Don’t turn to Jesus for self-help

Sermon for midweek of Trinity 6

Ephesians 2:4-10  +  Matthew 19:16-30

The Gospel you heard a moment ago ties in perfectly with the Gospel from this past Sunday. We talked about the Ten Commandments and how obedience to the commandments can be used like a key to enter the kingdom of heaven—a key that will never work for sinners, because only perfect obedience turns the lock.

The rich young man who came to Jesus thought he had been obedient to the commandments. But he also had the sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t enough, that there was some aspect of “goodness” he was still missing.

He was right. There was. He was missing the most basic part of goodness that there is: he was missing love for God, devotion to God, trust in God.

He called Jesus, “Good Teacher.” Not because he recognized Jesus as the Son of God; he didn’t. But “good” because he thought it was entirely possible for a human being to be “good,” that is, truly good, like God Himself, and thus worthy of gaining eternal life. And he thought that Jesus was just such a good man. And that Jesus, as a good man, could let him in on the secret to being good.

What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? Oh, what a tragic mistake—to turn to Jesus for self-help, to attempt to approach God apart from His grace, on the basis of one’s own merits.

Jesus puts a question to the rich man: Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. The rich man seems to have forgotten all those Old Testament passages that lump all people together under sin, all those passages that teach Original Sin, making it impossible for anyone descended from sinful Adam and Eve in the natural way to be good. As the Psalmist said, “There is none who does good, no, not one.” So, if the rich man believed Jesus to be anyone but God, he should not have called Him “good.” And if the rich man believed the Old Testament, then he shouldn’t have imagined that there was any good thing he could do to become good himself. No one gains eternal life by being good, because all are sinners, and sinners, by definition, are not good.

Maybe we should be careful, even in our speech, about calling people “good,” at least, not without further explanation. “He’s a good man. She’s a good woman. They’re good kids.” Maybe we should be ready to use such phrases, when we hear them, as opportunities to do what Jesus did with the rich young man.

Jesus explains for the young man what “good thing” he should do. He tells him to “keep the commandments.” That is the good thing you should do. Keep them. But remember what James says: For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.

Which commandments shall I keep?, asked the young man. So Jesus lists a few of the Ten Commandments: 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and then the summary of the Law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Notice, Jesus chose to list only commandments from the Second Table of the Law, the commandments that tell you how you must deal with your neighbor. There’s a reason for that: those are the easy ones. Don’t even worry for the moment about loving God, whom you don’t see. Here, just love your neighbor. That’s all. See if you can do that. Unselfishly, sacrificially, from the heart. Love your neighbor—including your neighbor who’s a jerk, including your neighbor who hates you, including your neighbor whom you barely know. Live to serve your neighbor.

“I do live for my neighbor!”, replied the young man. “I have, since my youth.” I’ve kept those commandments!

Jesus doesn’t even argue with him or dig deeper into the man’s history. He doesn’t have to. He points out one glaring flaw: If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. Here’s how you can become good, Jesus tells the man. Give up your riches for the sake of the poor, for your neighbor, whom you claim to love as yourself. Give up your earthly comfort. Give up your livelihood, your home, your safety. Give up your life. In its place, take up the cross. And follow Me.

What is Jesus saying here? That by doing that good but difficult work of giving all you have to the poor, you will atone for all your sins, become a truly good person, and thus earn eternal life from God? No. What Jesus does here is to expose the rich man’s true sin: his idolatry. What matters most to you in your life? Is it your house? Your family? Your reputation? Your comfort? Your health? Your riches? The person you love? What won’t you give up, if the Son of God says, “Leave it behind and come follow me”? That thing is your idol. That thing is truly your god. And so you prove that you haven’t kept even the First Commandment, much less the others.

The more you have, the more you want, the more your heart becomes attached to it, and the harder it is to leave it all behind, to give it up, to give it away, if God calls on you to give it away. That’s usually how it is, isn’t it? That’s why Jesus said that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

That, of course, sounds like an impossible thing. And for man, it is. But for God, nothing is impossible. Let’s remember Abraham for a moment, shall we? He was a rich man. God never called on him to sell all his possessions and give it to the poor. Instead, God called on him to give up something even dearer to him: his beloved son, Isaac. And not just to give him up, but to kill him with his own hand. And Abraham was prepared to do it. Not because he was so good. But because God had worked that faith in Abraham’s heart, which then produced in Abraham a love for God that was greater than his love for his own son.

Or consider Job. Another rich man. God never called on him to sell all his possessions. Instead, God allowed Satan to destroy all his possessions, and even to kill all his children. The rich man in our Gospel would have cursed God for that. But what did Job say? Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD. Again, Job’s faith in God was counted for righteousness in God’s sight, and it produced in Job a contentment with God that seems impossible. But with God nothing is impossible.

Or consider Jesus’ disciples. They weren’t rich, as far as we know, but they had a life. They had possessions. Some of them had fishing boats and a fishing business. When Jesus called them to “Come, follow Me,” what did they do? As we heard just a couple of Sundays ago, they left all and followed Him, even leaving their fishing boats and fishing nets and the large catch of fish they had taken. That’s Spirit-worked faith. Faith in Jesus as their Savior. Faith by which they were counted righteous before God, counted “good.” Not because they did the good work of leaving all behind. But because they valued Jesus and His salvation above all else.

Faith led Jesus’ disciples to give up everything, when Jesus called on them to do it, to leave behind an existence where getting ahead in this world is the first priority. So, “What about us, Jesus?” We have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” The answer? Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. You aren’t welcomed into eternal life because you’re good. You’re welcomed in because Jesus is good, and you have been brought to trust in Him. Trusting in Jesus does require being prepared to leave behind everything on earth. But then there is the promise and the sure hope of far greater rewards in heaven. Not many people are willing to give up what they have on earth in the hope of future glory. Most people are like the rich young man; they walk away sad because they are unwilling to part with their earthly comfort. They walk away sad, because they don’t value Christ or think He is a Savior worth giving up earthly comfort for.

But we know better, don’t we? Because God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

So stop pretending that you can ever do some good thing to gain eternal life. Don’t turn to Jesus for instructions on how to help yourself. Turn to Him to save you, and to give you eternal life as a gift. And then, trusting in Him, take up your cross and follow Him. Because nothing on earth compares to what He will give to those who love Him. Amen.

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