Saturday, June 6, 2009

What is impossible with men is possible with God

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’
A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’

Then Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’

- Luke 18:15-30

At first glance, this seems like a very hard teaching indeed. One wonders what would happen if we all were supposed to take the teaching literally: distribute all that we have to the poor. But I think it's important to try to think hard about this teaching and the understanding it conveys about kingdom and membership in that kingdom.

Yesterday's reading (from the passages in Luke's gospel just prior to today's) was essentially about the important practice of humility. We are not self-justified. Humility is linked to the understanding that it's not by our own measure alone that we are judged: there's a yardstick beyond ourselves through which we are measured - and it is there that we must always turn in prayer for guidance about how we are doing and how we go forward in our lives. Today's important messages follow upon this message about the essential need for a certain kind of humility in order to enter this kingdom. First of all there is the teaching about the children. I read in commentary that it was customary for rabbis to give blessings to children - this is not an unusual request. However, the point is made here that it is such like those children who enter the kingdom. Again, the point is about humility: we who stand before God should not presume to be all-authoritative regarding what God asks of us and what kinds of trials may in fact be necessary for our growth as persons. The same way in which children begin life needing to learn and to grow, needing to learn both knowledge and discipline in life, and nurturing of all kinds and in every sense, so we stand before God.

I think it's important to note that the rich man is not just any ordinary rich man, but is a "ruler" here. So this is a man not just of wealth but of power. We have, conveyed in Jesus' words, a notion that great power and wealth - for a person who wishes to be a part of this kingdom - also conveys responsibility. There is also a commentary by St. John Chrysostom on this passage in which he writes that Jesus' teaching here is specifically a gift to this man in particular: it fits his particular need in life, and addresses his particular weakness in faith. Just as children essentially must surrender their young lives to guidance beyond themselves, so we are to be, and so this man is to be. He's asked if he can give up something that he finds essential to his identity, in exchange for this all-important relationship he desires with God. The man is indeed sincere in his inquiry - and he is saddened by what he is told. I think there's an important component of understanding about responsibility and responsible behavior of those in leadership positions, and we can definitely read into this notions about the importance of shunning corruption for those Christians who are in prominent positions of power. But I also agree with St. John Chrysostom, this is a specific teaching for this man, and that our deepest attachments that get in the way of this "child-like" relationship to God may be precisely what we are asked to give up. They are our obstacles and our stumbling blocks, and so this teaching goes far more profoundly into the stark depths of redemption conveyed by the cross and by Jesus' admonition that we each must take up our cross daily. As adults, it is in this exchange that we resume the trusting nature of a child, for whom all the answers are not apparent and much needs to be learned.

As we move closer to the crucifixion, the disciples here remark that they indeed have given up all to follow Jesus. But before they say so, they also wonder how on earth anyone can be saved, given the story of the wealthy ruler. Jesus makes the famous statement about the difficulty of a rich man being saved - and I think this makes it clear that we are talking about attachment. Do we let our possessions define us and give us our sense of worth? Or is there a yardstick beyond the tangible that we seek every day in prayer to teach us what we need and who we need to be? It doesn't matter, to my mind, what our worldly positions are - we need that relationship to guide what else we do with our resources and our lives in this world, and the man who is to be crucified teaches us nothing if not that the judgments of this world are not true judgment; and that exchanging the image the world gives us of ourselves for the image that God would give us of ourselves is the only way to transformation and life in abundance.

So we move into topics of the deepest depth of what it is to give up our lives in exchange for life in the kingdom; one identity for another. From Judgment we extend to the place where we find ourselves having to have the faith of children in something beyond ourselves, something that will teach us about what we have to let go of and what we have to have faith in. Faith here is a risk, it's a letting go of certainty, and putting stock in something we have to define as beyond ourselves, our knowledge. We have the Advocate who is with us and within us to help us with that journey: as Jesus says (in another translation), ‘The things that are impossible with men are possible with God." Every challenge to our notions of what we need or who we need to be should be met with this perspective, this help - it will lead us into notions of self that may be unexpected and ask us to grow in ways that are not comfortable. But I believe that this is what is meant by conversion -- as do children, we grow. It wouldn't make sense if that growth were always what we think we already know, nor would such certainty demand of us the faith of a child.

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