I like stories. I can understand stories. I have a great deal of difficulty reading essays, tortuous and obfuscating devices invented or at least greatly elaborated by Addison and Steele, I believe. And now routinely extended into book length cruelties.
As originally proposed by Addison and Steele, an essay was supposed to contain humor. Some bit of humor to make them less tortuous and easier to understand. Something to do with the tone of the writer—a light tone even when dealing with weighty subjects—injects some humanity into the thing.
Anyways, I digress. As usual. But I digress to a kind of a point. And that is that tone—the actual presence in the writer or speaker or character in a story of a bit of humanity (or human feeling)—is essential if we are to understand what a speaker or writer might be saying. If the writing or saying is toneless, it becomes—at least for me—much more difficult. Opaque. Kind of like reading email versus actually speaking with someone.
And so we arrive pseudo-randomly at the story of the rich young man that we are given in Matthew 19. It is one of my favorite stories and right up there—one of the top two for me—that Jesus told. Or that Jesus played a part in. It has become, in addition to the parable of the lost son, a story that I turn to over and over to understand what Jesus has asked of us and to understand who he is and who the Father is.
In fact, you might say that I want to weigh almost everything in the Bible by the content of these two stories. Now I said I want, not that I actually do. And I said that I almost. So I’m qualifying this all over the place. But these two stories contain volumes for me about who Jesus takes us to be and who he takes the Father to be, and by extension who he takes himself to be.
And both concern sin, among other things, and the idea of perfection. Moral perfection.
So far in this blog, I’ve been largely dancing around bruiting this idea of perfection and Christlikeness and holiness and sanctification, animated by. Oh. I’d call it outrage. There are a lot of other words that are applicable, but outrage (with a large hambone thrown in) seems the most suitable at the moment. I’ve largely provided you a little something of my own story in an outraged (hambone included) tone.
And that’s somewhat entertaining but can only be sustained for so long until it gets to be quite tedious for both the speaker and the listener, the reader and the writer. Until it stops being illustrative, revelatory, and useful and starts to wear on one like a deaf man practicing noise loudly on a violin.
Please do open your Bible to Matthew 19. Thank you.
What a remarkable chapter this is! It is divided into three parts. The first considers the subject of divorce and is stimulated by the Pharisees trying to trip Jesus up. The second concerns children. And the third part contains the story of the rich young moron.
I like threes. I like it when things come in threes. You have your Trinity of course. You have your sun and your moon and your stars. You have your Mother and Father and Child as a kind of a generational archetypal type of mode. Or Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, if you prefer. You have your proton, neutron, and electron. You have your classical, jazz, and pop. You have your front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-drive automobiles and light trucks. You have your blonds, brunettes, and redheads. You have your.
Well, that’s enough of that.
So in the first part we learn that divorce without adultery is a sin. And what this means at the time Jesus told the story was that a lot of men—relatively well-respected men in the community in those days—were in deep yogurt. Men who thought they were pretty close to being perfect but who had gotten rid of their wives. See? And they thought they were okay with God because of something Moses said. Because in the Law he said divorce in some cases is okay.
But turns out that abiding by the letter of the Law isn’t enough. No. Even though you are perfect according to the Law, you are not perfect according to Jesus. No. Some of these guys were up to their eyeballs in yogurt, and Jesus had the temerity to point this out. Imagine that!
In the second part we learn that to have a prayer of living in God’s own world, in his kingdom, you have to be so young in the world that you almost don’t know right from wrong yet. You are almost too young to have learned to sin. To have learned what a delight sin is and developed a taste for it.
And then in the third, what we have is the rich guy, who is clearly quite full of himself or some other equally odious substance, who says he yearns after righteousness. Who thirsts for the things of God. God’s kingdom here on earth. Or at least afterwards. In any event, he wants to be with God in eternity, wherever that is. And so he asks what good thing he can do to make that happen.
And Jesus gives him a kind of a rap on the knuckles or a rap on the shin bone or a rap on his Adam’s apple. He says, Wait a minute, Buddy. Wait a cotton-picking minute. “There is only One who is good.” Or something like that.
There’s only One who is good. Capital O on the One. And of course he means God. Only God is good. Don’t expect you yourself to achieve goodness, for goodness sake! Because only God is capable of being good.
And as he’s saying this, there’s this glimmer in Jesus’s eye. His eyes are wide-open. Innocent looking. But suddenly there’s this gleam in his eye that wasn’t there just a moment before.
The guy is clearly not paying attention. He’s clearly a moron, so wrapped up in his own lovely head that he can’t hear what Jesus is telling him. Which is that he’s barking up the wrong tree.
But then Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” And of course the guy wants to know which ones, because there are a lot of these in the Law. There are the ten we Christians think about today, maybe, but then there are hundreds more that were current in this guy’s day.
So Jesus picks off a few. The murder one, the adultery one, the stealing one, the lying one, and the honor your father and mother one. And then he throws in what I call the love infinitely faithfully endlessly one. The impossible one. The life sentence one. The love your neighbor as yourself one.
And then the guy says, “Sure. No problem, man. I’ve done all that.” Which of course is a lie. It is a bald-faced lie. Because if he had done the impossible one, he wouldn’t be rich any longer. If he loved others as much as he loved himself, he would have already distributed his wealth out to the poor.
And so the rich young moron thinks he’s Mr. Wonderful already. He thinks he’s just about as good as a guy can get. But he’s just demonstrated for us and for Jesus that he can’t keep two of the commandments, the impossible one and the lying one.
And so I’m hearing in Jesus’s next words a kind of a straight-man delivery. Eyes open and innocent. But a glimmer in them like, let’s have a little more fun with this moron, as he looks at his buddies. The Apostles. A kind of Gracie Allen look in his eye.
So then he says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
(There’s that perfect word again! Don’t you love it? For some reason, it seems like it’s just about everywhere you look in this religion.)
So now. So now, you see. Even a moron like the rich young man can’t avoid getting the point. The point of the joke.
But no. No, rather than chuckling to himself. Rather than saying, “Hey, Jesus, man. God, you got me!” He says. Well, he can’t think of anything to say. So he just shakes his head and walks away.
Then Jesus talks about camels and needles’ eyes and so forth. And rightly so, his buddies are shocked. They can’t figure this out. If this is what is required, nobody can be saved. Nobody can enter eternity. Nobody can enter into God’s kingdom. Nobody can be perfect or Christlike or holy or sanctified.
After all, how many people do you know who will literally give away everything. Every single thing. They own. And walk naked into the ice and snow? Literally?
And then Jesus gives us the punch line. Really guys, he says, there’s no perfection here. You won’t get to perfection on your own recognizance. God’s got to get involved. God’s got to forgive you. And he’ll do so for no good reason except that he’s good. (And of course elsewhere he lets on that ultimately God has asked him to be the judge, when the time comes. So when he’s talking about God here, he’s really talking about himself, in a manner of speaking.)
And of course Peter pipes up. Peter is worried because he left his fishing boat and nets and house and everything. They all left something or another. To follow Jesus. Temporarily, maybe. But maybe not as well.
You see, just like us, they all had a less than thoroughly selfless self-interest. A less than thoroughly trusting attitude. A less than completely faithful attitude. But Jesus reassures them. Sort of: “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” Gleam still in Jesus’s eye, as he says this. Looking at his buddies who have put their lives in abeyance, yes. But who will pick up their lives again in some fashion after Jesus departs.
And so they’re thinking. Well, what does this mean then? I mean. He’s saying it as though to reassure us of our place in heaven, but what does it mean to be first in that sentence right there. What does it mean to be last? To whom does this apply, and what in the heck does it mean for me? Me, is what they’re thinking.
And there’s Jesus with that innocent look in his eyes. Wide-open eyes. Sun gleaming in them. A little like Gracie Allen.