Homily preached at Holy Wisdom Monastery’s Sunday Assembly – October 10, 2021
Back in the dark ages when I went to seminary, I was taught that the Psalms were not for preaching, but rather that they were to be understood as liturgical responses to the weekly lection from the Hebrew Bible. Yet I can’t help but feel that a key verse from Psalm 90 pretty much sums up the whole range of matters that we explore in all of today’s readings: “Let us count our days,” the psalmist wrote, “that we may gain a wise heart.”
To quote the shepherd prophet Amos, one with a wise heart will “seek God and live,” will “hate evil and love the good.”
And the anonymous author of this often puzzling letter to the Hebrews says that having a wise heart means knowing that God’s word is living and active, sharp and piercing, judging us before the One to whom we all must render account.
And Jesus, in good rabbinical style, suggests that a wise heart will understand that on the one hand “how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the reign of God,” and yet on the other, to rejoice that with God all things are possible, even to the matter of our being saved!
Yes, a wise heart is grounded in God, the holy One, and the One who alone is good and yet whose throne of grace can be boldly approached, in whose presence we can live and move and have our being, laying ourselves bare before the eyes of the One who judges even our thoughts and intentions. A wise heart looks for God in all the right places, not in the selfish externals of human security and ease, but in the internal inquiry that finds the self asking, “Is it well with my soul?”
Today’s Gospel paints a poignant picture of the engaging struggle we all have in living heart wisely. This encounter of Jesus with this man is presented in all three synoptic Gospels and, and as a result, most of us know this man in composite fashion as the “rich young ruler.” Most of us also recognize in him our own challenges with our own very real attachment to possessions and things, something an Amos or the Hebrews writer might also acknowledge.
Wanting to live before God, wanting to hold fast to our confession even with all our warts and weaknesses, we know we are very much like this man that Jesus meets on his way to Jerusalem. We too want to know the way to live life abundantly and fully, both now and eternally. Matching our aspirations up against what seem like impossible criteria, Jesus reminds him – and us- that what seems so daunting for us is in fact possible with God.
But possible how?
When Jesus responds to this man’s seemingly honest inquiry, we, like him, discover that life lived on God’s terms is not so much a matter of our human potential as it is a fact of divine provision, or as we sing in an old hymn, “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee” (Wm. How, 1858). Seeking God and finding life, eternal and complete, is a gift, not something we merit, even though there is something we must do.
Jesus plants a paradox in the mind of this rich young ruler and in our minds too. Life that is good and full and abundant with an eternal quality strangely involves not gaining everything but rather in leaving everything. It’s discovering that wanting to come in first means you end up last. It’s learning that only by giving it all away does one come to have it all in the end.
Like this rich young ruler, we mostly think we do a fairly commendable job of keeping God’s commands. But just like him, I think there is hidden in our mind’s depths some lingering doubt. Is it enough? Do we do enough? Or why else would he/we feel the need to ask about eternal life, to be reassured we do indeed do enough?
Jesus perceives the reason, recognizing, not that the man before him has possessions, but that his possessions have him. Just like they have us! How can he/we pretend to offer whole-hearted devotion to God when the stuff of our lives has its grasp on us?
Sadly the answer for this man to that question Jesus posed was too much. And I wonder if it is also not too much for us. It caused the man to leave, and in spite of or because of his love for him, Jesus let him go.
Because one thing is clear. Whether we’re a bunch of Amos’ 8th century BCE Israelites struggling to establish justice in the gates or first century CE Christians wanting to hold fast to their confession or 21st century seekers like us, God does not force a response. At the center of our search for God and real life, there still must be a willing commitment to a warm, deep, and self-giving relationship with God and through God with all others. And that is just something God will not force.
It’s odd, isn’t it, even paradoxical, that what perpetually gets in our way when we’ve wandered to the limits of our own insight is an obstacle, a roadblock, that should be as plain as day? And that obstacle, that roadblock, turns out to be our very desperate human need to hold onto our own endeavors, our own stuff, and our own accomplishments. At the root of seeking God and finding life is the building of a relationship with God, not from a mere outward performance of duties or commands, because of what we do or what we have, but from a center of devotion to the One who alone is good.
I know that the remedy which Jesus offers to this rich young ruler and to us sounds demanding and harsh, but paradoxically it is an offer of freedom. Jesus who himself knows that none are good save God alone saves us with an optimism of grace. Our truest humanity is exercised as we recognize the relative nature of all other demands upon us, leaving room for the only absolute demand – God’s demand to have no other gods before God, to love God with the fullness of one’s heart and mind and soul. All our other and lesser loyalties are to be both ways of expressing our devotion to God and subordinate to it. Only when we locate the things that bind us (of personality and circumstance) and let them go can we openly receive the genuine freedom found in the service of God.
So there it is in all its realistic starkness. We are free to accept it or reject it, to walk toward it or away from it.
Whether it’s Amos’ tough talk about hating evil and loving good or Hebrews’ stark description of a word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, or Jesus’ astounding paradox that with God the impossible is indeed possible, we are offered an accurate assessment of our need and a way for it to be met. In seeking God and finding life we move beyond obedience, beyond mere duty, to devotion, to an embrace and a relationship that becomes a channel of God’s love for the whole world.
The message which Jesus wishes his disciples to receive and to understand is that our hope does not rest in acquiring the goods of the world, but rather in doing the world some good in response to God’s unfailing goodness and grace! Overcoming our inherent selfishness, our devoted attachment to our stuff, can be won. God’s grace and reach can transform us. We cannot pay for it. We cannot earn it. But by God’s amazing grace, it is free. We can find the path to life in doing the good and establishing justice in the gates where evil still hides.
A prayer I ran across this week spoke eloquently to me about all of this:
“Beloved Giver, whose gift is life itself, teach us to be worthy of your abundance by accepting it wholly and sharing it freely. Lay your hand upon our hearts so that we may find peace and courage to give all that we have and follow you.” Amen. (Andrea La Sonde Anastos)
We know that things in this world aren’t always what they should be, but there is a hiddenness about discipleship –the inner experience; the source of hope; the perception of God’s working, no matter how things may seem on the outside. With God all things are possible. With God this world’s assessments will one day be stood on their heads. The rejected stone will be the cornerstone. We can see that and pray for that and plan for that and work for that on the foundation of an optimism of grace! As we sang in our opening hymn, “God’s way is my way.” “So let us count our days that we may gain a wise heart!”