45 - Give to the Poor and Follow Me, Aug 23, 2015

I Corinthians 15:1-11

Matthew 19:16-26

The rich young man in this morning’s Gospel dares to ask the question, “What good must I do that I might have eternal life?” I say he dares because what if this good one must do isn’t easy? Indeed, we discover in this Gospel that it’s impossible. I think this is what gives this morning’s Gospel its force: to have eternal life, we must do what we can’t do. Is eternal life therefore but a dangling carrot we can only wish for and never have?

Look at the rich young man’s question closely. It implies, correctly, that eternal life is different from the biological life of the body. We don’t have eternal life; we have biological life. More than that, the soul may in fact be eternal, but is she eternally living? No, says the bible; she is not. That would mean that, if we are in fact eternal in our soul, we are eternally dead. How, then, do we go about obtaining this eternal life we don’t have?

The rich young man shows he has read the prophets enough to know that only the good or righteousness is eternal life and that eternal life and righteousness go hand in hand. And, he knows that – even though he may be an immortal soul – he does not have this eternal life and that to obtain it, he must do some good thing. Now we see that the question, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life,”is of some existential urgency. And, I would say that we should be troubled if we do not feel its urgency, because it indicates how dead we are in our soul, in our inner man.

Look closely at the LORD’s answer. He goes to the Ten Commandments and gives not one but several good things the rich young man must do: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man responds, “All these things I have guarded,” (the same word to express what Adam was required to do: to guard the Garden of Eden. (Gn 2:15))

St Matthew gives us no reason to doubt the young man’s word. Indeed, I think the force of this morning’s Gospel – that we cannot do the good thing we have to do to have eternal life – comes precisely from the fact that this young man was a “good” man, even a generous man, for he says that he had loved his neighbor as himself. I presume he gave to charity, that he was a good citizen, a good Israelite.

But, I would ask you to look more closely at the commandments the LORD gives the young man to do. Can you see how they all have to do with external things? So that, to do them one must guard only one’s external behavior or one’s outer man.

Of one piece with this, perhaps you’ve already noticed that there is one of the Ten Commandments the LORD does not give in His first word to the young man. It is the first and greatest commandment: “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, soul and might” (Dt 6:5) or, to the highest degree. Can you see how this commandment goes directly to the heart, to our inner man?

I believe that this commandment is the inner content of the LORD’s second word to the young man, which I think we now can understand like this: having guarded your outer man, now guard your inner man. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor. You will have riches in heaven, and come (‘draw near’) and follow Me.” Looked at more closely, this commandment to the young man looks like the same commandment the LORD gives to all those who wish to be His disciples: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me. For, He who saves his life will lose it; but, he who loses his life for My sake, will find it.” The inner content of this commandment, too, then, is to “love God with all your heart and soul to the highest degree.”

In this light, the LORD’s word: “Go, sell your possessions” acquires even greater force than it has when taken literally. The word here for possessions also means existence or to be, and so shall we say life as in the biological life of this world, your most precious possession that will someday be sold to death anyway, whether you will or not?

 “Go, sell your possessions,” therefore, I think means: lose your life for My sake. Don’t just guard your outer behavior; begin guarding your inner behavior. Begin denying yourself in your thoughts and desires. Live both in your outer man and in your inner man by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; above all this word: You shall love God with all your heart and soul to the highest degree.

“Give to the poor” now takes on an inward meaning: give to the poor in your inner man. But, Christ is the Poor Man. (cf. Ps 34:6) Offer yourself in both your outer man and in your inner man  to the highest degree as a living sacrifice to Christ (cf. Rm 12:1) in obedience to the first commandment. That means to “draw near and to follow Christ.”

Do we dare probe the meaning of this word? Doesn’t drawing near to Christ mean uniting ourselves to Him in a death like His and identifying ourselves with Him on the Cross as the first ofsinners? Doesn’t to follow Him mean to follow Him into the tomb – i.e. to sell all my possessions, above all my biological life in the flesh, and to lose this worldly life for His sake; i.e., that I might receive Him, the Resurrection and the Life, into the tomb of my heart transfigured into a bridal chamber?

At its heart, I believe what all of this means, and where we begin to feel its full force, is that to have eternal life we must take up our cross and put to death our self-love, our entitlement, our self-righteousness, our narcissism – we must sell our possessions, we must lose our life for the sake of Christ. We must deny ourselves; we must let go our anger and really “give to the poor”; i.e. present ourselves, not those who have wronged us, to God as the sinner as did Christ on the Cross, and in the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit, forgive as God forgives us.

Watching the young man leave, the LORD said: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The camel is an unclean thing for the Jew. The eye of a needle is the gate of the heart. The image shows how hard our heart has become. It has become easier for us to let the pride of unclean things into our heart even though they don’t fit, i.e., they aren’t natural to us because they kill our souls, than it is for us to receive into our heart the humility of Christ’s Holy Spirit that we may have eternal life.

Let’s wake up and be dismayed! But let’s not go with the rich man. Let’s stay with the disciples and cry out: “Who then can be saved?”

“With men this is impossible,” says the LORD. Even if we are eternal in our souls, we cannot give ourselves eternal life because we are eternally dead. But, “with God all things are possible.” This is our hope; for Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, became flesh and destroyed death by His death. To have eternal life is not a dangling carrot we can’t have; it is Christ whom we can have if we but receive Him in faith and in love.

Let’s not waste time trying to convince God – or rather ourselves – that we deserve eternal life because we are good citizens; we are still eternally dead. Let’s draw near to Christ just as we are: sinners who need the LORD to do what we can’t: give us eternal life.

For, Christ gives Himself to us as our food and drink and we are granted to become members of His resurrected and glorified Body. We draw near to Christ by uniting ourselves to Him in prayer, in fasting, in the giving of alms – forgiving as we have been forgiven – as we eat and drink His life-giving Body and Blood. Then, we will have treasure in heaven; i.e., we will have Christ in us. (Lk 17:21; Col 1:27) He is the treasure we now guard in the earthen vessels of our outer man and in our inner man. Loving God with all our heart and soul becomes possible to us because we will have become perfect, nothing will be lacking in us if it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. Amen!