The riches of Christ and the poverty of our condition
Loving Savior, help us comprehend the simplicity of the good news and Your wondrous grace!
Jesus was approached one day by a terminally works-oriented 'good' person. The young man was desperately seeking approval, Godly approval. He knew Jesus was God's ambassador. He ran and knelt before Jesus and asked, “Good master, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life" (coupling Matthew 19:16-28 and Mark 10:17-31, and Luke 18:18-30). Looking for Jesus to tell him, how good a person he was. Jesus responded to his approval-seeking by asking why he called Jesus good, since no one is good but God. Jesus tenderly helps us understand the truth of our powerless and unmanageable condition.
Jesus then responded to the question of what things must a person do to inherit eternal life, and said that he must keep the commandments. The young ruler asked which ones. Jesus responded beginning with the 6th commandment regarding adultery, proceeding to the 9th commandment regarding false testimony, returning to the 5th commandment regarding honoring our parents, and summing up these by noting we must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus left out the 10th commandment regarding covetousness, as well as the first four. The ruler affirmed that he had kept all the commandments listed from his youth up. Jesus lovingly looked at the young man, and said, "One thing you are lacking. Go sell all your goods, give the money to the poor and come follow me." This was too much for the young ruler. He had many goods.
He likely considered financial prosperity as hand in hand with spiritual blessedness. His works-oriented perspective had left him unsure of himself. There is never enough money or power. Something was missing. He could not see his covetousness and self-absorption for what it was and how it had crippled his life. For this reason he had sought out the Master. But to give up all he possessed, that made no sense. It made no sense to the disciples either. They did not understand the spirit of their Rabbi. Nor did they understand that all human nature is completely foreign to the Spirit of God. They all alike sought to control their destiny by following the right leader. They all wanted Him to meet their expectations of what a Messiah should do for them.
Jesus commented to them that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven. Peter', Andrew', James' and John's families had a joint-venture fishing business. Evidently, they were not materially poor, nor exceptionally rich. They thought Jesus was talking about material riches. They earnestly desired to be part of the kingdom of heaven and were following Jesus. Unlike the rich young ruler, they were engaging eternal life through relationship and not achievement.
Yet, all the disciples were still thinking that the kingdom of God was something they could possess for themselves, by virtue of some effort to unlock hidden strength within them, dormant and waiting for the magic moment to unfold. Waiting for them to eat it, or practice it, so the magical transformation could be complete. even as Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of bean soup.
Those who are rich within their own spirit, have little desire for help out of love. They help in order to prove to themselves and others their true worth. The fundamental blessing Jesus gives only comes with recognition of poverty of Spirit. Concretely thinking, it didn't make sense that they should sell whatever possessions they still had, as they followed their Rabbi. The disciples response to Jesus statement was, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus responded that with man salvation is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The disciples did not then hear what Jesus was saying. The gospel writers told this story in a way that we would also be drawn to engage even as they did.
Having the same nature and desire to have God conform to my expectations, I did not understand what Jesus was saying. I, like the rich young ruler, considered that salvation is a matter of attaining some special gifts or fulfilling some special conditions so I can have it. Maybe it even includes a dietary and physical regimen that I need to perform. I did not understand what Jesus meant when He said I must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life.
I have looked at salvation as a possession and not as a relationship. I have been afraid of relationships, unless I had a strong sense of control. Historically, I sought to have my needs/fantasies met through my relationships with others. I engage with others to benefit myself. With God it is exactly the opposite. He engages with us to benefit us. I cannot, of myself, change the nature of my heart. I can grieve my condition and turn to God for healing. I can mourn and open my heart to comfort from God's inexhaustible supply.
The disciples thought Jesus was talking about possessions, in terms of giving them up. They thought Jesus was directing them to anti-materialism—which is just another form of materialism. They began to compare how much each had given up to follow Christ; a seemingly plausible way of determining who might be the best disciple. Jesus statement was not directed at materialism. It was directed at our human nature. It is impossible for us to be saved through our own efforts, through what we possess, or through the gifts and abilities we have been given, or power secreted deep within. The disciples followed Christ, but were very slow to hear and understand His teaching. That is encouraging to me.
Salvation is all about love. We cannot contrive or control love. We can give only as we receive. We cannot give what we have not received. Unless we receive God's love in our hearts, unless we die to self, unless we let go of our desire to control our destiny, we cannot enter the kingdom of God. It is not that we love God. It is that God loves us, and that we are willing to receive His love in our hearts. If we receive His love, it is shown by our love for others, even as God loves us. Receiving forgiveness, God's love is irrepressible. It is a perpetual spring of living water that flows freely by every human born into His likeness (Isaiah 55:1, John 4:10-13). We often do not discern His presence. He is evident to us only when we see the rock broken for our salvation, from whence the living waters flow (Exodus 17:5-6, Numbers 20:7-11, I Corinthians 10:1-4). He meets us only at the cross, where we find ourselves without strength or power. Only there I find that I am never alone.
When the disciples discussed what they had given up to follow Jesus, they were comparing their merit badges of faith—as though the gifts of love they received were their unique purchase. God has already given to all His creation His heart. In order for us to receive it and keep it, we have to give it away. In order to have such love, we have to die to our selfishness. Our selfish hearts have to be crucified daily with Christ (Galatians 2:20). We must follow Him and His example, or we have no part with Him. We learn to accept and confess our selfish passions, lusts, feelings and desires. Having and confessing these does not condemn us, for we are forgiven. Inasmuch as we live after Christ and not after our carnal natures, we have compassion on all others. They are drawn to Christ through our confession and He is thus lifted up in our hearts. Along with Him, we desire that everyone should be saved.
Trying to force a change in our sinful behavior, to the same extent we try to force others. We push away those who remind us of our sins and we push away our Christ. Like Simon who looked down on both Jesus and the woman who reverenced Him (Luke 7:36-39). Like the rich young ruler who was saddened by his attachment to things he wouldn't leave. We don't see that we have put ourselves before God, and made idols of those things with which we are gifted and entrusted. We look at our riches and our good behavior, and do not confess our poverty and sinful nature. We control our lives with what we possess, and don't mourn. Like the disciples, comparing our merit badges of faith, making ourselves less capable of receiving or containing the irrepressible water of life. We can't cast out of others what is guiding our lives. We need to fast and pray for our own healing. We need to confess and mourn the bondage we share with others, so others might share with us the healing of forgiveness and love—as we grow in receiving Christ for ourselves.
Jesus responded to the disciples anti-materialistic discussion with a statement that confounded what they were grasping to understand and control. He told them that relationships and material goods they had given up for His kingdom would be returned to them 100-fold in this lifetime and they would receive eternal life as well. A divine paradox now presented itself. If a rich man could not enter heaven, and if they received 100 times whatever they gave up in order to not be rich, how could they enter heaven? Jesus was talking about our possessing things as a means of controlling or being assured of our eternal destiny. He was talking about covetousness, self-centeredness as a substitute for godliness, and making idols of our gifts and possessions. The rich young ruler, the disciples and Simon the leper (Luke 7) did not understand Jesus because they were trying to control their behavior in order to obtain God's righteousness. Asceticism may be no less an idol. The disciples were afraid still that there was something God would withhold from them, and that it was imperative that they 'prudently' hold on to the vestiges of self-empowerment and self-will that were still intact.
They were not allowing themselves to be forgiven their human nature and be loved of God. They wanted to love others in a way that would give them more control of themselves and others. All such controlling behavior does is alienate ourselves from God, from ourselves and from others. It is our nature. We cannot control our nature.
I have had difficulty understanding Jesus, as did the disciples. I didn't understand Paul, when he said, "I would not have known what sin was, except through the law. For I would not have known what covetousness was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet'" (Romans 7:7, NIV). God gave the 10 commandments as a means of convicting us of sin. They indeed reflect His perfect character. They are, as Paul said, "holy, just and good" (Romans 7:12, KJV). God, the wonderful counselor (Isaiah 9:6), framed the commandments to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). They are given with 8 'do not's.
Try to not think about green monkeys for the next second. Our efforts to not think about something only perpetuate thinking of it. The answer to our sins is not to put them out of our minds, or distract ourselves by doing something good, all of which only inadvertently amplifies our sinful condition. The answer is to confess our faults to God and to each other, praying for and seeking the riches God alone can bestow. The answer is to mourn our condition and the sufferings of others as well.
The one who is forgiven much loves much. There is no fear in love. Only when walk through our fears can we know that God's provision never fails and is all that we need. This only occurs at the cross. It is only in the presence of those things that we fear the most that we find the comfort of God's nurturing presence (read Psalms 23). The cup of His grace overflows in our hearts. The anointing of His Spirit flows through our being. Goodness and mercy follow us, as we continue to abide with Him in this valley of the shadow of death, as we are fed in the presence—not the absence—of those circumstances and people who have triggered within us our greatest fears. We fear the cross because we don't trust anyone, even God, to be there for us. Jesus was nailed to the cross to be with us. The cross is the reality of all mankind. We can only walk in resurrected newness of life as we die to self with Him and in Him. Eternal life is not found in what we can do, but rather what Christ has done for us and longs to put in us as we let go of what we think to control and follow Him.
We can choose to do good, but we can't do good (Romans 7:18). We can choose to continue to live in the darkness of our loneliness, isolation and fear. We can choose to live in the light of His loving companionship, inseparably bonded with each other and all beings throughout the universe. We can choose to daily carry our cross and follow Him. We can choose love.