Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Troubling Encounter with Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Mark 10:17-31
Once, my wife Ann was having some skin cancers removed at a hospital in Cincinnati. I kissed her, watched her go away, prayed for her, and then began to read a book in the surgical waiting room.

Two women walked in. One was loud, forceful, and authoritative-sounding. The other was quiet and submissive, hanging on every word from the other woman’s mouth. (And believe me, a lot of words came from her mouth!)

What became clear was that the wordy one saw herself as an expert on Christian faith and the Bible. She was instructing the other woman. Also clear was that this “instructor” noticed that in the waiting room, she had a largely captive audience, an audience with whom she was more than willing to share the benefit of all her "knowledge."

She must have gone on non-stop for about five minutes, though it seemed like thirty, when I found I was barely able to mentally tune her out and concentrate on what I’d been reading before she barged in.

But then she said something that sliced through my resistance.

“The Ten Commandments,” she told the other woman, “don’t apply to we Christians. We don’t need God’s Law!”

I still don’t know whether I was right in choosing to be polite rather than walking over to that windbag—forgive me, Jesus, but that’s what she was—and telling her, “Please be quiet, or you’re going to make that poor friend of yours as confused as you are!”

Where did she get the idea that the Ten Commandments had been rescinded because of Jesus? She certainly couldn’t have gotten it from Jesus. In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, for example, in His conversation with the rich man who yearns for eternal life, Jesus mentions the Fifth through Eighth Commandments:
“You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness..”
Then Jesus cites the Fourth Commandment:
“Honor your father and mother.”
Sandwiched between them, Jesus also seems to amplify the proscription against stealing by saying, “You shall not defraud.”

On the bases of this passage alone, a Christian would know that the waiting room instructor was all wet. The law of the Ten Commandments still applies to Christians and to the whole world today.

You see, if you read the Bible and are paying attention, you observe that there are really three kinds of laws that God gave to the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. (This isn’t rocket science, by the way, folks. Even I can understand it.)

The first is ritual or sacrificial law. These were laws that regulated what—be it a lamb, a dove, or a stalk of cereal--was to be sacrificed for sin, along with stipulations about things like where, when, and how.

We no longer need to offer sacrifices for our sin, though. Remember that John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Here is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” And the New Testament book of Hebrews says of Jesus, “…He has appeared once for all…to remove sin by sacrifice of Himself.”

If the waiting room woman had said, “Old Testament ritual law doesn’t apply to we Christians,” I might have given her a mental standing ovation. (I wouldn't have actually stood up and said it. After all, I’m a Lutheran; I can't be too demonstrative.)

A second kind of law you see in the Old Testament is civil law. Remember, that ancient Israel wasn’t a pluralistic democracy like we have in the United States. It was a theocracy. The people were all of one religion and they were ruled by God Himself.

Ancient Israel is in the distant past, though. The civil laws that occupy much of Old Testament books like Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers no longer apply. If the waiting room woman had said that, I would have applauded her, too.

But there’s a third kind of law in the Old Testament law. It’s called the Mosaic Law, the moral law, or simply, the Ten Commandments. These are the laws God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Our Gospel lesson isn’t the only time that Jesus talked about the Ten Commandments. He returned to them repeatedly, expounding on them, deepening our understanding of them.

This moral law reflects God’s will for all humanity for all time. That must be the reason why, when Martin Luther wrote The Small Catechism for families sitting around their dinner tables and The Large Catechism for clergy who were ignorant of the Bible, he started by talking about the Ten Commandments.

Yet the Ten Commandments, important as they are, cannot save us from sin, death, or futile living. In the New Testament, the Ephesian Christians were reminded that, “by grace you have been saved through faith” in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ and not obedience to the Ten Commandments is what saves us.

All of which is why I used to find Jesus’ encounter with the rich man in today’s Gospel lesson so puzzling.

Remember that it begins with the man asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How, the man wonders, can he be saved from sin and death and futility?

Jesus doesn’t say, simply and directly, as He does elsewhere, “Follow Me.”

He doesn’t say, as He also does elsewhere, “Repent, and believe in the Good News.”

He doesn’t even say, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Instead, Jesus tells the man, “You know the commandments…,” then recites a few of them.

What puzzled and frankly bothered me about Jesus’ answer is that He seems to be saying, contrary to what He said many other times in many different ways, that a person could be saved by obeying the moral law. But we know from our reading of the rest of the New Testament that isn't true, don't we?

I remained mystified until I noticed two other things in this passage.

First, there’s the response of the rich man. “I’ve kept all these commandments since I was a kid.” You only have to know the thoughts that go on in your own mind and the things you’ve done that you hope nobody else has ever observed to know that his statement isn’t true. The man may have thought he’d kept the commandments his whole life, but only Jesus can really make the claim of perfect obedience of the moral law of God.

But here are the words what unlocked the meaning of this passage for me:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own…give the money to the poor…then come, follow Me.”
Jesus loved this man who earnestly wanted eternity with God, just as Jesus loves every human being. Jesus loves those who reject Him and the will of God as embodied in the Ten Commandments and who so choose hell over life with God.

Jesus had held up the moral law to this man like a mirror in which he could see all of his shortcomings, his sins, his need of forgiveness, his need of repentance, and his need of faith in God rather than in himself or his money. But he refused to look into the mirror. He was sure that he was a good guy whose slate was clean.

But Jesus, Who loved the man, could see the idols that the man worshiped, the things that he turned to in order to give his life meaning, his money and his possessions.

The Twelve Step movement tells us that when an addict is controlled by alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or pornography, or whatever it may be, it does him or her no good to ignore the addiction. The addict must acknowledge it, drop the thing that keeps them from being whole and healthy, and rely totally on their higher power, God, to help them through.

The rich man’s addiction, his idols, were, as I say, money and possessions. In order to grab the free gift of eternal life, Jesus was telling him, he had to drop his fake god.

Now, there are two things I want to say and then I’ll close.

First: Jesus is looking at you today and He is loving you. And this is no mere abstraction. God-in-the-flesh Jesus loves you as a person with a specific birth date and a specific identity which God has known since before you were born. The Bible tells us that you and I were put together by God in our mothers' wombs. Jesus looks at you and loves you.

On a daily basis, Jesus challenges you to hold the Ten Commandments, His moral law, up before you like a mirror in order for you to do a self-inventory. Psalm 139 has a prayer that might serve well as a daily prayer for every Christian:
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
God, Who loves you, will answer that prayer if you will dare to pray it.

Second: Even though Jesus loved the man with the question about eternal life, Jesus watched the man walk away from Him.

The man was unwilling to let go of the sin that kept him from following Jesus and though Jesus loved the man, Jesus let the man reject Him.

The easiest thing to do in all the world is to pursue our own agendas and ignore the call of Christ to follow Him—in our homes, at work and school, in our marriages and in our leisure time, every moment of every day. Even though Jesus offers forgiveness and eternity as free gifts, it’s hard to follow Him.

It means laying down the life we would prefer and, instead, taking our direction from Him. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father,” “Thy will be done.”

Jesus looks at you with love each day. Be willing each day to lay aside the things that keep you from receiving the life He wants to give to you. You don’t want to face a single moment of adversity without Jesus’ help. You don’t want to miss out on a single blessing Jesus has designed just for you.


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