lord his God with all his heart, soul and strength. He was more attached to his riches than to his God, who’s commandments he’d claimed to have kept perfectly.
All Jesus is saying to this man, in a loving way mind you, is Let Go! Let Go of the riches and live in me…
Riches. In this text that is a word that is full of meaning. When you think about the point that Jesus just made to this rich young ruler, “Let Go! Let Go of all of it and live! We realize that this has very little to do with actual wealth.
It’s a text that forces us to ask the question – what am I rich in? What am I heavily invested in? What thing in my life, were it taken from me, would cause me to go weak in the knees, go short of breath, make me nauseous. What is it in life that we would rather die over, than live without? Is it actual money? Is it a talent or an ability? Is it a relationship? Is it a job? Perhaps as we ponder it, we realize that it’s more than just one thing. Whatever the case, you know what it is, can you picture it in your mind? That’s the golden idol in our lives, now take it and “sell it” imagine that it’s gone, let go of it.
The idea of “letting go” of our “riches” can leave us feeling dismayed, as it did the rich young ruler. Like what are we supposed to do? Cover ourselves in sack-cloth and ashes and go find a hole to live in? No, don’t forget what else Jesus says, don’t forget his main point to this young man! Along with the young man in the text, he tells us today to follow him. It was from him that we received our riches to begin with. Will he not take care of us and our every need supply? We can let go of our physical things, when we realize that it’s from God all blessings and riches flow. Remember the prize that the rich young ruler didn’t see, Jesus Christ, treasure in heaven, the kingdom of God. Let go and live for him for he is our highest good.
Part II: Let go of what we think possible
At any rate, with the young man having gone away sad, Jesus now focuses his attention on his disciples. The text says that he looked around at them. I can only imagine that he looked at them in the same way that he looked at this rich young man when he first came up to him – a look of compassion, pity and love. And he says to them, ““How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
The disciples are amazed. The sense of the original Greek is more like, they were bowled over completely. “Who can be saved?” They ask. That exchange between Jesus and the young man must have made them reflect on their own sins. How they too had the golden idols in their lives that they clung too.
So, Christ answers their question, “Who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
God can save and God alone. And in saying so, Jesus points to his divinity – the thing that was missed by the rich young man – yet something that the disciples had witnessed on various occasions. He is God, he can save.
With this statement, “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.” Jesus clears away any last vestiges of the idea that it is somehow anything that man can do to merit God’s favor. Man simply can’t save himself. We are not the subject that does the saving, rather we are the object being saved. This is the clear-cut message that Jesus gave the disciples.
Do you feel spiritually rich? Do you feel spiritually poor? Probably varies depending on the day, right? There are times when we feel closer to God than others. But when we focus on that, we are focusing on that which we think is possible. Just like the disciples. Is God dependent on how spiritually rich or poor we feel, or how close to him we deem ourselves to be?
Absolutely not! Jesus looks at you with the same look that he gave to the disciples, the same look that he gave to the rich young ruler. He looks at us with pity and compassion. As people who are floundering in our sin – and even then, Just as he did with the rich young ruler – He loves us!
Let go of what you think is possible – and live in the knowledge that you have a God that loves you no matter what! Not because of anything we’ve done. Rather, because he came to this earth to live in poverty and die the death of a criminal so that we might be crowned with riches in heaven, and live eternally in the presence of God.
So then live – live now in the knowledge that you have treasure in heaven, life eternal with Christ – that far surpasses any riches in this life. Live in the knowledge that, the impossible has been done for you. Your savior has loved, and still does love you. You and I, for sure, will never ever see those Iron gates that say “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” Let go of the earthly things, and live freely in the hope of heaven. Amen.