Sermon for TRINITY 19 – High Mass Sunday 11 October 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
‘Jesus said to the rich young man, Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’
God asks the questions, not us. Questions are more powerful than judgements or opinions. Jesus, like all the best teachers, asks questions to stimulate our self-knowledge. What are you looking for? he says. That’s annoying, because we want comforting answers and certainty, and all we get are questions. Why do you call me good?
The simple interpretation of the story of the rich young man who goes away sorrowful is that we should not rely too much on possessions, and we should give money to the poor, and that’s fine. I’m sure that’s right. But the word of God, as our epistle today reminds us, cuts like any two-edged sword, but more finely. And one of those sharp edges faces each of us. What Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel is dismantling the self-satisfied ego of the rich young man. Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Sounds innocent enough, the sort of thing we’d say. Jesus, tell us how, nicely.
What Jesus masks are our contradictory feelings – on the one hand asking for help and direction, and yet, at the same time, turning it down and walking away sorrowful. We can spend a lifetime doing that. This is life spent in the station waiting room, never actually making a journey, never arriving, never being welcomed. Church going can be like that. It is quite possible to live and worship for years, for decades, within an apparently warm Christian community, yet in a cold isolation; needing help, from God, from anyone, in holding our lives together, yet refusing to accept help unless on our own terms, without changing a thing.
The rich young man goes away sorrowful because he is not up for a radical change in his way of life. It is one of the saddest verses in the Gospels. Yet Jesus, looking upon him, loved him. Jesus’s lesson plan for this all too satisfied pupil, the rich young man in our story, is the same lesson plan he has for you and for me. Jesus looks steadily at us, and loves what he sees beneath the bravado of our religious observance. Back to basics. You know the commandments, he says. In other words, eternal life is a way of life. It’s not an answer to the question we put to a good teacher. It’s a way of life, followed day after day, making our difficult choices, choosing good when we can. Eternal life is not separate from the life we’re leading now.
Well, we might say we know that. The rich young man says he’s observed the commandments from his youth. Jesus looking on us, loves us, and tells us to do something he knows and we know we haven’t done. There is one thing you lack. Go and sell everything you own.
That literal ideal is way beyond us, but a lot depends on how we respond to this demand. Do we turn away sorrowful, and say this is not for me then? For most of us, a constant re-alignment is required. Christian discipleship is impossible without a detachment from material goods and their benefits. This letting go is easier for some than for others, and needs a juggling act. The goal is to escape from a life of idolatry, the money trap. But there’s more. Eternal life, the way of life we are called to lead, requires a detachment from security, gratification, prestige, and everything else we own, that bank of ideas and opinions we use as a resource to bolster our image, our hidden addictions, everything. They bind our soul and weigh down our spirit. Jesus says we can’t have all that, and follow him. We are called, instead, to a radical poverty of spirit. But that’s not the answer we wanted. For this is not just about money and things, that we can more or less sort out, this is about a lifetime of compromises dragging us down, and Jesus looks at us and loves us, and says that He is the way beyond all that.
Our nagging unease about our Christian discipleship is entirely justified. But there is no need for us to turn away sorrowfully. The poverty to which Jesus calls us is a heartfelt and joyful reliance on the God who provides all we need, and in whose sight we live; before him no creature is hidden, as we heard in the Epistle to the Hebrews. That is the radical change, from sorrow to joy. From sorrow about ourselves and how we’re doing to a joy which appears to have no cause, what St Ignatius of Loyola called “consolation without cause”; it’s just there, because we are no longer at the centre of everything. God is. Joy is God’s visiting card. You heard it in the Book of Amos this morning: Seek the Lord and live. Joy is total openness to God. The young man in our Gospel thought he’d found a good teacher, good for him that is, one who would confirm him in his own uprightness and goodness. Why do you call me good? says Jesus. The exasperation comes through. Only God is good, and his word pierces the division of soul and spirit, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. This God has spent thousands of years telling his people to hold nothing back from Him. That is to be truly human. “Our true nature is compassionate” [Dalai Lama], the goodness of God within us, the undivided heart. That is what Jesus showed to the world. And he says to us, as he said to that sad young man, come, follow me.