Sunday, February 06, 2011

Does God Pay Fair? Pt. 1

Matthew 19:16 - 20:16 is a passage that most Christians have heard discussed several times in their lives, but I suspect that the chapter break effectively kept most of those discussions on separate Sundays or Wednesday evenings. Thanks to an early Sunday morning visit to the E.R. for my son, I had an opportunity to spend some time reading this passage afresh. The results may resonate with you, shock you, or go right over your head. I believe that they are accurate to the text, but feel free to discuss, dispute, or dissect (but not disrespect) my not so random thoughts.

I'm sure that the young man was sincere. There is no record that shows him as being a tool for either the Pharisees or the Sadducees. I think that, by this time, Jesus had developed a clear reputation for integrity, veracity, and wisdom in the affairs of life, and people sought Him out for answers as well as for miracles (see Luke 12:13, for example). His question reflected this unnamed man's respect for Jesus as a godly teacher: "(Good) Teacher, what good thing shall I to so that I might have eternal life?"

Jesus' initial reaction has been commented upon by scholars, pastors and teachers, and people who have written more books than I have, so I won't attempt a radical new insight here, except to point out one thing. I noticed that Jesus did not, in His answer, ridicule the man's query. Perhaps He did push the man a little further by the general nature of His answer. If the man had responded to "Keep the Comandments," with a smile and a nod of appreciation, then one could say that he merely wanted affirmation of his own goodness from the "Good Teacher" (according to the Byantine textual tradition).

He goes further, however, asking, "Which?" It seems rather curt, this one-word follow up. The great Alfred Edersheim, wrote in Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, that it was customary to use one word comments to women, but such a response would be deemed rude if directed towards a man. Jesus' response is also interesting, and almost as short: ""you shall not murder," "you shall not commit adultery," "you shall not steal," "you shall not falsely witness," "honor your father and your mother," and "you shall love yuour neighbor as yourself." The young man, apparently well raised, says that he has kept each of these since he was a young man, yet still feels insecure regarding his eternal destiny. Aside from the point, raised by others, that his question presumes that eternal life comes as a result of what you do, I am struck that Jesus said nothing about God in His answer. I would argue, though, that to claim this as an error of legalism by the young man might be reading information into the account that was not yet available to the young man. The cross was still in the future, the Gospel at that time was that Christ has come, not that we are saved by grace through faith, so the young man asked a reasonable question, considering the religous cultural background that both he and Jesus came from.

Jesus' reply interests me also: He doesn't mention loving God, worshipping God, or anything else that would be "God-related." It is easy to claim to love God, since, with few exceptions, God has never interrupted anyones testimony on that point to countradict it. Who could prove the man a liar if he had said that he had never worshipped any God but the LORD? We likewise have no way, in this New Covenant, of knowing who believes in Jesus Christ and who does not, so we hesitate to challange anyone who claims faith in Him, regardless of their behavior, except in the stricter Christian circles, who fall into the other extreme of looking for things which are done. Perhaps Jesus, therefore, felt no need to bring up the first three commandments, knowing that no one who failed to keep those would bother with the remaining seven.

Jesus' next words are the ones that have created the problem. Telling the man to sell his goods, giving them to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven, and then "Come, follow me," are not words that warm the hearts of your typical capitalist entrepenure. As a result, they have been muted or explained away. I think the fear of scaring away rich donors caused us to miss teh real point of Jesus' words. Being perfect can only come by following the One who is perfect. We have no other reference point than Jesus for perfection, for every other hero has a fatal flaw which keeps him from the ranks of the Divine. All of us have our moments, so none of us can confidently tell others to follow in our footsteps with complete assurance that we will never fail. Only "Jesus never fails," as an old Gospel song exclaims.

The young man's response, if we are honest, is not that much different from most of ours. As long as going to heaven can be achieved through our efforts, we can have some degree of confidence. "What one man can do, another can do," got Anthony Hopkins through a harrowing experience against a bear. If only getting into heaven only meant running a little bit faster than the guy next to you.

I have more to say, but I'll let you deal with this much of what will be a full plate. Better leaving you wanting more, than have you saying I did too much, right?