For the last few weeks, my senior pastor has been doing a sermon series on the book Not A Fan by Kyle Idleman. It’s a good sermon series, and I have to say that on most of her points I agree with her.
To boil the whole series down to a single sentence: Fans like Jesus and the things that He stands for but have no skin in the game, or you are a Follower of Jesus who commits to do the things that Jesus would do, no matter what they are, how difficult they are, or how counter-cultural they are.
Please understand that being a follower asks some difficult things of you and might result in you doing things that make you look just a little over-the-top to your friends. Don’t worry…they’ll get over it and if they don’t, those people didn’t really love you anyway. Anyone who loves you ought to know that you are a seriously committed follower of Jesus and that nothing is going to get in the way of that commitment.
Having said that…I really struggled with her last sermon.
I’m pretty sure that everybody struggled with her last sermon, which was based on Matthew 19:16-22, otherwise known as the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler:
16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these;[a] what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money[b] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (NRSV)
I think that I have always struggled with the parable of the rich, young ruler because it seems to say that being rich keeps you from being truly faithful. To me it seems to say that we must give up all of our worldly wealth before we can truly follow Christ, and there are people who actually believe that. They sell everything they own and give the proceeds to the Church and join the ranks of the poor just so that they can live out their faith. I can’t criticize that choice, although it seems a bit extreme to me; I don’t believe that is what Jesus is asking me to do.
I have to admit that I have given up considerable wealth for my God. I used to be a computer programmer, and back in 1997 (when I finally left my job to go to seminary) I was earning more than my husband because of how rare “mainframe” programmers were becoming. If I had stayed in my original career, I would probably be making six figures…easily making over $150,000 a year. That’s a lot of money, and sadly I’ll never earn anything like that as a counselor who gives away a lot of counseling for free…but that’s what God calls me to do.
I say this not to glorify myself (because really…I love my job. I wouldn’t want to go back to computer programming for any reason, ever) but to highlight that I have already set aside a chunk of material wealth for the sake of Jesus…and I still have a really hard time with my pastor’s interpretation of Matthew 19:16-22!
My senior pastor sees this passage as a demand to give up anything and everything that Christ asks us to set aside. I, on the other hand, keep getting hung up on the whole good vs perfect debate in this passage. “Good vs perfect” is a debate that takes up a huge part of my life…and it is the one place where God constantly reminds me that I cannot be perfect for Him…that I can only submit to His will, and He will make me perfect.
Go back and read the passage again. Seriously, I’ll wait. Scroll back and read the scripture passage again. No, really…scroll back up the page and read the whole Scripture passage a second time.
Did you notice that Jesus, being asked about being ‘good’, states that only God is good? Jesus declares that only God is good (excluding everyone else) and then instructs the rich man to keep the commandments. I have always taken this as a sign that Jesus knew that being human was a major impediment to being like God…that only God was good and humans could do little more than try and follow God’s example. To me, this means that humans can NEVER be good. Goodness is reserved for God alone.
That makes sense to me, because so much of this world is chaotic and screwed up. Heck, my own flesh is chaotic and screwed up! As I get older, more and more goes wrong with my body no matter how hard I work to stay healthy. This body isn’t meant to last for an eternity…only my soul is built for longevity and eternity. My body? I’m 53, so my body is going to return to dust sometime in the next 45 years. I am, essentially, on the downhill slide to death. There is no hope for this body: it is mortal and it shall pass away. My soul? My soul is eternal and it will return to its Creator because it cannot be separated from its Creator.
Having said all that, I want to bring this passage of Scripture back to where I live on almost a daily basis: good vs. perfect. I would LOVE to be perfect in the name of God! I would love to perfectly care for my parishioners and my clients. I would LOVE to perfectly serve the Kingdom, never running out of energy or patience. I would LOVE to be the perfect wife, the perfect friend, the perfect daughter and the perfect mother…I would love to be perfect. I have almost built an idol to my dreams of perfection.
But you and I both know that perfection just isn’t going to happen.
You know how we know that? Because when someone asks Jesus what they have to do to be ‘good’, Jesus makes it clear that there is only one person who is good and that is GOD. That’s it: God is good and everyone else falls short. We have, in so many ways, no hope of being good. But the rich young ruler insists that he’s followed all the commandments and that he still feels unsure of eternal life. So Jesus makes a statement that is actually a question—a very meaningful question. He says:
“If you wish to be perfect…”
If only God is good, how the heck is anyone on Earth supposed to be PERFECT???! Doesn’t that seem impossible?
Literally, having told the rich young ruler that only God is good, Jesus then says “If you want to be perfect, you must…”
And of course, what Jesus lists as the requirements of perfection are far beyond what the rich young ruler is willing to do. But that shouldn’t surprise any of us, because perfection is always outside of our ability. There is no way to be perfectly faithful, perfectly sinless, perfectly giving, perfectly patient…especially when Jesus tells us that only God is good.
Essentially what Jesus is saying to the rich young ruler is “If you want to try to attain Heaven all by yourself you are going to have to be PERFECT…so here goes…” and you know that the rich young ruler is NOT going to be able to pull it off. Perfection is way out of our grasp if only God can be good.
Big surprise there, huh?
Not really. I think all of us knew that there was no way for us to be perfect in God’s eyes, because if we could be perfect all on our own, why did God send Jesus to die for our sins?
Makes no sense, huh? Yeah…that’s the WHOLE idea.
The reason that I struggle with Matthew 19:16-22 is that it sits in contradiction to everything I know about God and Jesus.
I can’t be holy enough to impress God—that’s why God sent Jesus to die for me.
I can’t rescue myself from my mess…that’s why God sent Jesus, to recue me from everything that I can’t seem to escape.
I can’t perfectly fulfill God’s law…and Jesus’ death frees me from having to obey that law.
I can’t…I never could! But Jesus? He can…He will…and He always has been able to do all that is necessary for us to achieve eternal life. Everything we need is present in Jesus Christ.
That’s the whole doggone point!!! And that’s the point of Jesus’ discussion with the rich, young ruler.
There is now way that we can earn salvation on our own…only Jesus can do that for us, and without Him, we have no hope.
Don’t bother trying to be perfect. Heck…don’t even bother trying to be good, because according to Jesus, only one is good, and that One is God!
When it comes down to it, all that Jesus wants from us is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) Those things are within our reach because God has placed them fully within our reach. Perfection? Not. So. Much. Perfection is out of our reach. Even goodness is out of our reach.
That ought to clarify the ‘good enough’ question.
You’ll never make it. You don’t have to.
God already decided that He loves you and wants to save you.
All you have to do is believe and accept that you will never, ever be good enough…even though you are more than enough for God to sacrifice His son to save you.
It’s a paradox. Just go with it.