Be Careful What You Ask For

Proclaim Sermons
October 10, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

We all know the verses of scripture most likely to greet us on a coffee cup, bumper sticker or wall poster. Sometimes these verses keep us going and lift our spirits. Jeremiah 29:11 pops up frequently: "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope." Romans 8:28 receives much attention: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." Philippians 4:13 even peeks out at us from the bottom of athletic shoes: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

We should take care with interpretation and even translation of these verses. We should dig deep into the verses to get the full meaning, but, in a pinch, they can keep us afloat when we are just treading spiritual water. Verses like these provide some inspiration when we don't have time to do real study.

We never see the verses of today's passage used that way. No one ever buys a cup with verse 21 on it: "Jesus looking at him, loved him and said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'" Even with the promise of treasure in heaven, we don't find this passage inspiring. We want to hurry past it, to get to the coffee cup verses. We don't want to read this story, and when we do read it, we want to find a way to wiggle out of it.

Everything here starts off well enough. A man has the opportunity many of us would like to have. He catches Jesus at just the right time to ask his big question. We might wonder what we would ask Jesus if we had the chance. Most preachers field questions from people, such as, "What does the Bible say about (and they name some topic)?" Or they'll ask, "Do I really have to forgive a person who has done (fill in the blank) to me?"

But the man who comes to Jesus in today's passage asks a question of a different sort.

He obviously takes his faith seriously. He looks toward eternity. In many of the gospel stories, people want something from Jesus right now. They want healing, or for Jesus to settle a family dispute or enough faith to keep going. But this man's question concerns eternal life.

We don't know if he finds his life on earth comfortable, but he asks about eternal life. We know he takes his actions seriously. He has scrupulously followed the teachings of the scriptures. Every church in the country would welcome this man with open arms into its fellowship. Jesus does invite the man to follow him, but he also makes a startling demand of him. Jesus does not want him to double his tithe or practice some more generosity. Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and help the poor with the proceeds.

Some things we might think

We need to work carefully here to understand Jesus' words to this man, who may now wish he had just let Jesus pass on by with a wave. Jesus' message, on the surface, sounds straightforward. Giving everything to the poor assures us eternal life, he seems to say. If we step back, however, we know that this simple explanation doesn't work. We don't buy our way into eternal life. We don't understand salvation as a business transaction. We can't turn God into an extortionist, as if we were to hold any money back, God would cut us off from eternal life. We could pay up to such a god, but we couldn't love or fully worship such a god.

Perhaps the thought crosses our minds that Jesus sets us up here. Jesus tells the man - and by extension, us - that we have to do the impossible. Jesus shows no compromise with the man. He has to sell everything. How could we do that? How would we live? How could we pay our bills? We cannot realistically sell everything we own. Did Jesus issue an impossible command, so that we would understand the futility of saving ourselves? We could save ourselves only by doing what we can't actually do? Could Jesus have pushed us to see that we can't earn our salvation, and so we have to rely on grace?

We know that salvation comes to us only by God's grace. Jesus has indeed done what we cannot do ourselves. In one way of understanding our salvation, we compare it to a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paid the debt we could not pay. We should take care with this understanding, so that again, we do not envision God as an extortionist. We find humility in seeing our salvation as a debt that Jesus paid, but we don't push that so far that God becomes a loan shark.

Jesus could have made this point without telling the man to sell everything and give to the poor. When the man asked about inheriting eternal life, Jesus could have told him that eternal life comes as a gift.

Perhaps Jesus saw that the man loved his money more than he loved God. The money blocked the man from fully loving God. He had to sell all his possessions in order to free himself to love God. The money weighed him down. The real problem existed in the man's heart.

I don't really see this interpretation as the solution to this passage, however. Indeed, some people love their money more than they love God. We sometimes think, however, that we can keep all our money as long as we don't love it. I don't see this interpretation working because then the money itself really doesn't matter. Only the man's heart matters. Jesus really does care about the poor, however. Jesus really does want us to feed the hungry and protect the vulnerable.

God's call to gamble on the kingdom

If we can't see this passage as buying our way to eternal life, or as a message about grace, or as teaching not to love our money, what can we make of it? Perhaps the answer lies in a slight word change that Jesus makes. The man asks about inheriting eternal life. Can we assume he hoped God would include him in the Resurrection? He doesn't want God to leave him out. Jesus answers that by selling everything and giving to the poor, the man will "have treasure in heaven." Jesus doesn't use the same words as the man's question.

Perhaps Jesus calls the man, and us, to take a risk for the sake of the kingdom of God. Perhaps we can think about it this way. Who celebrates a victory with more joy than the person who has invested the most? Imagine a big charity project. Some organization wants to raise a million dollars for a cause. Two people participate. One spends hours over several days on the phone, and knocking on doors, asking for donations. That person sets up chairs, hangs decorations and cleans up after a big rally for the cause. That person dips into savings to donate to the drive. The second person spends one Saturday afternoon working the phones and goes home early. The second person shows up to the rally at the last minute and lets others clean up. The second person gives a token amount to the drive. When the charity reaches the million-dollar mark, who will jump higher for joy? Who will beam with teeth flashing and fists pumping? The more we invest, the more joy we experience.

Perhaps, in the scripture passage, Jesus calls the man and us to invest in the kingdom of God. The more we give, the more sacrifices we make and the more involved we become, the more joy we will experience when we enter the kingdom of God. The more treasure we build up, the more it will matter to us. Not that God will love anyone more, but that the experience of joy will well up in the one who has made the biggest investment. When we volunteer, when we work among the poor, when we put in "sweat equity" and give sacrificially, we reflect God's love for us.

Maybe Jesus tells us that we also build treasure in heaven. Investing time to work among those who suffer may break our hearts for now. We may see and experience things that grieve us. That sets us up for the joy when we see those who suffer find healing and love in the Resurrection.

We can't give everything away. We couldn't live like that. We can take risks; we can invest in God's ministry among the poor and hurting. We can build treasure in heaven.