Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jesus and the Rich Man- Part 3

What Jesus demanded of the rich man, Jesus' disciples, and all of us who want to be followers of Christ is a difficult teaching;  for this reason, the rich man walked away downcast.  Jesus tells us how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven, particularly for the wealthy.  Jesus uses the eye of the needle analogy to make His point clear. (By the way, the eye of the needle is just that, not the gate in Jerusalem, which didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.)

The issue here is trust, not money.  Jesus was no Marxist.  Money is not inherently evil.  Money has its purposes, even in bringing about justice, as we have seen in what Jesus demanded of the rich man.  We also see this in Jesus’ parable of the unfaithful manager (Luke 16:1-14).  Money is not evil; but the evil is putting one's trust in money.  This is why Jesus, teaches us,

"No servant is able to serve two masters; for either he/she will hate one and love the other, or he/she will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money." (Luke 16:13)

No, the problem with all of us is a misplaced trust.  We all want to be our own god, but deep down we know we are hopelessly fallible, so we attempt to protect ourselves from our own fallibility by amassing wealth, which is essentially power.  In short, we put our trust in wealth, instead of God.  But as we see with the rich man, wealth doesn’t engender mercy and love; instead it hinders it, because by trusting in wealth, we possess it.  And such possessiveness always leads to hate, in the end.

The rich man will have to do some serious soul-searching.  It just isn’t easy to trust Jesus to the extent we willingly cut all the lifelines by which we have secured ourselves—or so we have deluded ourselves to believe.   This begins to dawn on Jesus’ disciples.  “How can anyone be saved?”  First, if the rich aren’t saved--indeed, it is more difficult for them to be saved because of their wealth--and everyone always believed their wealth was evidence of God’s favor, what hope is there for anyone?  Second, if dwelling in the kingdom of God demands goodness, and goodness can only be attained through an unconditional trust in Jesus—a trust really beyond us because of our inherent fear—how can anyone be saved?

Jesus explains that it is impossible in the presence of man (i.e., trusting in human wisdom, methods, and institutions), but all things are possible in the presence of God (i.e., standing in the kingdom of God, in Christ).  And God achieves this through His son, Jesus the Christ.  This is the gospel.  Jesus is king and is offering his kingdom to us.  He is king because he overcame death on the cross; Jesus is alive!  And the kingdom has come for us because, through His death on the cross, forgiveness is possible with our repentance, which is dying with Him; and because He lives, eternal life is possible by living through Him; and because of Him, goodness to dwell with God is possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  These three define what it means to dwell in the kingdom of God, and fundamentally involves a trust.  Hence, we are truly justified only by faith alone.  The basis of the kingdom of God is faith, not the Law, because only by faith can we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.

We learn with the rich man, then, that the kingdom of God is based on Goodness, defined as the tension of mercy and justice that can only be achieved through the joining of ourselves with Christ.  In short,

As dwellers of the Kingdom of God we must trust God unconditionally by surrendering ourselves completely to our Lord, Master, King Jesus.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jesus and the Rich Man- Part 2

Okay, now to the interesting issue around the term Good.  The Rich man calls Jesus, “Good Teacher”—again the Rich man is not being disingenuous, here—and Jesus quickly parries with, “Why do you call me Good?  No one is good except one, namely, God.”  Wow!  Why did Jesus say this?

Firstly, Jesus wanted the rich man to cool his jets, and consider what he is really asking.

Second, Jesus is making a clear declaration of the fundamental nature of God.  If God is Good, in fact the definition of Good, and therefore the only true embodiment of Good, then if His kingdom will ultimately be where God dwells with us, the basis of that Kingdom must be Good.  In other words Jesus has already answered the Rich man’s question: “There ain’t nothing you can do, because only God is Good.”  As we shall see, Jesus doesn’t leave the Rich man there, nor does He leave Jesus’ disciples there; but we must understand that this whole encounter pivots on the concept of Good.

Another  reason for pointing out that only God is Good is so the rich man and all of us can see how incredible God truly is—can you say, I can only fall at His feet?  Despite all of the state of depravity we are all in that places an insurmountable chasm between us and God, because of His infinite Goodness, God still reveals Himself to us through His son, Jesus the Christ.  The Bible talks about the how God is completely unapproachable and shrouded in darkness—not evil, disorder, or chaos, but infinite incomprehensibility.  Yet this infinite God has revealed Himself to us, and opened His eternal kingdom to us through His son.  All because God is Good.  Reflect back on a key prophecy concerning Jesus and you will begin to understand the extent of His goodness:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you – from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him. This accords with what happened at Horeb in the day of the assembly. You asked the Lord your God: “Please do not make us hear the voice of the Lord our God any more or see this great fire any more lest we die.” The Lord then said to me, “What they have said is good. I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command. I will personally hold responsible anyone who then pays no attention to the words that prophet speaks in my name.” (Deut. 18:15-19) [NET]

By telling the rich man only God is Good, it might help him see how really audacious his question is, and how the Good God is to reveal himself to him and then open His kingdom to him and the rest of us.

Having, as I am suggesting, pivoted the discussion on Good, Jesus will now explain what that means for the Rich man, Jesus’ disciples, and all of us who would be dwellers of His kingdom.

Jesus begins with laying out five of the ten words –what we call the ten commandments—that God gave Moses.  Jesus also adds a prohibition against cheating one’s neighbor.  I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s because so many rich people in His time (and ours) got there through cheating their neighbor (e.g., Matthew, or Zacchaeus).  Jesus does this to show that the kingdom operates in terms of justice.  We have unfortunately come to understand justice in the distributive sense-- that is, everyone is paid their due either good or bad.  But this is not justice.  Justice really speaks to a right order.  The world and God’s kingdom were created to operate in a right order.  As part of this overall right order is the right order of His image bearers—us human beings.  The right order must start with a proper relationship with God (yet another reason for bringing up that only God is Good) so we can then effectively relate with each other.  The five Words specifically speak to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The unmentioned first four Words speak to “Love the Lord God with all your soul, mind and strength.”  The point to be understood here is justice provides the framework by which love operates.  Love is not love if it attempts to operate autonomously from justice.  True love must act from justice.

On the other hand, as we shall soon see, justice cannot be devoid of love.  Christ begins with the five Words because that is where God began with Israel.  The Law provides a picture of what the more abstract yet critical aspect of God’s kingdom life is.  Justice is like the frame of the house, while love is what fills in and populates the house.  The kingdom of heaven is not just a matter of a series of negative commands: don’t do this and don’t do that.  This was the fatal error of the man who buried his one talent.  Who, speaking to his returning master, said, “I know you are a hard man….”  What did Jesus tell us happened to that man?  It was the basis the Pharisees established.  It is also the extreme legalism by which some Christians try to operate.  We must act in justice, but justice is not the complete story.  Justice is an essential but not sufficient aspect of the kingdom.

The rich man tells Jesus he has faithfully obeyed these rules—that is, in the negative sense of not breaking prohibitions, he has walked in the kingdom.  And Jesus doesn’t argue with him.  In fact, it says Jesus loved him.  Clearly, Jesus saw a malleable heart in this rich man, and had compassion on him.

But justice alone doesn’t cut it.  The kingdom is not only about avoiding things, it is about positive actions.  It is about doing something.  So Jesus tells the rich man he lacks one other thing: “go sell all you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  This is love acting in justice; indeed, it is love acting for justice; it is mercy!  Jesus is saying that the kingdom is grounded in justice but is completed through the action of love that is mercy.  You cannot have love without justice or visa versa, without losing both.  Very quickly and succinctly Jesus lays out the basis of the kingdom of God as being justice and mercy in tension.  We see this echoed in His response to the Pharisees in Matt. 12:7 and 23:23.

In this time when the kingdom of God has not yet been completed, but stands alongside the kingdom of darkness, the concept of justice and mercy will operate (when the kingdom has fully come, we will no longer speak of justice and mercy, only love in tension with holiness).  We as kingdom dwellers are to be a light in this world; we are to move things from a disordered state (i.e., unjust state) to the right ordered state (i.e., just state), and we do this by acting mercifully—that is, by holy love.  The greatest mistake I see today in the church is the attempt to bring about justice by imposing justice on a world unable to practice it.  No, God brought us to a state of justice, through the singular act of mercy on the cross—we love because God first loved us.  This is what I think St. Paul meant writing in Romans 2:1-4:

Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?” [NET]

Therefore, Jesus is telling the rich man that while it is right and proper that he has acted justly, it must be coupled with mercy.  Because the rich man has been given much, God expects him to give much as a proper expression of mercy.  And this mercy, which is love, will work to bring justice—the right order—back to the world, so sinners might see the contrast, and the revelation can lead them to consider their own sinfulness (unjust state).  Such is what it means to be a dweller of God’s kingdom.

Ah, but one piece is still missing; and it is the critical piece.  Jesus said after all of this, “Then come and follow me.”  There it is.  Because only God is good, and good demands this tension of mercy/justice, then the only way we can remain in God’s kingdom is to live through Jesus—that is, trusting Him by completely surrendering ourselves to Him.  We will develop this more later.

See what Jesus has done here.  Only God is good.  To walk in His kingdom where He dwells with us means we must be good, which is to live squarely within the tension of mercy and justice.  But that can only happen if we live through Jesus—walk unconditionally with Jesus by trusting Him by surrendering ourselves utterly to Him.

Where have we seen this definition of Good before?  We find it in Micah 6:8:

He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.[NET]

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Jesus and the Rich Man-Part 1

Several of the Gospel accounts record an incident between Jesus and a rich man.  Here is Mark's rendition of the event.

And after Jesus went out onto the road, a man ran up to Him and after dropping to his knees before Jesus, the man asked Jesus,"Good teacher, what shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to the man, "Why do you call me Good?  No one is Good except one, namely, God.  You know the commandments. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.  You shall not give false testimony. You shall not cheat someone. Honor your father and your mother."  The man said to Jesus, "Teacher, I have kept all of these things since my youth."  When Jesus looked upon the man, he loved him and said to him, "You lack one thing. Go, sell as much as you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.  Because he was saddened by Jesus' answer, the man went away grieving; for he possessed great wealth.  And after looking around, Jesus said to His disciples, "How difficult it will be for the rich entering into the kingdom of God."  Those disciples were astonished by Jesus' words.  Jesus again answered and said to them, "Children, how difficult it is to enter into the kingdom of God.  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a wealthy person to enter into the kingdom of God.  Those disciples were flabbergasted, so they said to one another, "Who, then, is able to be saved!?"  After fixing His eyes on them, Jesus said, In the presence of humankind it is impossible, but not in the presence of God.  For everything is possible in the presence of God." (Mark 10:17-27) [the emboldened words are my emphasis]

The first observation to make is how the Rich man approached Jesus.  He threw himself down on his knees before Jesus.  In first century Jewish culture, a rich person was seen as one favored by God.  This will become even more important later; but consider how this rich, well dressed highly respected man humbled himself before this poor itinerate Rabbi.  Why would he do that?  Perhaps he had been there where Jesus had taught and healed, so he was overwhelmed by Jesus’ authority.  Perhaps there was a divine presence to Jesus that would bring people to a state of awe and worship in His company.  Certainly, many people did respond to Jesus this way.  Even Jesus’ enemies were amazed by Him.  Maybe it was a bit of all of that that humbled this rich man before Christ.  But this man was definitely not like so many others; he genuinely sought an answer from the Lord; he wasn’t there to trap Jesus. And he was confident Jesus knew the answer.  The man didn’t humble himself in order to stroke Jesus as the lawyers and scribes did when they approached Jesus with “we know you are a man of God….”  Jesus, Himself, saw this rich man as a genuine seeker of truth.  This is why the scripture tells us that Jesus looked at the man and loved Him.

Before we say anything more about this poignant encounter, we need to answer for ourselves if we approach Jesus the same way as this man did.  I suspect we don’t.  Why?  Well, perhaps we have never really encountered Jesus; instead we have encountered ideas, doctrines, tales, examples, and whatever about Him, and it all felt so good that we joined the club.  Perhaps we did at one point genuinely meet Jesus, but the encounter simply settled for us our eternal destiny, so after pocketing our get-out-of-jail-free card, we proceeded trippingly along with our life, relegating Jesus to a picture on the wall, a song on the radio, a society of Christians, or a patriotism.  We might be quite passionate about our causes, yet the presence of Jesus evokes hardly a response from us anymore.  Perhaps you daily fall at Jesus’ feet as did that rich man did.  You, at least will understand the message Jesus would have all of us hear in this account:

As dwellers of the Kingdom of God we must trust God unconditionally by surrendering ourselves completely to our Lord, Master, King Jesus.

The rich man calls Jesus, Good Teacher (I’ll come back to this in a minute), and asks Him what he (the rich Man) must do to inherit eternal life.  It would do well for us to understand what the rich Man is asking.  He is not asking how he can go to heaven and live forever.  The Greek translated as eternal life is literally “lasting for an age life”.  It is the same construction used in Dan. 12:2, Matt 25:46, John 3:16, John 6:27, etc. and is always translated eternal life.  What the Rich Jewish man and all 2nd temple Jews were looking for was the new age where Israel has been restored, their enemies vanquished and God dwells with them and rules forever.  The Pharisees believed all the past saints would be resurrected and in this new kingdom there will be unending life.  Therefore the rich man wanted to be sure he did everything he could to make sure he would be in that kingdom when it came--that is, be a true son of Abraham.
The problem was not in the Jewish understanding of the promised kingdom, but what the basis of that kingdom would be and when the kingdom would actually come.  If we are to understand Jesus’ response in this encounter, we need to step back and consider how we look at the kingdom of God.

In many respects, as Western Christians we have ignored what Jesus spoke of more often than any other thing except calling Himself the Son of Man—that is, the Kingdom of God, or as Matthew renders it, the Kingdom of heaven.  Cutting to the chase, this kingdom of heaven is not a future disembodied condition of eternal bliss that we all have to look forward to because we said the sinner’s prayer; rather it is the place we all live today—juxtaposed on this fallen world—where Jesus is King, Lord, Master—if we have truly believed in Him, as evinced by belief, trust, and action (obedience)—that is, if we love Jesus.

Yes, this is salvation, and yes, someday it will come to completion, when death and its Sin have been annihilated.  But the kingdom has already come.  Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power.”  And it came when Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life; and Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, where He is our King, master, Lord.  We cannot separate the kingdom of God and the cross.  The kingdom of God, then, is both now and not yet, because the kingdom of heaven is Christ.

If the final condition of eternal life is really identical in the two perspectives of the kingdom, why make a big deal of it?  Because if we see heaven as simply some reward awaiting us after death instead of a kingdom that Jesus expects us to dwell, TODAY, then it is easy to view our life as a waiting game, where we want to experience the least amount of discomfort and hassles.  Putting it another way, we end up laying out our own ground rules of the kingdom—this time because we really fail to see it as a present reality—instead of seeking God’s basis of His kingdom, which is complete surrender to Jesus the Christ.

The gospel is not “how we get saved” or “how we get to heaven”—although those certainly are important ramifications of the Gospel—but Jesus is King! Good News! God’s kingdom has come! This should change the way we live in this world, and Jesus will point out to the rich man it changes how he must live in this world, too.