This is the first in a series of sermons at St. Thomas' based upon Tom Wright's book 'Virtue Reborn.'
What must I do to inherit eternal life? That’s the question that’s at the heart of today’s passage. It’s the question the rich young man rushes up to ask Jesus. But it’s also the haunting question that’s in all our hearts’ isn’t it? What must I do? Or, what on earth am I here for? These aren’t easy questions to ask, even harder to answer. Where do we go to find those answers?
Well the young man in our passage thinks he knows a good place to start. Jesus is in the area, what’s he got to say? Then the man hears that Jesus is about to go on a journey, he might miss his one opportunity! So he runs out to find Jesus, and when he does he kneels at his feet and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We shouldn’t lose sight of what an extraordinary thing this was. In the ancient world, people didn’t often run about, at least not serious people, especially not rich, powerful, important people. And they especially wouldn’t kneel in the dirt in front of anyone.
Why does he do this? It’s because he’s concerned about the future. He wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. How can he ensure that he won’t miss out on God’s promises? What does he have to do to be part of God’s Kingdom, and how does he have to do it? These questions, these same yearnings, are inside all of us. We mightn’t ask it in the same way. We might wonder, how can I find true happiness? How can I have real fulfilment? We might think we know the answer. The way to inherit eternal life is through faith in Jesus. That if we confess with our lips and believe in our heart that Jesus is Lord, we’ll be saved (Rom. 10:13) If that’s you, great! But, another question lurks deep below doesn’t it? What now? It as if we’re standing on the banks of a deep, wide, fast flowing river. We’re on one side, where we’ve made a commitment to God. On the far shore is eternal life with God in heaven. But the question is, what now? How do the two connect? Is it simply a matter of waiting till we die and get transported to the other side? Of maybe trying to get a few friends to join us, of trying to do good, while cautioning ourselves that we’re not saved by works? What’s the connection between the life to come and the life we lead now?
The young man is under the assumption that God’s new age is reserved for loyal Jews, those who’ve been obedient to the law. It’s only for those who’ve kept the agreement God made with his people after he rescued them to be his people. When Jesus says to him, “you know the commandments,” and then lists six of them, how does the man reply? “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” This man knows the law and he’s kept it. He’s upheld his end of the bargain. But there’s a doubt that’s burning inside his heart. From the outside this man looks like he’s got it made. He’s rich, he’s powerful, he’s important. He’s kept all the rules. But he can’t help but feel that there’s something missing. Do you ever have that feeling? That there should be something more to your life? That there’s something important you should be doing? The man can’t help but feel there’s something more he should be doing.
Speaking of something more, did you notice that Jesus left out one of the commandments? Do you know which one? You shall not covet. As far as feeling that there should be something more, isn’t it interesting that Jesus doesn’t mention it, and the man doesn’t pick him up on it? Is it because Jesus knows this is the one that this is the one the man hasn’t upheld? He’s rich, so you might say he’s got no need to covet. But enough is never enough. Anyway, Jesus is about to tackle this in his next statement.
In our own quest to work out how we should behave we often fluctuate between two opposing theories. One approach is all about the rules. Work out the rules and follow them. Obey the rules and you’ll be fine. Does God say it’s OK? Then it is. Does God say it’s not OK? Then it isn’t. If God hasn’t said anything definitive on the subject, then what rule can we find that kind of applies? If we really can’t find a rule we ask what principle can we apply to the situation? But a principle’s just a more general kind of rule.
The other approach is to reject any kind of outside influence. It says we should try to discover our deepest longings and go with them. After all Jesus came to throw out the rules. We could never live up to them anyway. What matters is authenticity, being true to our self. We have to listen to our hearts, go with our guts. If God’s given us his Spirit, what lies within us must be good.
We can see these different approaches playing out all the time. What do we say about homosexual marriage? One side says it’s against the rules! But the other says if two people truly love each other, what does it matter what gender they are? Or what about the question of what should I do with my money, how much should I give to church? We could ask, what does the rules say? The Old Testament tithe was about 10%, that’ll do. Or we might ask, what does my heart feel like giving today? And it’s not just in theological questions or ‘Christian issues.’ The only sport I used to watch was the Tour de France. It was even more plagued by illicit substances than the AFL! Riders justified what they did by saying drugs weren’t (yet) against the rules. Or by saying they didn’t truly believe they were cheating, just doing everything they could to win! We see the question of ‘what should I do’ and ‘how should I do it’ playing out in sports, in politics, in finance, in every facet of human life.
The reality is we wobble about between the two options. When we’re worried about what other people will think, or what God might think, we obey at least some of the rules. But then we go back to following our own dreams and desires when we get the chance.
The question is which of these two approaches will Jesus endorse? The young man is searching for the deep way to inherit eternal life. He wants to know how the future should shape his present life. Which way will Jesus swing? Are there more rules to follow? Or will Jesus tell the man to just follow his heart? Is the answer law or liberty?
Jesus looks at this earnest young man, he loves him, and says, “You’re right, you do lack one thing.” The yearning this man felt, the sense deep down that there’s something missing is right. So what does he need to do? “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” This man’s come seeking fulfilment. But Jesus says first he needs to realise his life is already too full! Jesus’ wants to turn this man’s life upside down. Actually, it’s more like turning him right way up! If he really wants to inherit eternal life, he needs to reorient himself. He needs to put God’s kingdom first. For him, that means selling his stuff. For us, it might mean putting aside our own desires and dreams. We need to love God above all else, and love our neighbours as ourselves, if we’re to have treasure in heaven.
But, that’s just the start! The heart of what Jesus wants this man, wants all of us, to do comes in the last four words. Jesus doesn’t say follow the rules. Jesus doesn’t say follow your heart. Jesus says, “then come, follow me.” Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘what are we to do?’ is simple. ‘Follow me,’ he says. Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘how are we to live?’ is simple. ‘Follow me,’ he says.
God doesn’t want us blindly following rules, like robots, out of a sense of duty or obligation. And he knows that our hearts can’t be trusted! Just earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus says the way to enter the Kingdom of God is as a little child. We’re to be like little children, faithfully following our heavenly Father. If we want to live a genuine, authentic, fulfilled life, being faithful to God and faithful to who he created us to be, and who he has redeemed us to be, we have to follow Jesus. And as we dedicate ourselves to following Jesus we find our character being transformed.
Living like this doesn’t come naturally. It requires consciously choosing to follow Christ, every day, every moment of our lives. Doing this means cultivating what ancient philosophers called virtue. We’re going to be looking at what virtue looks like over the next seven weeks. We’re following a great book called Virtue Reborn by Tom Wright. You might like to buy a copy and read along. One of the ways he describes virtue is ‘what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t “come naturally” – and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically”. [Virtue is consistently, consciously, making wise choices until they become second nature.] It’s exactly what we do with skills, like learning a language or an instrument. It’s what Don Bradman did when he was a young boy, with a golf ball and a cricket stump. He might’ve been naturally gifted, but it was the long hours of intense concentration, diligent practice that made him a legend.
When I was younger my Dad’s job involved travelling all over Queensland. As soon as I had my licence I started spending some of my holidays out on the road with him. Which meant I spent a lot of time driving down empty highways and dirt roads. Actually, they weren’t that empty as there were often kangaroos on the road. Dad’s advice? Don’t slow down, don’t swerve. He knew the worst thing that could happen would be to unintentionally run off the road, or get sideswiped by a roo. Far better to hit them head on, if you’re going to hit them at all he said. But do you know what the first thing I did when I saw a mob of roos on the road? Put my foot on the brake and went to turn the wheel. That’s what felt natural, what felt right. At first, it felt like the most unnatural thing to do, to hold the wheel straight and actually put my foot down on the gas. But after a while that’s what I instinctively did.
Developing virtue, having our character transformed by Christ is much the same. Living as the kind of people God created us to be, the kind of people we will be in heaven, doesn’t come naturally and it isn’t easy. But as we do, as we develop virtue we’ll find that we naturally keep the rules, we’ll fulfil the demands of the law, not because we’re forced to but because of who we are. And as we follow Jesus and are transformed by him, we’ll be able to follow our hearts and live authentically, being true to who we truly are in Christ.
Let’s pray that God helps us to follow Christ and to live virtuous lives.