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If you would be perfect
Good morning, church. If you will, please find a Bible and get to Matthew, chapter 19. If you need a Bible, just raise your hand, and we’ll get one to you.
Thank you for joining us on Thanksgiving weekend; I am thankful for this church, and I’m thankful for my parents and the time I got to spend with this this week. I am also thankful that Thanksgiving is not a Church holiday, so I don’t have to say any more about that—we’ve got so much else to fit into this sermon. This is the last Sunday before the advent season begins, and we’re going to wrap our series through the book of Matthew today, until we pick it back up in lent.
Last week we talked about divorce, and today we’re going to talk about money, so no one can ever accuse me of just telling people what they want to hear. I am so grateful for God giving us truth in the midst of difficult topics, because otherwise we would be utterly alone in dealing with these things.
Our passage today is going to place two men side by side, the apostle Peter, and a rich, young, ruler. One man has everything and somehow still feels like there’s something missing. The other man has sacrificed everything, and he’s anxious to know whether or not all of his sacrifice has been worth it. But even though they see themselves as opposites, pride is driving both of them. They’re both trying to win the favor of the Lord, and they’re both eaten alive wondering whether or not it’s been enough, what they’ve done. Jesus is trying to lead both of them away from sacrifice and control, into life and mercy.
Please stand if you will as we read, starting in Matthew 19:16. [Mat 19:16-20:16] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
The man in this passage, Mark calls him a rich, young, ruler. And just from that, we can gather this man has a lot of things pretty much everyone wants. He has money, he has power, and he’s still young. Very rarely do those gifts coincide. And they are gifts—I know in Christian circles sometimes it seems holy to talk about how we don’t want money or power, or even sometimes we look down on people who have money or power. But the Christian ethic is not that poor people are better than rich people, it’s that being rich doesn’t help you. In fact, in our passage we see, oftentimes wealth can be a burden. Just as true humility is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking more of your neighbor and the Lord, so true stewardship is not thinking less of money and power, but thinking more of the life found in Christ.
C.S. Lewis says it this way, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator [and, I would argue, pastor] is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” In the passage, Jesus very quickly gets to the heart of the issue with the rich young ruler. He says, first, v.17, “if you would enter life…” meaning at the core of this teaching we find real life in Christ, as opposed to whatever else is the rich young ruler had found. His problem, the disciples’ problem, and our problem today, is that we still haven’t realized the true worth of life in Christ, so we try to drag worthless things along with us in our pursuit of him.
If you are seeing this rich, young, ruler the way Jesus sees him, you have compassion on him. This man who has everything, he’s still missing something. I wonder what it’s like to have everything everyone else wants in life, to have what everyone is striving for, only to find out it’s not worth much. That’s my read on this guy. He’s both proud and desperate. He’s proud of what he’s been able to do with his life, but he also knows something profound is missing.
In my sanctified imagination, bear with me: if this man were alive today, he would own a treadmill, and he’d be on it every day. He would have the job, the house, he’d be in great shape, because he runs. He’d be tracking his times, and chase his own pr’s. He’d go to church every week shake the hands, leave before small group, and every day, on the treadmill before bed without fail. Even when the kids are small, even when he’s sick, even when the kids leave and the house goes quiet, empty. One day they move. And all of his expensive things go into boxes, and he’s looking at the empty room where the treadmill was. I wonder if he would actually think it, or if he would just feel it nagging at him: all of that running, hundreds of miles, and he hasn’t actually gone anywhere. He’s stayed in this one little room the whole time. All of that time, all of that effort, and no direction, no actual progress.
Do you understand what I mean? Louis is like, “no, false, they didn’t have treadmills back then,” and yet, Louis, and yet! Here’s this rich young ruler in our passage who’s been running his whole life and when it comes down to it, he hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s got everything, he’s the envy of his peers, he drives a Tesla, wears an Apple Watch, his apartment is clean when people come over, and yet he knows he’s missing something. What’s more, he at least suspects the thing he’s missing is the only thing that really matters. He walks away in mourning because Jesus tells him, you’re right. You’re missing it, and to find it, you’re going to have to give away the life you’ve built.
Do you see how its about more than money? You can give away your things, destitute yourself, and still not find Christ, the treasure in the field. I know men like that. But see, this man in our passage is a collector. He wants to add Jesus to the top of the structure he’s built for his life, and Jesus in the passage refuses to be collected. You can’t build your life in this world and then add the kingdom of God. You have to leave what you’ve built to enter the room and kingdom Christ has prepared.
Many of you know my story of having to give up a good career, disappoint my parents, even give up several relationships in order to follow the calling of Christ in my life. And since then, I’ve had to give up control of a lot of things—my own life, my finances, my reputation—and the opposite of control is mercy. Christ has called me to be a person whose life warrants forgiveness more than it does applause, which is only to say I’m free to let people see my real life and heart now.
What about you today? Have you been striving, running, to no effect? So many of us are running—trying to be better sons, better daughters, more responsible, meet expectations—and it’s exhausting, and do we ever stop to ask ourselves whether or not all of our furious effort is going anywhere? Does it have a purpose? How will you feel about your life when you’re at its end?
The most startling phrase in this passage, to me, is in v.21. Jesus tells him, if he wants to enter life to keep the commandments—enter life, meaning Jesus invites this man to live for the first time. The man says he has, all his days, kept the commandments, and he admits to Jesus, he still doesn’t feel alive. There’s got to be something else. And this is the phrase that startled me, Jesus says, “if you would be perfect…” That’s the title of this sermon: if you would be perfect, go sell what you have. The word Jesus uses there, translated perfect, is a form of the Greek word telos, which—I don’t usually talk about the original language of the Bible, but this is one word I make a point to teach, it’s one of the most important words in the New Testament. Telos means something coming to it’s right end, being used for its true purpose.
The telos of a clarinet is to be played by Ms. Doreen two blocks up on Royal. If you haven’t gone to listen to her, you’ve got to. That is what the instrument is really meant for. That’s it’s purpose, not to sit in a case somewhere quiet. The telos of a meal is to be eaten with family and friends in love. And what is the telos of a human being? What song do we sing, or who are we meant to nourish and gather around us? If you would be perfect, Jesus tells the man, if you want to complete your life, if you want to have a purpose in your life, if you want to be finished—finished what?—finished running, go sell what you have, or just give it away.
In many ways this conversation prefigures the crucifixion. Telos is what Jesus screams out at the crucifixion: tetelostai, it is finished, it’s perfect, it’s complete. What’s finished? Life itself, in many ways. Jesus gives all he has, even his life, and yet somehow the purpose of humanity is found in that moment. In Jesus’ death and resurrection our life is able to really begin, to have meaning, to have direction and purpose. Jesus is calling us to take up our crosses, yes, but even more than something to die for—I would die for many of you—but what Christ gives us, finally, finally, is something to live for; a song to sing, a reason, a purpose, a right end, telos.
Paul in Philippians uses the analogy of a race. He says life and faith are like a race, you’re going to have to run, so you can’t carry much with you. Nothing, really. I’m not much of a racer anymore. My eight-year-old asked me this week if I would run three miles with him, said he’d done it at school and enjoyed it. I told him I would rather walk it with him. He thought about it for a while and asked, “Is it because you’re old and feeble?” I did not tell him this, but I will tell you, yes, yes it is.
I’m not much of a racer, but I know some racers. They spend a hundred extra dollars on their shoes to cut a few ounces of weight. They wear tight shirts and small shorts to cut wind resistance. They do anything they can do just to go a little faster, because if your goal is to win the race, then anything which doesn’t help you toward that goal is just weighing you down. Paul’s saying, the same is true in life and in our practice of our faith. Anything you’re holding which doesn’t help you toward the goal is something to be let go, cut out. And Christ says in our passage, following him is the goal.
What is it that you need to set down in your life? What are you carrying today that’s slowing you down? And where are you going? If your destination in life looks a lot like the rich young ruler’s life, let Christ through this story save you from a life lived in misery. That man’s not perfect, he’s missing it. The one thing of any real value in this life, he’s missing for the sake of all the other things he has. He walks away, saddened, because he doesn’t want to lose what he has, but “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Jesus goes further. Commenting on their exchange, Jesus tells his disciples, it’s extremely difficult for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven. He says it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, which is both hilarious to try to picture and obviously impossible. There’s a common teaching about a gate in Jerusalem being called the eye of the needle, but there’s no real evidence of that. What you should really take from this is the image of trying to squeeze through some passage with all of your possessions, and how it’s not going to happen. No amount of wealth, no amount of striving will help you do what is impossible. The apostles, he says, are startled by this, and they ask Jesus a question they’ve asked him once before, when he said unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and pharisees, they would not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Both times, his disciples are astonished and ask, “Who then can be saved?” The implication being, the pharisees out-righteous everyone, and this rich man out-strives everyone. So if they can’t even be saved, who possibly could? No one can outdo them. And Jesus responds, essentially, you’re right. No one can outdo the pharisees at being righteous, and no one can outdo this rich young guy on being impressive, so life must be found somewhere else. The kingdom must not be about striving and being righteous. He says, what is impossible with man is possible with God. When we can’t be good enough for God he meets us with grace and mercy, when our striving doesn’t bring us up to him, in forgiveness and mercy he condescends to us.
I know there’s a chapter division, but the rich young ruler, the conversation with the disciples, the parable of the vineyard, it’s all connected, even the rest of chapter 20. Look at how it flows together. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to give away all of his possessions, and Peter puffs up his chest. He sees himself as the opposite of this rich young ruler. He starts bragging, in the way church people often do, about how much he has sacrificed in order to follow Jesus, then look how Jesus responds.
Jesus does tell him that he’ll be rewarded, even with all of the same things the rich young man possessed: a throne, great possession. He’s made the right choice. Imagine Peter’s excitement as he’s hearing these things, but then there’s this subtle rebuke. Part of the reason I read this passage together with the parable of the talents is because it’s easy reading about the rich young ruler to assume the ethic here is that money and power ought to be rejected in order to enter the kingdom of God, but that’s not what Jesus is teaching. The rich young ruler and Peter actually share the same exact misunderstanding.
In the parable, Jesus imagines God as the richest, ruleriest of them all. He’s the master of the house, and owns a vast vineyard, he’s able to hire seemingly any number of laborers. Vineyards, specifically, meaningfully, were crops of luxury, not necessity. You don’t need wine, but it’s nice to have. Nowhere in the parable is that kind of authority or luxury condemned. Everyone else in the parable is a laborer. And when the laborers finish their labors, they’re paid well. Even when other laborers complain about being given less, the master of the vineyard tells them he wants to give them money to bless them out of his own generosity, and then Jesus repeats the same rebuke he told Peter earlier, that the last will be first and the first last.
Chapter twenty goes on to have this phrase repeated again. We didn’t read it, but Jesus’s aunt, James and John’s mother, comes to him and asks for her two sons to have power and honor in the kingdom he was building, and he corrects her, too, with even stronger language, he says, “whoever would be first among you would be your slave, even as the son of man came to serve, not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We always try to add Jesus to what we already have in life, and act like morality and faith are one of our many accomplishments. The rich young ruler thinks all of his striving will endear him to the Lord, and Peter thinks all of his sacrifice will do the same. Jesus’s parable shows us that no matter how much we’ve done for the Lord, be it labor or sacrifice, the kingdom of God is always going to be more about what God has done than what we have done.
Looking at a well-lived Christian life and praising the person living it is like looking at a beautiful painting and praising the canvas. Wouldn’t it make more sense to praise the artist? Christ is the one who has saved us, the Spirit is the one who is sanctifying us, making us more like Christ—what have we brought to the kingdom other than need? It’s the first thing Jesus says to the young ruler, he says there is only one who is good. There is only one Lord and savior, the rest of us are laborers. What does it matter if some of us do more and others do less, God’s adoption of us as sons and daughters has more to do with his generosity than it has anything to do with our own merit.
There’s only one prize in life: Christ, himself. We run, we labor, unto him. Set down anything not helping you reach that one, singular end. He is our telos, he is the meaning in our lives, he is our perfection, and he is our right end.
Put away your pride, whatever form it takes. Whether you’re more impressive like the rich young ruler, or you’ve sacrificed so much to pursue God’s call on your life, there’s no amount of striving that could earn God’s grace, and no amount of sacrifice that could warrant his mercy. We’re co-laborers, that’s all, nothing more, but certainly nothing less. There are certainly labors we’ve been called into as Christians, but whether we succeed or fail, we glorify God either way. Either we succeed in what he’s called us to do and we live our lives in the midst of the kingdom breaking through, or we fail miserably and in our failure, God’s grace abounds, and the more to his glory. So why not rest?
Get off the treadmill, take time off work, and go hike through the woods. You can be the worst and the last. Why not do the work he’s called you to do, not out of some mad desire to prove you’ve done enough to be worthy of love and admiration, but out of a certainty that the love and admiration of God is not earned, it’s freely given. There are plenty of religions out there to teach you how to be good enough, to teach you how to be on a higher plane of existence. Christianity teaches you how you have never been good enough, but that God loves you in spite of your mistakes.
There’s freedom in Christ. If you never get to a place in your experience of the gospel where you’re asking what Paul asks in Romans: “why don’t we just sin, then, so grace will abound?” If that’s not your question, then you aren’t understanding the scandal of God’s grace. We don’t labor for him because we’re trying to earn forgiveness. We labor for him because he has invited us into the abounding life and delight of his vineyard. “If you want to enter life, obey his commands,” Jesus says. And if you want to be first in the kingdom, just serve anyone and everyone you can.
If you would be perfect, if you would have your life really mean something, if you would finally find what you’ve been searching for, go, give away whatever it is you’re holding onto, whatever pride you’re carrying, and run “further in and further up” to the glory of his marvelous grace.