The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r140.htm
s140g97 Somerton Park 13/10/97 S 28 Pentecost 21
"No one is good but God alone". Mark 10.19
This particular incident obviously made a huge impression on the disciples - we are told that they "were perplexed at these words" (vs 23). The incident is reported by all three of the fist gospel writers. However Mark alone notes the look of love that Jesus gave this young man. It is Mark too who alone recounts the young man at the scene of Jesus' arrest, fleeing naked. I have often wondered if these young men were one and the same - Mark himself.
The progression of the conversation between the man and Jesus is interesting. The level of difficulty becomes greater and greater.
At first Jesus challenges the flattery of the man. "Why do you call me good?" With God, flattery will get no one anywhere. We too need to be understand that our worship of God is not flattery. We don't tell God anything new when we say that God is almighty, blessed, or whatever. The last thing God needs is constant reassurance from us of these facts in order to believe it!! We can delude ourselves that our worship, our flattery of God will get us in the good books. Not so, says Jesus. We simply wouldn't respect a God who was interested in our flattery.
So Jesus recites the commandments, particularly focusing on those about our human relationships, rather than our relationship with God. Now, one can keep the commandments for a variety of motives. One can keep the commandments through lack of opportunity - if one perhaps inherits wealth, there is no need to kill, slander or defraud your neighbour, for instance. One may keep the commandments through timidity - living the quiet life away from aggravation. One may keep the commandments without any reference to God at all, simply obeying the law of the land. Whatever, despite the fact that this man had persistently tried and seemingly succeeded, his soul was not at ease. So too, with us, despite all our efforts and our successes, coming to Church, giving to God, trying to do as he would have us do, our souls can still be restless.
So then Jesus suggests selling all he owns and giving it to the poor. This is the most difficult of all, and it is the option many take in order to find rest for their souls. This particular man was not up to that; he went away sad. This should inform us also that, if we choose this option, there is no guarantee that the rest we crave will, in fact, be ours. Somewhere along the way our spirits can fail, and we too will give up, and as with this man, go away saddened. St Paul reflects the same idea. Even if I give away my body to be burned, but have not love ... (1 Cor 13)
But then Jesus turns from the negative to the positive - what man for all his striving cannot possibly achieve for himself - God can and does provide. Up to this stage, the man and Jesus had been focussing only on what man could do for himself. Flattery, keeping the commandments and self denial. Now he focuses on what is possible for God, and that is everything.
The man had failed to see the importance and the force of the initial words Jesus spoke to him. God is good. Being good, God is not partial to flattery like human beings.
God is good. God does not set his commandments in place, hoping to trip men up. The commandments are given to help humans to live with brothers and sisters and to clearly define the channels of grace. God cannot help us break the commandments; God can only help us keep the commandments and provide forgiveness if we fail.
God is good. God does not want people to live in fear, ever striving to deny themselves more and more, in a vain attempt to make themselves worthy of divine love. God is good. We don't have to take God on wrestling a blessing, like Jacob.
God is good. God doesn't need our bulls and goats, surely there are enough people in this world without the bare necessities of life to show us where God would have us help.
God is good, and if our souls are restless, perhaps the best therapy is to say over and over again to ourselves, God is good. If there is one thing God would not ever want for us, is that we were to be continually doubting his love for us.
I spoke about the commandments as defining the channels of grace. God's grace, his help, is given to do his will. Obviously God cannot help us rob or kill someone. God can however help us to honour our fathers and mothers. God can help us to love others. It is precisely this help, this grace, that can allow us to give away those possessions of ours. Give them away, not in the spirit of having to, which reflects a distorted picture of God being more concerned about others than about us. But give them away, because firstly, they cease to have any great importance for us, and secondly, others may be in need of some of the bare necessities of life. In fact giving someone some dignity costs us nothing what so ever.
It is when we have fully perceived the importance of the fact that God is good, we can be enabled to give away some of the more precious things we have been enabled to achieve to follow Jesus. For the man in the story, it may not have been the money and material possessions that worried him so much as the loss of prestige in his "goodness". He was a genuine sort of person, who seemingly had tried hard and succeeded in avoiding breaking the commandments. Now Jesus was inviting him to become a plain and ordinary disciple. He may well have thought he was worth more than that - surely his efforts were worth being made a bishop or priest in the new church! Not just a plain and ordinary disciple. A learner!
God alone is good. We are just plain and ordinary sinners, most of us haven't even distinguished ourselves by being famous or notorious sinners, thank goodness. So we are just plain and ordinary sinners, following Jesus, and depending on his grace for all that we do.
I have said in this pulpit before that perhaps this young man was in fact quite ready to give all that he had to Jesus. Perhaps initially he was affronted that Jesus asked him not to give his riches to further Jesus' cause, but to give them to others.
God is good, and it is this fact which motivates our giving to the Church. God accepts our giving in response to the divine goodness, as long as it is not accompanied by a failure to give to others in need, food, shelter, and more importantly dignity.
I was delighted that the latest issue of the Adelaide Church Guardian reports the words of Bishop Spong in the Cathedral recently. He speaks again and again of loving wastefully. It is an odd word to our ears, but it is surely an up-to-date term for "prodigal" - a term more correctly a description of the father than the son in the parable, and by implication then our heavenly Father also. At the Bible Study on the 28th of October I am going to do a short presentation on skepticism in the Bible, for anyone who is interested. Please tell me if you want to join in - lest we need to use one of the Vestries.
There is a triumphalism associated with Christianity, which comes across as if Christianity is right and Christians are better than others - that Christians are "good". If we start with a paternalistic attitude that we are going to make other people different from what they are (by our example!) I do not believe we are portraying God as he really is. So I believe we have to be careful that we don't start saying that we as Christians are good, or Christianity is good, when Jesus himself tells us that God alone is good.
It is as we recognise our essential oneness with the rest of creation - that we are all just plain and ordinary sinners seeking and receiving help from our almighty Father - that the blessing of Jesus will also come to apply to us. Houses, relatives, and fields will be ours - not of course, as our possessions. They will become ours not by standing over them, but by our accepting ourselves to be at one with all people, the peoples of whole houses, the inhabitants of wide lands.
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