The great poet and author Carl Sandburg was once asked by a reporter to name the ugliest word he knew. Sandburg is reported to have reflected for several minutes, pondering the question. And then he spoke, saying in effect that the ugliest word was exclusive. Now, don’t you find that ironic? For most of our society the word exclusive is pretty. We like exclusive. We drive exclusive cars, wear exclusive clothes, and visit exclusive places. In the world for most of us, the more exclusive, the better. But Sandburg said it was an ugly word.
Here’s another word for you. See what you think of it. The word is intrusive. How do you react to it? If you are like me, your reaction is not very positive. For most Americans the word intrusive is truly an ugly word. We love freedom, privacy, and autonomy. The greatest threat for many of us is that someone will intrude upon our cherished freedoms. We do not want the government, friends, or society to intrude.
Hold that thought for a moment and consider today’s scripture lesson. A good man with a legitimate religious question approaches Jesus to talk about eternal destiny. The man knows and keeps the Commandments. He is faithful in his religious practices. The Bible says that he was a model of religious faithfulness and that Jesus loved him.
But the response of Jesus is so intrusive! It is almost harsh. The man is told to sell what he has and give it to the poor and come follow Jesus. It is too much for this earnest seeker and he walks away from the presence of Jesus. What follows is a word from Jesus about how difficult it is for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven.
Admittedly, this is not one of the more comforting gospel lessons. Does Jesus have the right to tell us what to do with our possessions? According to the New Testament, the answer is clearly yes.
So here we are, at a time of the year when we think about financial stewardship and our support of the church’s ministry. Do we have to talk about this? Again, the Bible’s answer is an emphatic yes.
Now it may seem that this text is about money, and it is. But it is not exclusively about money. It is about idolatry. It is about that which stands between a person and God. In the Bible there are consistent warnings about the danger of two things: a short memory and false worship. This text invites us to consider the second of these warnings.
The man in this encounter with Jesus is not sinful because he is wealthy. He is a sinner because he has a limited view of faith. The obstacle between this man and eternal life was not some blatant sin. Our idols are seldom that easily identified. Rather, his sin was about a value that he valued too much.
Jesus knew that there is something about riches that is spiritually hazardous. But the problem is not limited to money. Whatever we trust to save us is truly our God. It can be power, talent, beauty, intelligence, or a host of other things. We can give to these riches our heart and soul. We trust them, love them, pursue them, and promote them. They easily become the “one thing” that we may need to let go of in order to truly trust the Lord’s grace.
The man in our story trusted money for his salvation. Many people in our society do the same thing. Psychologists call money the “last taboo.” It is easier to tell a therapist about our sex lives than it is to tell our accountant about our finances. Money—not necessarily how much we have, but how we feel about it—governs the lives of some of us more than any other factor. Money and how we relate to it is important because behind money are very real spiritual forces that energize it and give it a life of its own. The rich young ruler’s wealth was a rival god seeking his complete devotion. It had become an all-consuming idol and it had to be rejected totally.
Do we have to talk about this? Yes, we do, intrusive though it is. It is not for nothing that Jesus spoke about money as much as he spoke about the kingdom of God. Money is important, and how we relate to it can affect our spiritual destiny. A lot of people are in the faith up to the point of their money. Like the crusaders who baptized all of their bodies except the hand that wielded the sword, we, too, have our ways of holding back from God that which has become most precious to us.
The rich young ruler had given almost all he had to the service of God. He lacked one thing, and Jesus gave him very practical and concrete instruction as to what to do with that one thing. It was intrusive. It was instructive. Today’s text invites us to get in touch with that which stands between God and us.
The Bible says Jesus loved the earnestly seeking rich man. It is this love Jesus feels for us that makes him intrude upon our carefully ordered ways of doing things. Jesus did not want the man to be poor; he wanted him to experience joy—the kind of joy that giving it all to God can bring to our lives.
And that, my dear friends, is why we have to talk about this; for we can know the price of everything and the value of nothing. This text is a good prescription for spiritual health. May it be for you the blessing that allows you to take stock and put away whatever it is that would stand between you and your Savior.