Matthew 19:16—20:16

The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching

September 20, 2020

Jesus often told parables in response to someone’s question.  In this case, a rich young man had just asked Him, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

His question assumed that gaining such a life comes from doing enough right things.  So as not to legitimate that assumption, Jesus ignored his question and posed His own: “Why do you ask me about what is good?  There is only one who is good.”   With that redirection of the conversation, Jesus took the focus off a man’s deeds and put it on God’s character.  Maybe the answer to the man’s original question lay, not in human goodness, but in divine?

At any rate, after reframing the discussion, Jesus did talk to the man about his deeds, inviting him to consider whether he had kept God’s commandments.  After a moment of honest reflection, he said he had, though he wondered if he had done it adequately.  He asked with sincerity, “What do I still lack?”

With the discerning eyes of love, Jesus saw that this exceptionally good man was failing to keep the most crucial commandment of all.  He had another god before God. He loved being rich, and so loved it that he refused to give it up in order to free himself to “follow” the Son of God.  He valued holding on to his wealth more than keeping Jesus’ company; and, rather than relinquish what held him back from walking with Jesus and knowing His saving friendship, he “walked away” from the Lord of life who alone could give him what he said he wanted most.  His problem was not that he didn’t care about the poor, or that he rejected the idea of becoming an even better person.  His problem was that he loved most of all something other than God and the life God alone could give.

When Jesus laid out for this good, first-rate man what he had to do to have life, Jesus introduced the subject by saying, “If you wish to be perfect…”  In putting it that way, He was not suggesting that, to have life, one must become completely and impeccably good.

The Greek word teleios, here translated “perfect”, does not always mean “sinless, without fault or flaw”.  It just as often means to be “full-grown, mature, fulfilled, true to its purpose”.  For example, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was the most commonly quoted Bible back then, teleios was the Greek word chosen to render the Hebrew word shalēm in 1 Kings 11:4 – which says that “Solomon’s heart was not teleia with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.”  That verse was not implying that David’s heart was sin-free and wholly righteous.  David was hardly perfect! But David did have an “all-in” devotion to seeking a close, ongoing relationship with God.  David was true to his deep purpose in love.  Thus, in 1 Kings and here, teleios refers to being “true to” someone.  To be true to Jesus as His disciple, this good, first-rate man had to deny himself his idolatrous attachment to wealth – and that, alas, he would not do.

When later Jesus, lamenting the man’s choice, warned His disciples about the spiritual dangers of wealth, they were “astounded” – for they saw the man as a first-rate person whose wealth, in their worldview, only confirmed his goodness. So they wondered – if not someone like him – “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus answered them by urging them, not to look for the possibility of salvation in the qualities of a human being, but in the qualities of the divine being.  After all, Jesus said here, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”  Does that not suggest that the hope of salvation springs, not from our being good enough, but from God’s being gracious enough?  That gaining life depends, not on our good works, but on our devotion to Someone who treats us better than fair and blesses us beyond what we’ve earned or deserve?

Peter kept trying to put two and two together.  The disciples, he knew, couldn’t match the good works of that first-rate, rich man, but they – unlike him – had “left everything and followed” Jesus!  They at least had been “true to” Jesus, and were “all in” on their devotion to keeping His company.  So Peter asked Jesus, “What then will we have?”  More than you can imagine, Jesus declared, both in this world and the next!

But then, to make sure Peter and the others got it that it was not about their being anything special but about God’s being especially, even extravagantly generous, Jesus added a twist to His message that must have thrown Peter back into confusion: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  If they weren’t careful, Jesus’ first disciples might’ve been the last to appreciate it’s all God’s grace!

So Jesus told this parable about a landowner who, throughout a long hard workday, keeps hiring more folks to bring in his harvest before the sun sets.  When the job is done and it’s time to pay everybody, the owner has the workers lined up in an odd order: “beginning with the last and then going to the first”.   The last to work but first to be paid are delighted that they are given a full day’s wages for only an hour of work, and that in the coolness of the late afternoon.  The first to work but last to be paid are upset that they get no more for hours more of work, many of them in the “scorching heat” of midday.

Though they cannot complain of being cheated – they got in full the wages they’d agreed to work for – we can empathize with their sense of unfairness.  Is it not an injustice they get just the same as the rest?

We receive the gift of eternal life entirely by grace, and that means it is a kind of injustice that we get anything good at all.  For we have merited damnation, not salvation.  To accept grace then is to accept the injustice of our getting treated better than fair, of our being blessed beyond what we’ve earned or deserved, of our gaining what we have no right to: the heaven of a friendship with Jesus and an eternity in which to enjoy it.

The injustice of grace is that the best people don’t always get the best; and the worst don’t always get the worst.  Sometimes the first are last and the last are first, because what people end up with has nothing to do with how hard they’ve worked or how good they’ve been.  That’s an injustice I don’t want to just accept, but to forever thank God for – and thank Him that this blessed injustice is for anyone who’ll accept it.  Won’t you?

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