The Rev. Dr. Canon William J. Danaher, Jr.
October 11, 2015
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Now, there are some scriptures that have become so well known that they have become crystallized, is the term I use. They become crystallized in that they teach a well-known lesson that we revisit from time to time, and in revisiting them we develop a comfort level with them. We know what the teaching is going to be. We’re preparing to apply it in a different way to our lives. Maybe take one step closer to what it’s calling us to be. And then we wait for the next time we see it.
Today’s gospel is exactly that; it is known as Christ and Rich Young Ruler. Since at least the fourth century, you can find people that will articulate a very clear lesson that we are to draw from this, and that is that we should not be like the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler is young and naïve. He’s unable to see beyond himself to the needs that Christ is asking him to look at. The rich young ruler is suffering from spiritual pride and from arrogance, thinking that he had observed all the law from his youth. And this message has been key. It’s been crystallized and it’s been reinforced by iconic paintings. And the most present and iconic paining of Christ and the Rich Young Ruler is the one that is on your bulletin. This was by Heinrich Hofmann. It was painted in 1889 and Hofmann was one of the most influential artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Hofmann paints this painting as part of a series on Christ’s life; one, where the young child Jesus is in the temple, and one, where Christ and the Rich Young Ruler are encountering one another, and, finally, Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased this painting and hung it in Riverside Church in New York City, which was built just a few years before Christ Church Cranbrook. The purpose of Riverside Church was to articulate and proclaim to New York City and indeed to the country, if not the world, that there was a new Christianity that was coming on the scene. This Christianity was going to be liberal, open minded, socially conscious, and welcoming. Riverside Church became symbolic of that ministry. This image that Rockefeller placed was meant to be a plank in the platform that that church would preach about wealth and riches.
It’s a very moving picture. It’s a very moving passage. It’s a very moving lesson that we could take from today’s gospel. In fact, it actually has an incredibly important role. If any of you have ever walked in a fair and seen pictures of Jesus painted on black velvet you can thank Heinrich Hoffmann. He is the person who has that Christ in Gethsemane where Jesus is just in beautiful pain, lovely pain, beautiful, blue-eyed Jesus is suffering. That is the source, he is the source of it all.
But we have to keep in mind that it was incredibly powerful for the people of the day. A wandering yogi named Paramahansa Yogananda saw this painting and others like it, and he published a book and founded the Self-Realization Foundation which was the point of origin, one of the point of origins for the whole Mindfulness Movement that has come to be so regnant in today’s culture. When he saw these depictions of Christ, and so he published a book called Seeing Christ Again through the Resurrection. Powerful book, you can still get it on Amazon.com.
Now there’s only one problem with this crystallized lesson. That problem is I don’t think it has much to do with today’s gospel. I would love to articulate this crystallized lesson. I would love to reinforce it with a portrait like this. I would love to say, “And this is why, dear people, we all need to make incremental steps and as you know, we’re in the pledging season.” But I actually don’t think that today’s gospel actually delivers the lesson that we have taken from it for generations.
I will point out just three little pieces to start to get at it. As I do, I want you to keep in mind that the Bible is not like CNN Live Coverage. There are no embedded reporters. What we know about Jesus are stories that were repeated in the context of worship and formation by a community that was trying to be as faithful as possible. The gospels are therefore arguments. They are knit together to have resonances all the way through so that you can get a picture of Jesus. One that will continue to arrest you and disturb you, and hopefully convert you over time.
The first thing that you should know about this famous lesson of Christ and the rich young ruler is that nowhere in today’s gospel are we told that he is young. He’s not young. We only know that he has claimed to observe the commandments of God since his youth. Now, generations of biblical commentators have said to themselves, “Well, that must mean that he was young because only a young person could be so foolish as to say that they had observed God’s law from their youth. But in fact, we don’t know this.
We don’t know that he’s young. We only know that he’s a man. We don’t know that he’s a ruler. We only know that he has many possessions. We don’t even know if he is comparatively wealthy. In fact, if he was a land owner which is what he is claimed to be in the text, he’s probably somewhere in the upper middle class like all of us. Moreover, there’s this moment in which there’s this exchange that goes on early in the passage. The man comes to Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what do I do to inherit eternal life?” When he calls Jesus, “good teacher,” nowhere else in the Bible do you find that term used for Jesus. When Jesus spurns it, it’s not that Jesus is trying to be falsely humble. It’s that he’s rejecting an age-old practice in that culture of establishing a relationship between a superior and an inferior in which you would give an honorific title to the superior. The superior would then honor you by giving you a title in return.
This would spur a kind of giving of gifts through which you could gain some kind of advantage because that was the way business was done in antiquity; it was a gift economy as most anthropologists will tell you. When Jesus says; “No one is good but God alone.” He’s rejecting the attempt of this man to establish some kind of negotiated term with him.
Finally, at the center of today’s gospel and the reason why this is so critical for us to recognize it, Jesus says three things; he has a kind of grammatical formula that he uses. He says to the man, “Get up,” [Page 00:10:11] is the Greek, “sell what you have, give to the poor, and then come, [duero 00:10:17], and follow me.” That grammatical formula is used by Jesus previously in Mark on several occasions. But Jesus uses it when he is curing somebody or exorcising a demon. The fact Jesus uses that term with regard to that man is an indication to the readers that wealth is a malady that needs to be cured.
The climax of this painting for Hoffman is that moment in which you see Jesus having just pointed out his command and the young man depicted here has turned away sorrowful. But in fact, in today’s gospel the key climax of the package is not at this moment. Remember that the disciples, as soon as they hear what Jesus says to the man immediately say to themselves, even though they have left everything and followed him, and leaving your nets and following Jesus, it was not like changing a career. It was not like leaving investment banking and becoming a teacher or a pastor. It was actually leaving everything and following Jesus, their source of sustenance.
The disciples, when they say to Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” They recognize that they themselves, despite everything that they have given, they are standing in that man’s shoes as well. When the rich man walks away hurt, Mark describes it with the same term hupominos, that he uses to describe the moment in which the disciples abandon Jesus when he is being betrayed and crucified. The center of this passage isn’t that moment in which the rich young man is walking away, rather it’s the moment in which Jesus looks at the man and loves him. Because it’s in that moment that you see a deep well of grace and love, and a deeper call to conversion that stands all on its own.
The problem with these crystallized teachings is that they become like a crystal, beautiful, and hard, and cold. The problem when you and I try to negotiate questions around money is that we are trying to come up with a compromise when Jesus is calling us to conversion. The test of today’s gospel is to think about your money while looking at the face of the Christ who loves you. This is why I like, even though it may not be at the same level of beauty as Heinrich Hoffmann, why I like this icon by Katherine Sanders of “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler,” Sanders still follows the old way of speaking about this episode and I can forgive her that because she has this moment in which Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler are locked in their gazes. Christ is looking at him with eyes of love and he for that moment, is looking at Jesus also transfixed by the God he desires to follow.
What does your money do for you? What feelings does it hold at bay? What do you fear most when you think about your money? These are questions we all have to ask ourselves while looking at the face of our Savior.