October 14, 2018 The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

Job 23:1–9, 16–17, Psalm 22:1–15, Hebrews 4:12–16; 2:5–12, Mark 10:17–31

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

If you hang around with addicted people long enough and listen to their stories, you learn very quickly that there comes a point in almost every addicted person’s life in which they realize there is no other option for them but to give-up that to which they are addicted or die (perhaps physically, but certainly emotionally). But prior to this total surrender, addicted persons often tried moderating their substance use in a last-ditch effort to prove to themselves and others that they were not addicted, that they could control their substance use. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous puts it this way:

Here are some of the methods we have tried: Drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from scotch to brandy, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with or without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums—we could increase the list ad infinitum. (Big Book, p. 31.)

Eventually, though, the addicted person comes to the realization that nothing they did or didn’t do was able to stop their substance abuse, and that the only viable solution was to give up the substance for good. “Half measures availed us nothing,” the Big Book says. “We stood at the turning point.” (Ibid. p. 59.) But how? If one could not give-up one’s substance abuse on force of one’s own will alone, then what alternative was there? How could it be done? The answer is simple: God. “We asked [God’s] protection and care with complete abandon,” the Big Book says. (Ibid.) The first three of the Twelve Steps puts it succinctly:

  1. We admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. (Ibid.)

Only complete and total surrender of one’s will to God would suffice to keep one from abusing substances. In theological terms, this is the process of turning one’s back on false gods and placing one’s total trust in the living God “with complete abandon,” knowing there is no other way. This has been a central theme in my preaching of late, and this is a central theme in the biblical witness. Today, we encounter this theme anew in the Gospel story for this week.

The rich young ruler was a person without meaning because he could not give himself over completely to the care and trust of God. He had it all—wealth, status, influence, notoriety; but still he was not happy. His life had no meaning. So, he came to Jesus and sincerely and humbly inquired about how to find meaning and thus happiness in his life. He asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In the Bible, the words “eternal life” do not only refer to life after death or going to heaven; rather the phrase can also refer to finding “abundant life.” In other words, he was saying, “Good teacher, what must I do to find meaning and be happy?” Now notice that Jesus’ answer begins rather curtly; in fact, I think one could safely say that Jesus was downright rude to the rich young ruler. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked dismissively. “No one is good but God alone.” Remember, Jesus had devoted his entire ministry to those who had been cast aside by both the secular and religious authorities: the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, orphans, widows, foreigners. These were people with no standing at all in society; indeed, these people were likely the object of ridicule and scorn by those with wealth and privilege—people such as the rich young ruler. So, when the rich young ruler came along in his sumptuous robe and crown of gold asking his question, it appears that Jesus was filled with loathing and scorn for him in return. “You know the commandments,” he said curtly. And then he rattled them off: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and your mother.” Despite Jesus’ rude demeanor, however, the rich young ruler persisted. “But Teacher,” he said, “I have kept all these since my youth.”

An amazing thing happens in Mark’s version of the story at this point. When the rich young ruler told Jesus of his commitment to the commandments, Jesus realized that the man had completely missed the point of the commandments. When kept in the spirit in which they were given, the commandments are a way to love God with the whole heart, soul, mind, and strength—to give oneself completely to the “protection and care of God with complete abandon”—and to love the neighbor as the self. But the rich young ruler enjoyed his wealth, status, influence, and notoriety more than he loved either God or neighbor; in fact, the rich young ruler clung to his wealth and status with all his might. Jesus realized in that instant that the rich young ruler was just as lost—rudderless, unmoored, unhappy, and filled with meaninglessness—as the poor, the prostitutes, and the other marginalized ones with which he spent most of his days. In this realization, all of Jesus’ hostility melted away and he had a revelation from God about the scope of his ministry: It extended even to those who crossed and fought against him the whole way, and who would finally be responsible for his execution. And so, the text tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” The actual sense of the text is that Jesus, looking at him, “warmed to him”; that is, his hostility melted away and Jesus had compassion on him, for he too was one of the lost ones.

At that moment, Jesus realized what the rich young ruler needed; he needed to let go of that which he loved the most—the wealth, the status, the influence, the notoriety, in other words, the false gods of his life—and find his life in God. So Jesus gave him the only prescription that would bring true meaning and happiness to him, that would truly bring him abundant life: “You lack one thing,” Jesus told him, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” In other words, Jesus was offering the rich young ruler “the liberating tools” he needed “to loosen the chains of power” that money held on him and give him instead the true freedom of sacrificial giving.” (Bishop J. Scott Barker) Only by completely breaking the chains of power that money held on the rich young ruler could he find meaning and thereby happiness—could he find eternal life, abundant life. Only by rejecting the false god of wealth and placing himself under the “protection and care of [the living] God with complete abandon” would he be truly free. But when he heard Jesus’ prescription, our text says, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He was not ready to let go the false gods that he loved so much and that defined his life. This could not be done by half-measures. Only absolute trust in God with complete abandon would do.

Giving oneself over completely to the protection and care of God means finding abundant life, joy, serenity, and contentment. It does not mean that God will somehow offer rewards for one’s faithfulness, as some folks insist. The rich young ruler was being asked to give up everything that he had and devote his entire life to Jesus. He was not promised that he would somehow gain back abundance for his obedience. In fact, by entering into poverty and joining the ranks of the poor he would be forced to trust all the more in God’s loving provision. This is the point of the story of Job. In wealth or in want, Job was being called simply to trust God completely. “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job asks. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” Job declares. This finally is the point: That we live lives so completely given over to God that in all circumstances of life—joys and sorrows, abundance and poverty—we trust God’s abundant provision fully. This call is too much for most of us and we, like the rich young ruler, may walk away sadly. More likely, we balk and embark on a search for an “easier, softer way.” (Ibid. p. 58.) We enter, like the addicted person, into half-measures and compromises designed to maintain at least some control in our lives. Eventually, though, with each of the gods of our lives that try to lay claim to us, we come to a point in which the only reasonable option is to let go that god and turn to the living God. The spiritual life is not a task to be completed, but a journey to be taken in which bit-by-bit we open ourselves more completely to the “care and protection of God.” “Do not be discouraged,” the Big Book counsels the addicted. “No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, we are willing to grow along spiritual lines.” (Ibid. p. 60.) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus counsels us. “Believe in God, believe also in me.” (John 14:1) Amen.

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