Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
One of the most ironic statements in all the Scriptures is in this Sunday’s Gospel: “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” How bizarre! Many people believe that if they only had wealth, let alone great wealth, they would “live happily ever after.”
In 1988, Glendon Harris told a story about an investigation into the death of an 18 year-old male whose body was found in New York City’s Central Park. At first, the police thought it was murder, but then it was revealed to be a suicide. The wealthy young man from Connecticut had received every material advantage one could imagine. From the silver spoon given to him at birth to the silver sports coupe he left in the parking lot at Central Park, he had been given everything except, evidently, a reason for living. An investigator said he died of “affluenza.”
Harris also observed that while the coined word may be new, the disease isn’t. It was the reason for the sadness in that man in the Gospel lesson. With the possible exception of that sadness, the disease has no physical symptoms. It is a spiritual ailment–a disease of the soul. It does not come from the volume of possessions, but from trusting in them. It is a matter of trusting in the gift rather than the Giver.
And it infects all those who fail to see that everything they have is a gift from God.
In the Bible story, the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ comments reveals that they share the prevailing notion of their day that riches were a special blessing from God. When Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples were completely amazed. Given their understanding, it is no wonder they said, “Who then can be saved?”
I am not in a position to judge, but I will guess that the young man would have given up his “stuff.” What he would not give up was his sense of deserving God’s special attention and blessing. He was unwilling to go out on the limb of God’s grace with nothing but faith to hold on to. He failed to see that the one thing he needed most he already had. Mark tells us all about it: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”
People are still shocked when we tell them that God does not give special attention and blessings to the “good guys” of this world. We have such tiny ideas about God. We can’t seem to think of Him on any terms other than human. To most people, God is just a slightly larger version of themselves.
When we need someone to do something for us, we get that by various means of manipulation or control. We hire them–enticing them with a promise of money or favors–we exploit, entice, cajole, threaten, coerce or force them. We may not be criminals, getting results with a gun, but we are not afraid to say, “Take out the trash now, or you won’t get any supper!” Through all this, we have the weird notion that God is like us.
Our first mistake is in imagining God needs us to do something for Him–as if there were anything in the universe He couldn’t handle just fine without us! But to top that off, we think He would go about getting what He needs or wants in the same ways we do.
The most profound teaching in the Bible is that, “While we were sinners, Christ died for us.” Don’t be surprised that God doesn’t give special blessings to the “good guys.” Recognize that in His eyes there aren’t any. Then let it really blow your mind that He gives His abundant love and mercy and glorious gifts to anybody at all–let alone, everybody–including you! When God’s Spirit brings you fully to grips with that fact you will go away very happy because you will truly have great wealth.
One final emphasis should be given to the fact that the Gospel story is not about the man’s money, but about his faith. If it was a matter of money, the price of a ticket to heaven is the amount of money you have right now–cash it in and pay up! Eternal life is God’s free gift to us in Christ. God’s gifts cannot be bought, earned, manipulated or controlled in any way whatsoever.
This October day in St. Louis, it is about 80 degrees outside. Sooner or later though, winter comes to the Midwest. We don’t make it come and we can’t stop it. Have you ever driven a car on a bitter cold day, only to discover that the heater has stopped working? For years, tiny particles of rust and gunk in the engine’s mixture of water and anti-freeze have traveled into and out of the heater. Some of those particles have stayed in the tiny chambers that permit the exchange of heat from the water to the air inside the car. On that particular day, enough of those particles have clogged the lines so that the water no longer flows into the heater.
Now, right on the other side of the dashboard from you, the car’s engine is hot to the touch. The water and antifreeze mixture is still flowing in there at the glorious temperature of 190 degrees. You, however, are trying to steer with one hand while you scrape frost from the inside of the windshield with the other.
God’s grace is often like that warmth. It is right there and God is trying to flow it to you, but something else is in the way. God’s mission is not just to bring the warmth of His grace and mercy to the world. It is also to help people get anything else out of the way. When we look inside ourselves and find anything at all in the place where God alone should be, it is time to jettison some excess baggage. It may or may not be the baggage of excess.