The weekend was also Homecoming at my alma mater, Central Michigan University. I also preached at the Lutheran chapel on campus, where I attended as a student.
The sermon text follows:
October 21, 2012 at Zion Lutheran Church & Christ the King Lutheran Chapel – Mount Pleasant, MI
“Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” … “Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’”
Jesus’ statements about the difficulty in entering the kingdom of God follows His dialogue with the rich young man, which you heard in last Sunday’s Gospel Reading. The man came to Jesus asking a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response indicated that perfection was required to do so, a perfection found in keeping the Commandments and in selling all possessions that one has and giving it to the poor. As you may recall from that dialogue, the rich man went away disheartened and sorrowful after hearing Jesus’ words. He did so because of the great amount of possessions that he owned. The call to give up love of what he owned proved too much for the rich man.
The rich man’s reaction leads to Jesus’ statements: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! … It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” What makes it so difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God? Is money is inherently evil? Will only those in the lowest tax bracket enter through the gates of Paradise? No, the issue involves what the object of one’s fear, love, and trust is.
Wealth and possessions can easily become the object of fear, love, and trust. What can’t money buy? Songwriters may tell us money can’t buy love; philosophers may say that money can’t buy happiness. But wealth can make earthly life quite easy. Daily bread is purchased without difficulty. House and home are acquired with no worries of the bank foreclosing. Influence can be wielded by the proper donation or by the improper sweetener or greasing of the palm. The bank account, CD, and IRA become the gods that are feared, loved, and trusted.
This is the issue that Jesus addresses with His statements. He is concerned with what individuals have as their objects of fear, love, and trust. Jesus points out the problem when Mammon becomes the deity served. Luther puts it well in his discussion of the First Commandment: “There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god—mammon by name, that is money and property—on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth. Those who have money and property feel secure, happy, and fearless, as if they were sitting in the midst of paradise.” (LC I:5-7)
Jesus’ statements challenged the thinking of His day, just as they challenge how we think. The reaction of Jesus’ disciples reveals that. Note the details that the Gospel Writer gives: “And the disciples were amazed at His words…. And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to Him, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Thoughts of connecting wealth to divine favor and poverty to divine curse are revealed. Luther’s words echo that as well: “On the other hand, those who have nothing doubt and despair as if they knew no god at all. We will find very few who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have mammon. This desire for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave.” (LC I:8-9)
These misunderstandings of God, His divine favor, wealth, and salvation lead to the difficulties in entering the kingdom of God. Having possessions as the objects served and trusted is vanity; it leads away from wisdom. The Teacher in Ecclesiastes addresses this: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” The chasing after the wealth and possessions becomes a quest and crusade that ultimately fails: “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?”
One need not be led around by the Ghost of Christmas Future to learn this lesson. No, it is learned each time that the mortal life comes to an end. This is why the Scriptures are replete with statements concerning the vanity of placing fear, love, and trust in any earthly thing, especially in money and possessions. In Jesus’ teaching, this lesson is famously taught by His parables of the Foolish Rich Man and the Prodigal Son, by His statement about the Rich Man and Lazarus, by His criticism of the Pharisees who were lovers of money, and in the Gospel Reading for today.
So what is to be done after hearing Jesus’ statements? Repenting and turning away from money as an idol or false god is clear. But that is not all. Peter’s statement to Jesus shows that: “See, we have left everything and followed You.” Here is where salvation is found. Faith is placed in what truly brings benefit, in what will be helpful beyond this mortal life. That is where Jesus comes in, not simply being an instructor who tells you what is righteous or evil, but also as Redeemer, Savior, and Deliverer.
Following Jesus—having Him as the object of your fear, love, and trust—is the path to life. Why is this so? Because of what He Himself has done. Recall again last Sunday’s Gospel Reading, how Jesus answered the rich young man’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ response—keep the Commandments; sell everything you have and give to the poor—that is what He has done for you. He placed His fear, love, and trust in His Father’s will above all things. He delighted in the statutes and testimonies that the Father spoke. He declared all of His Father’s just decrees. Not only that, He fixed His eyes on the Father’s ways, including the way that led to humility, suffering, and crucifixion, then to exaltation, glorification, and resurrection. This is what He has done for you, so that He can be a worthy and reliable object of your fear, love, and trust.
So Jesus calls you to follow Him, just as He invited the rich young man. He places Himself in front of you as a provider of eternal benefits. Jesus unites Himself to you in Baptism, so that you die and rise with Him. He speaks pardon to absolve your guilt, so that you may share in His holiness. He sets the bread of heaven in front of you to eat, so that you are strengthened on your pilgrimage to eternal life. He grants you divine wisdom in His teachings, so that your lives will be directed toward righteousness.
Why are these things done for you? Because what Jesus said is true: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Faced with the requirements to enter the kingdom of God—possession and maintenance of perfection—the question comes tumbling out of your mouths: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer shows you the way: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” With fear, love, and trust in earthly things, entry into the kingdom of God is impossible. But with the actions that Jesus performs for you, entry to the kingdom of God is granted.
Eternal benefit is granted to you by Jesus’ work. This makes Him the object of your faith. You have His promise: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
But there also is a temporal benefit of having Jesus as the object of your faith. Because Jesus provides what you need for eternal life, then possessions and wealth need not be the object of your devotion. Following Jesus, you are freed to perform your vocations in this life, no matter where you fall in the social ladder. The gain of wealth or prestige or power need not be the focus of your heart, mind, and soul. Instead, you have a purpose in your life that exists regardless of how large the bank account is or what the W-2 will say at the end of the year. Divine favor is not shown by what your income is; rather, it is given as you are placed in this world to fulfill your callings, even the instructions to be charitable and selfless.
This is the wisdom written in the Old Testament Reading. After speaking of the vanity of acquiring wealth and trying to find satisfaction and love in them, the Teacher says: “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”
What the Teacher describes is the temporal benefit that comes from having the Eternal God as the object of your fear, love, and trust. No matter what status or calling in life He grants to you, your life has a purpose. It is not serving mammon or being on a quest for wealth and possessions. Your earthly status—rich or poor, first or last, powerful or weak—does not define who you are or how much divine favor you have received. You are God’s children, the ones made heirs of the kingdom of God. Now you are just spending time in this creation, enjoying the days of life that He has granted to you. You will go out of this life as you came in. But because of Jesus’ work, you will also enter into the Sabbath rest after completing your works on earth. And that is anything but vanity.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.