The topic of today’s lectionary readings and of this sermon makes me extremely uncomfortable. I preach about it with reluctance and only because it would be worse to avoid it. The passage from Hebrews states the theme: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
The phrase, “the Word of God,” has many meanings in Jewish and Christian history. In Genesis, for instance, “the word of the Lord” came to Abraham and Moses, telling them to do something. Throughout the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible, “the word of the Lord” is what the prophets hear and then proclaim, and often it is of a critical nature regarding what the people are doing. In the New Testament the “word of the Lord” or “word of God” is used to describe the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching. In another sense of the phrase, the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” After saying that the Word is the agent of creation, John goes on to say that the Word became flesh, and this is Jesus.
When the author of the book of Hebrews talks about the word of God, living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, he does not mean the high metaphysical notion that John used, nor does he mean it to apply directly to Jesus. Rather he means something like the word of the prophets. Jesus’ treatment of the rich man is a case in point, as described in the text from Mark. Matthew’s version of the story says the man is young, and Luke’s says he is a ruler. The rich young ruler ran up to Jesus as Jesus was setting out on a journey, probably surrounded by his followers. Boasting of neither his wealth nor political power the young man knelt at Jesus’ feet and said, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He seemed a model of earnestness and humility. Jesus, alas, must have been in some kind of negative mood about himself because he snapped at the youth for calling him good, saying that no one is good except God alone. This is odd: the young man probably only meant “Good Teacher” as an honorific title to indicate that he thought Jesus would have good advice, and Jesus was rude. On other occasions Jesus claimed great importance for himself and his message, putting a high price on those who would follow him. At any rate, on this occasion Jesus dismissed the appeal for advice, telling the rich young ruler that he already knew the commandments. Jesus listed a few in an off-hand manner, probably still distracted by the need to get his entourage under way.
Then something dramatic happened. The young man said quietly that he had kept the commandments from his youth. Jesus looked at him suddenly, probably paying attention for the first time. If the young man had kept the commandments and still came asking how to inherit eternal life, he already knew that keeping the commandments is not enough. The young man knew that Jesus’ offhand response to his earnest question was not enough. And Jesus knew that he himself had given a wrong answer: keeping the commandments is not enough. In this way the word of God came to Jesus, piercing as if to divide his soul from spirit, joints from sinews. He knew that in this instance he had not been a Good Teacher and he was shocked out of his self-indulgent sulk.
Then what did Jesus do? Looking at the young man, he loved him. Why did he love that young man whom he had just met? Perhaps it was because, even with his wealth and authority, the young man was winsome, humble, and so very earnest about eternal life. Perhaps it was because the man was serious when Jesus had been dismissive. Perhaps it was because he unwittingly had become the teacher and Jesus the chastened student. Perhaps it was because Jesus was grateful for the ever-so-humble correction. Perhaps it was because love was what Jesus felt toward people to whom he paid serious attention. I think all of these factors were involved.
Looking at the young man with love, Jesus knew immediately what was wrong and what he needed to do. For all his genuine virtue, the young man had identified himself with his wealth and station, and needed to give them up. This diagnosis was confirmed in the youth’s response, which was to be shocked and to go away grieving. How Jesus must himself have grieved at that response! Jesus was by no means against wealth and he did not demand that all his friends follow him around; witness his friendship with Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the household of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Those people were not in bondage to their wealth. The rich young ruler was. We do not know what happened to him subsequently. Perhaps he did sell his possessions and come back to follow Jesus. Perhaps he lived in denial of his bondage to wealth. Perhaps he knew Jesus was right and simply could not bring himself to act upon the truth. Perhaps in fact he was Joseph of Arimathea and developed a different relation to Jesus without disposing of his possessions. The point is that Jesus’ diagnosis and remedy was the word of God that cut him like a two-edged sword.
That sword hurts, does it not, when it cuts us? Most of us here or listening on the radio are rich in comparison with destitute people in the many hellholes of our planet. Like the young ruler we have more control over our lives than people do in many places, especially Afghanistan and Iraq, given recent events. The word of God points out our privilege and also our attachment, our identification with it.
Permit me a side comment here. If you feel guilty about your relative wealth, I have a wonderful suggestion: give generously to Marsh Chapel—practice tithing. We do good work here, and yet because we are a university church only a few people understand that we need support just like a parish church, with activities and ministries to fund and a building to keep in repair. Contributing to Marsh Chapel will do wonders for your guilt. I hope you are awash in guilt about your wealth.
Alas, however, salving guilt is not the same as abandoning attachments, like the rich young man’s, to the identity of being wealthy and powerful. What kept the man from eternal life was not his wealth, his authority, his virtue, or even his charity. It was that he let those things define him so that he was in bondage to having them. We too are often in bondage to wealth and power, and to many things besides. We need our jobs to give us identity, or our controlling roles in family, or our serving roles in community. Of course jobs are good, the exercise of authority in family nurture is good, and serving others is so good that many people believe it to be the essence of religion. Yet we all know people who pour out their lives in service to others for the sake of being recognized as doing so. We know people who go to church too often to display their piety, who send too many cards of condolence so as to be recognized as sympathetic. We all know people who use virtue for the sake of gaining importance in the eyes of others and in their own eyes, not for its own sake. We might be people who do that. Service should be invisible; piety should be inconspicuous, seen only by God, sympathy should be genuine and spontaneous. Charity should be for the sake of the need, not for the appearance of generosity. The word of God cuts especially sharply into the bones and sinews of good people, church people, the people who would run up to Jesus, kneel at his feet, and ask how to obtain eter
The reason for the pain of the two-edged sword is that it makes us see ourselves suddenly in God’s ultimate perspective. The word of God tells us that how we appear to others does not matter ultimately. The word of God tells us that the fables we rehearse about ourselves to bolster our egos, about our virtues and our vices, about our successes and also about our troubles, do not matter ultimately. What matters is what we do and who we are in God’s eyes. If we possess wealth and exercise power for the sake of status rather than because of the good they can do, we cannot accept God’s perspective until the word of God cuts the bondage of attachment. If we perfect virtue and practice generous charity for the sake of the recognition it brings rather than their intrinsic worth, we cannot accept God’s perspective until the word of God cuts the bondage of attachment. By all means be economically productive and exercise responsible leadership. Perfect the virtues of humane living and don’t forget Marsh Chapel. But we should not be bound by these good things any more than we should be bound by sin. The sharp word of God is not only for the evil-doers and sinners, for the despairing and lost. It is for winsome people like the rich young ruler. And ourselves.
Jesus’ remedy for the rich young man was to ask him to become a follower, and to free himself up so that he could do that. The young man recognized his bondage when he realized how much it hurt to give himself to God, and grieved. As your preacher, I ask you to give yourself to God. We already belong to the Creator, and giving ourselves to God merely acknowledges that truth. That truth strips us naked of self-serving pretenses, but naked is how we come into the world and how we will leave. Does something hold you back? It might not be money or power; it might not be a need for reputation or anything I can imagine. You will know it when you hesitate. If you don’t understand it, you can find help in discernment, perhaps a lifelong process.
I don’t know what giving yourself to God means in your case. It might mean becoming morally serious for the first time, or truly committing yourself to your relationships, or abandoning a false patriotism, or finding more socially useful work, or giving up on feeling sorry for yourself. You can tell when you have given yourself to God because you love God’s creatures for just what they are, not for what they pretend to be or for what they do for your benefit. You take joy in praising God for the glories of creation and also for the troubles of your life, knowing that had the rich young man followed Jesus he would have arrived at the cross, not at social or political victory.
The rich young man knew right where to come to find the word of God for himself. God has graced the world with countless witnesses to the word. But the young man turned away from it and grieved his own bondage. Isn’t that our trouble too? When Jesus and his disciples discussed the young man later, Jesus said it is almost impossible for the rich to shed the baggage that keeps them from God. But then, he said, with God all things are possible. So I invite you to the throne of grace. Please leave behind your wealth and also your poverty. Leave your power and also your victimization. Leave your virtues and also your vice. Leave your good fortune and also your troubles. Leave your pleasures and also your suffering. Leave your successes and also your failures. Pray without baggage for a word of God that lets you see yourself as God sees you, however sharply that sword bites.
Jesus looked at the rich young man, and loved him. That is God’s regard for us. Can we accept that love which, like a two-edged sword, severs the truth about us from the pretences to which we are bound? With God, all things are possible. Amen