Hurt

In 2002, the aging country legend, Johnny Cash, turned his attention to a series of rather introspective albums like “American IV: The Man Comes Around.”  In that collection, Mr. Cash covered a song originally released in 1994 by the popular alternative band, Nine Inch Nails, titled simply, “Hurt.” The first stanza says,

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything”

For years, that song has haunted me.  I have seen drug abuse in it.  I have seen despair.  I have been in awe of how authentic he made these words sound as he tentatively breathed them into his catalog.

But the words came back to me quite powerfully this morning as I thought about a conversation I took part in yesterday about the pain and problems that many of the students face at the university where I teach.  I am part of a team that works to identify students who are at risk of harming themselves or others. Our goal is to help them find help, so that they can turn their lives around and finish their educations and become contributing members of society.  If truth be told, these are the problems of young people everywhere, but they often go unspoken, owing to the “ostrich principle” so aptly embodied in our glib expression, “Out of sight [or hearing] out of mind.”

The issue that brought this song to my mind was the revelation that we have a significant number of “cutters” among our student body.  These young people take knives or razor blades and cut themselves.  According to sources, they do this for various reasons: attention, distraction, or, as the song says, to see if they still feel.  Their physical scars are visible to the world, but they may only be faint echoes of the inner pain they wrestle with daily.    

I thought about that and I just got sad.  How sad to be young, with a life ahead of you and to be so broken inside that you have to inflict physical pain on your own body just to feel something.  I cannot imagine how it must feel to be so emotionally and physically numb that you wonder if you can actually feel.  Having spent so much of my life as a rather emotional sort, often wearing my heart on my sleeve, being accused (and perhaps rightly so) of volatility at times, I can’t understand not “feeling.”  But I am not these people.  I have not walked in their shoes, and I don’t know what they feel or don’t feel.

The chorus continues the desperation of the verses, each time closing with,

“I will let you down
I will make you hurt”

Someone may see this inexorable despondency as merely a commercial ploy, playing to the ever-present adolescent angst.  But not from Johnny Cash.  Few of the NIN fans would have been listening to this country icon in his waning years.  No, this song voices a broader fear of inadequacy, embodied in the self-fulfilling declaration that “I will let you down.” Since the young people I was thinking about have likely felt betrayed by friends, family, society, or life, they know the end result will be pain.  There is no way to listen to the song and not be affected.

It is interesting that I should start making these connections at the same time that I have been struggling with a number of spiritual questions, examining and exploring the legacy of my faith tradition, and trying to justify our practices, doctrines, and attitudes with our directly commanded responsibility to love our neighbors.  I understand the position that there is personal responsibility emphasized from our reading of Galatians 6.10 and James 2.  But more troubling to me is a comment that I recently heard that our people have made against a corporate responsibility to see to the needs of the hungry, homeless, hurting people we encounter.  Some have raised the paper tiger of an objection that Jesus didn’t heal everyone.

Huh.  That’s not what I read.

“23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.  24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them” Matthew 4.23,24

“16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.”  Matthew 8.16

“35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.”  Matthew 9.35

“15 Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all…” Matthew 12.15

And those are just a few passages from Matthew.  Anyone who came to Jesus with a need was healed.  Even some who had representatives go to Jesus were healed. 

The argument has also been made that Jesus healed the sick primarily to demonstrate his power, citing John 20.30, 31: “30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  This is a misreading of the text.  The book was written, the accounts were related so that the reader may believe.  To use this to say this was Jesus’ sole motivation puts words in Jesus’ mouth and motives in his heart.  Jesus healed the sick because he had compassion on them.  They were hurting, he was able to relieve them, and he did.

If, as the hymn reminds us, “he the great example is, and pattern for me,” there is much to be done.  No, I cannot heal a single person. But I can help them.  Sometimes, what a person needs more than anything is to have someone to talk to.  It’s hard to really listen, especially when we are uncomfortable dealing with some sort of personal issue.  But Jesus would have.  And if we can’t help directly, we should help them to get help.  We can, and should, do that for anyone who has need.  Jesus taught that with one of his most famous parables, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In Luke 10, Jesus responds to the question of a lawyer regarding what was necessary to inherit eternal life.  Jesus answered him with a question, “26…What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  That second question is so telling.  How did the lawyer interpret the law?  He could have reeled off dozens of commands.  He could have begun with the Ten Commandments.  But instead, he recited what Jesus identified elsewhere as the two great commandments, to love God and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  When he asked Jesus to explain just who his neighbor was, Jesus presented the parable, describing the inaction of those who should have been the most concerned— the Jewish priest and the Levite—and the selfless action of the unlikely hero, the despised, mixed blood Samaritan.  Jesus did not force the conclusion.  In typical fashion for this master teacher, Jesus closed the teaching with a question:  “36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.””

I remember an occasion where someone actually questioned whether the command originally found in Leviticus 19.18 to love our neighbors as ourselves was still in force!  I was shocked.  How could something so fundamental ever be rescinded?  How could anyone, no matter how profoundly sincere and zealous they may be to follow the letter of the scripture ever doubt the very words of Jesus, who confirmed that love is the foundation of all human and divine interaction?  This is a failing of the accepted doctrine that only those things after Pentecost are binding on a Christian.  (Of course, that command is repeated in Romans 13.9, and in James 2.8, but who’s counting?)       

There are instances in the Bible where a person was in need, but the answer to the petition for relief was “No.”  Paul was discussing his experiences with revelation from God in I Corinthians 12.  He wrote,

“7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations,a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

Whatever Paul’s affliction, the nature of which has been variously speculated to be a club foot, a speech impediment, poor vision, or any of a number of other physical defects or conditions, Jesus told him that his grace was sufficient for him, that the weakness incurred as a result of the affliction would remain.  It is significant that even though Paul could heal others, he could not heal himself.  By referring Paul to the continuing application of his grace, Jesus kept Paul in a state of humility, and in a sense, dependent on his goodness.  That may seem cruel, but Paul’s position was a precarious one.  He was highly regarded among so many. He might have become convinced of his own greatness and, like Moses before him, become proud in his work for God.  The constant reminder of his imperfection kept him grounded.

I will be the first to admit that I have not been as observant of the needs of people around me as I should have been.  There are times when I am ashamed that I have not been of greater help to others, choosing to shrink away from a difficult situation when I could have been an instrument for good.  I fearfully chose to ask, “What can I do?” rather than, “How can I help?”  What I said was an admission of defeat.  What I should have asked was an open door, an opportunity to channel God’s love and grace to someone who was hurting or needed comfort or needed help.

It is possible that I may have been acting stand-offishly because I was conflicted over what I should do in order to meet the demands of the accepted doctrine.  But on further reflection the idea that we have no responsibility to anyone outside of our own brand of Christian is ludicrous.  It defies the exhortation of Galatians 6.10 by editing the broader clause, and violates the example of the Samaritan in Luke 10, who was definitely not a brother in the sense of being a fellow Jew to the injured man.  No, we are to be like that selfless Samaritan, and as Jesus described him, show compassion and mercy to anyone in need. Similarly, to say that Jesus did not heal everyone is an affront to his compassion, whether human or divine.

In the summer of 1969, Paul Simon, a folk-pop legend in his own right, penned some simple words that became a timeless classic, titled “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  In the second of three short verses, he wrote,

“When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you

I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down”

No, those words are not scripture, but their compassionate message of selfless love capture the very heart of Jesus, and what every child of God should be willing to do for someone in need.  Cain’s question of being his brother’s keeper was perhaps echoed in the lawyer’s question regarding just who his neighbor might be.  But Jesus’ response of undiluted love for one’s fellow man has never been improved upon.  In my mind’s eye, when I read his final directive to this lawyer, I’m sure Jesus was smiling because the lawyer got the message.   That closing instruction still rings true through the intervening ages: “Go and do likewise.”

The Rest of the Story

Every now and then, I get frustrated with what I consider to be a lack of appreciation for what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.” This probably dates back several years when I confronted a preacher about his fixation with “fire and brimstone.” He was the first person I had ever encountered who found some way to work “fire and brimstone” into almost every sermon. When I asked him why he spoke less of Heaven and grace, he rather condescendingly commented that I only heard what I wanted to hear, and that there is more said in the Bible about Hell and damnation than about Heaven. I was shocked to say the least, and for years, I only stewed about this. Finally, I asked myself, “Is what he said true? Is there more discussion of Hell and damnation in the Bible than Heaven and grace and salvation?”

Far be it from me to resort to concordance word counting. I mean, I’ve sat through my share of sermons where one of the key points is how many times a word appears in the New Testament. Usually, I find the exercise to be tedious at best, and irrelevant in many instances. However, since that is a key strategy of the mindset that I find myself defending against, I decided to do just that.

I used the English Standard Version available at Biblegateway.com, and entered the following search terms, with the following results from the New Testament. Of course, these represent raw hits, and not every observation is actually germane to the argument. However, I believe this to be the same strategy used by the concordance counters.

Heaven – 220           Hell – 17

Saved – 55               Lost – 18

Salvation – 45          Sulfur – 7

Grace – 118             Condemned –20

Baptize – 8               Condemnation – 14

Baptized – 44           Punish(ment) – 16

Baptism – 22           Torment – 14

Baptizing – 11

Faith – 296

Believe – 222

Reward – 26

Now, I tried to be fair. But just from this very non-scientific poll, it is apparent that Heaven is definitely mentioned more than Hell, salvation is mentioned more than condemnation, grace is mentioned far more than punishment. I looked at words relating to baptism, which I absolutely agree is essential to accepting grace, and found that the mention of grace still outstrips the discussion of baptism.

But I was the one who only heard what he wanted to hear.

It seems to me that we all do some of that. In the passage where Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim 4.3 that in the last days, people would draw closer to those teachers who tell them what they already want to hear. Usually, that is taken to mean that people want to hear things that make them feel good and right and justified in what they want to believe.

But that desire works two ways. Isn’t it possible that there may be those who only want a teacher to lambast the sinners and make us feel good because we aren’t sinners like those getting lambasted? Could it be that there are those who like to hear about Hell because they are certain that all those other people are going, but not us. We’ve seen it and smelled it from all the fire and brimstone that’s been lobbed at us over the years. And we are certain, dead certain that we are the only people who are Heaven-bound.

I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t believe in Hell. If Jesus taught that it’s a real place for people who fail to meet divine standards of conduct and living, then I believe him. But I also know that not everyone responds to fear in the way that these preachers intend for them to.

There are so many passages that are used out of context or perhaps excised from the balancing comments that follow them. For example, virtually everyone who has read the Bible to any extent or heard a sermon, especially from the more conservative wings of groups like the churches of Christ have heard the often quoted line from Romans chapter 3.23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” So many times, that is the end of the use of the passage. Everybody’s a sinner.

But what about the rest of the story? The very next verse gives the antidote for the fallen human condition. In verses 24-26, the writer continues, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

In the sermons I have heard, nearly 100% of them have stopped with verse 23. Yes, if your purpose is to show how sinful humans are, it works. But don’t stop there. By stopping at verse 23, the problem of sin seems insurmountable, and we as sinners must be beyond hope. But the encouraging beauty of the offered grace in verse 24 more than balances the negative synopsis of the human condition in verse 23.

I’ve wondered, and I think I may be right, if the problem is that we are just afraid of grace. It is a foreign concept to human reasoning. No, I’m not talking about the hackneyed definition that is rehearsed on those infrequent occasions that the term is uncomfortably encountered in the course of a Bible class, that definition being “unmerited favor.” But grace is not something to be feared; it is something to be embraced, sought after, prized, adored, defended, experienced and extended. The extent of grace can never be understood by frail human reasoning. It is ironic that where grace is often needed most it is usually appreciated least, and where it is feared the least and appreciated the most, it abounds beyond measure. Grace magnifies grace, while fear magnifies fear.

I have encountered this fear of grace in Bible class settings where we were supposed to rehearse the catechism, reciting the steps of the 5 point “plan of salvation,” and I took exception, noting that there are at least seven things necessary to reach that point, the five canonical points plus faithful living (Revelation 2.10) and over-arching all of these human works, the divine mantle of grace (Ephesians 2.4-10). The sticking point was not with faithful living, however, but that hard concept of grace. But that indisputable foundational truth that we are saved by grace through faith is so important that Paul states it in Ephesians 2.5, and reiterates it emphatically in verse 8.

Another place where the rest of the story is often left out is found in 2 Timothy 2.23. “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” This makes for a very easy dodge when someone asks a tough question that we may not want to address. But the next verse goes on, “24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” I have sensed a resentfulness on occasion when a pet teaching has been challenged.

Yet another example of failing to see the forest for the trees is in 2 Peter 3. Here, Peter is challenging those who thought God to be slack in his promise of bringing all things to an end, expecting the judgment to have occurred much earlier, and since it had not happened by that point in time, deciding that it was not real. Peter reiterates that there would be an end, and like Jesus had already said, it would be when people weren’t expecting it. His description includes a melting and dissolution of the elements and the uncovering of the works of man. That’s as far as many if not most of the sermons go that include 2 Peter 3.

But Peter’s focus was not just an apocalyptic horror story of fire and destruction. In the following verses, he poses a very important question:

“11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”

Then, he reaffirms a foundational promise:

“13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Then, he provides an encouragement to persevere and not give up even when the teaching gets hard:

“14 Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

Finally, he gives a solution for dealing with these issues that would distract them from the real message:

“18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.”

Growing in grace is hard. Growing in the knowledge of Jesus is perhaps easier to accomplish, but we are often too busy looking for “hard things” to dwell on to avoid sitting down and visiting with the Gospels and actually learning more about Jesus himself. By failing to learn more and grow in our knowledge of Jesus, we not only become targets to let the “ignorant and unstable” lead us, we risk losing our own stability.

Sometimes, the issue is not with failing to read past a favorite proof-text. Sometimes the issue is with the translation itself. An example I always return to is in 2 Timothy 2.15. The King James Version (which many consider to be the inerrant translation of the Bible) phrases this as “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” My concern is with the word translated as “study.” Originally, this word probably meant, “make haste,” and then could more accurately embody the sense found in more modern translations like the ESV, where it is rendered as, “15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” The New King James Version says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The NIV translates this as, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

All of these other translations bring out the idea of effort and diligence which encompasses the whole of a person’s being. The admonition to “study”, while absolutely commendable, limits the endeavor in the minds of many to just reading and reinforcing our command of our proof-texts. But to give “diligence” or to “be earnest” suggests a greater commitment than our modern use of the word “study.”

Sometimes I think that the greatest violence ever done to scripture was the dissection of the text into chapters and verses. The original authors wrote complete letters and histories and stories. Paul never said in his dictation of the epistles, “Next verse, Tertius.” That dissection facilitated the practice of contextual infidelity by making it easy to focus on a single comment or phrase, lifting disjunct thoughts and ideas and principles indiscriminately from their intended focus and meaning. Proof-texting is a result of that, and we are none the richer for it. The greater wealth and strength of scripture is in its integrity and flow. If we would ever learn to really look for the rest of the story, step back and really look for the forest composed of so many individual and important trees, the Bible should come alive in ways that will bring greater unity. Maintaining the integrity of the text should lead to fewer misconceptions related to improperly applied text and opinion.

Early in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, a frontier evangelist with the colorful name of “Raccoon” John Smith appealed for greater unity of purpose and minimizing opinion by sticking more closely to the scriptures. He said, “While there is but one faith, there may be ten thousand opinions; and, hence, if Christians are ever to be one, they must be one in faith, and not in opinion. When certain subjects arise, even in conversation or social discussion, about which there is a contrariety of opinion and sensitiveness of feeling, speak of them in the words of the Scripture, and no offense will be given and no pride of doctrine will be encouraged. We may even come, in the end, by thus speaking the same things, to think the same things.” I agree completely, but I also urge us all to read…the rest of the story.

Marcellus Gallio’s Defense Before Caligula, From “The Robe” (1953)

For years, I had seen a movie advertised and sold  every year around Easter.  “The Robe”, starring Richard Burton, was released in 1953 and presented a very interesting story.  The devil may care tribune, Marcellus Gallio, son of a senator, angers his Emperor and is sent to Palestine.  Before he is recalled to Rome, Pontius Pilate has him lead the detail that crucified Christ.  Marcellus is haunted by dreams of the deed he has done, so under cover, he returns to Palestine to learn the whereabouts of his runaway slave and the Robe that Christ wore that allegedly bewitched him and drove him to madness.  In Cana, he meets a number of Jesus’s followers.  They are good, peaceable people.  He learns of the Jesus and eventually becomes a follower himself.

He is forced to live as a fugitive, and eventually is captured as he covers the escape of his former slave, now friend, and the woman that he loves.  When he appears before Caligula, the following scene played out, containing one of the finest comments I have ever seen in any film about the nature of Jesus.

Caligula:  Tell me tribune, do you expect us to believe these stories, that this Jesus could heal by the touch of his hand, make the crippled walk, and the blind see again?

Marcellus: It makes no difference whether you believe them or not, sire.  All that matters is that there’s no story that he ever made anyone blind, there’s  no story that he made anyone a cripple, or ever raised his hand except to heal.

I watched that, then had to watch it over several times to let the speech sink in.

In the film where Jesus is entering Jerusalem, or where he is carrying his cross, or when he is on the cross, we never see his face, perhaps reinforcing the fact that when Jesus was alive, Marcellus paid him no mind, that he was just another Jewish troublemaker in a backwater corner of the empire.  For him to give such an impassioned defense of his faith was so refreshing.

Of course, nothing like this would ever be made today, at least not with A-list actors and a big epic budget.  That’s OK.  We have classics that will be around for a very long time to appreciate.  And while this movie script is certainly not from an inspired text, it was indeed inspiring, and contained deep truth.

“You Lack One Thing”: Thinking About Love and Law

Religion is such an external thing, isn’t it?  At least for many people it is.  Like the Sunday clothes that get pressed and put on one day a week, religion gets put on and paraded at the same time as the fancy clothes.  After a brief outing, the clothes hit the laundry or are folded neatly on the hangers, and the religion is put away until next week, too.

Thomas Jefferson told his nephew that the practice of religion is not a bad thing.  He should give it a try.  Indeed, any influence of good in a person’s life is beneficial.  But the real value of religion is not in the external wearing of the trappings of “faith” one day a week.  Real faith becomes grafted into your life and it suffuses it, coloring everything you are and do.

The value of real faith comes not from the mechanical, programmed conduct of rituals and acts of worship.  Oh, worship is absolutely essential.  Don’t get me wrong. But Jesus was not trying to launch an institution that required ONLY the strict adherence to a set of practices for worship.  He was out to change lives by showing people how to live each and every day.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus had so little to say about actual worship?  In rebuking Satan at his temptation in the desert, Jesus said, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8).  Later, his conversation with the Samaritan woman is recorded in John 4. “21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  As far as I can tell, those are the only direct comments Jesus made about worship per se:  in essence, keep the focus on God and keep it real.  Certainly, he spoke of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and other places.  However, Jesus’ emphasis was far more on changing the heart and how people live.  Perhaps the way to interpret that is that if you get the heart right, the worship will follow naturally and purely from a pure heart.

An excellent example of this principle is found in Mark 10, where Jesus was confronted by a wealthy young man who was seeking eternal life.

“17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

There are at least four important points regarding this exchange: first, he reinforced the reality that he was indeed God when he asked the young man, “Why do you call me good?”  He used that to emphasize that he was indeed God in the flesh.  “No one is good except God alone.”  Since he didn’t say NOT to call him good, he accepted the description.  In doing so, he admitted that he is God.

Second, he determined that the young man knew and kept the law. Keeping the law was important.  The Law of which Jesus spoke was not just ceremonial.  It governed all aspects of the lives of the Jews.  The commandments he mentioned, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother,” these can all be summed up with what Jesus called the second great commandment, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

You could almost see the young man brighten up at that statement.  Of course!  He had kept all of those commandments since he was a child!  This would be easier than he ever imagined!  If superficially observing the letter of the Law was all that was necessary, Jesus would have said, “Welcome aboard.”  But Jesus took it one step farther.  He told him to prove it.  “21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  If he truly had internalized the commandment to love his neighbor, he would do what was required.

So, when Jesus said that keeping the commandments was indeed important, the young man was encouraged.  When Jesus told him what he needed, his countenance fell.  So often, the focus of any discussion of this encounter has been on the young man’s response to Jesus’ difficult command to sell his possessions and give to the poor before coming to follow him.  The emphasis has been on the unwillingness of the young man to do what Jesus asked.  The young man must not have been sincere.  He must not have been honestly seeking the kingdom.  He was an example of what not to be or to do.

But, as a third point, there is another important consideration here that reveals something of the nature, mind, and motivation of Jesus.  Look at this brief glimpse into his very heart:

21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Notice that parenthetical comment: “…looking at him, loved him….” Jesus didn’t size him up and decide that this was the way to prevent him from entering the kingdom. What Jesus told him he told him out of love. He knew that wealth was the young man’s weakness. But the true value of wealth is not in the currency or gold stored up in a bank or counting house. It is in the good that you can do with it. Jesus wanted him to use that gift to help others. That would be the first step into life in the kingdom.

Fourth, he told his disciples in the following verses that it would be difficult for anyone who placed such an emphasis on riches to enter the kingdom of heaven.  It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.  This of course sounded absurd to the disciples, but Jesus said in Mark 10.27, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

The entire Sermon on the mount from Matthew 5-7 may have mentioned worship practices, but rather than describing and enumerating what they were required to do as acts of worship, he emphasized that what they did would be useless if their hearts weren’t right.  He not only preached the principles of living a righteous life from the heart outward, he practiced them.  The deepest motivation of his followers would be their love for each other and for all.  John repeats this over and over in John 14 and 15.  How many times do we see the love and compassion Jesus had for his friends, his followers, and people in general?  Even the Jews who came to see what he would do when he visited Mary and Martha after the death of their brother Lazarus.  They said, “See how he loved him.” (John 11.36)  When Jesus saw the people that followed him had been with him for three days and had no food and were hungry, he said, “I have compassion on the crowd.” (Mark 8.2)  When Jesus heard about a widow who had lost her son, in Luke 7, the record says, “13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.””  If God is love, Jesus embodied it.  His life was dedicated to loving others and teaching others to love as he did.  That was the heart of his message.

Of the exchange between Jesus and the wealthy young man, we only know the young man went away sorrowful, and we know no more of his later decisions. I would like to think that if or when he realized that Jesus made his pronouncement out of love, he would have done what he asked.  That would be speculation, of course.  What a spokesman he might have been, using his wealth to glorify God.  But even if he never came to himself, as did the lost son, he gave Jesus an opportunity to teach us an important principle.  Although a negative example, his life was given significance.  We should learn from him, but far more, we should learn from yet another example of Jesus’ love.