Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90: 12-17
And Jesus looking upon him loved him...
I'm a pretty good person. I don't think I can say, like the man in today's Gospel lesson, that I've kept the commandments perfectly. I'm sure there have been times sin has crept into my life. I suppose I can confess to disobedience to at least a few of the ten, if not according to the letter, than certainly according to the spirit. I've not committed adultery, but I have felt lust. I don't think I've born false witness against my neighbor, but I have gossiped about them. I have taken things that are not mine and while none of it was of great worth, stealing even a nickel is a sin.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther talked about the Ten Commandments not only from the point of view of the "thou shall nots" but also as commands of how we should live. About the Seventh Commandment, Luther writes, "You shall not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God, so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or goods, nor get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his goods and means of making a living." In other words, it is not enough to simply keep from stealing our neighbor's nickel, but also help him keep his nickel and his means of earning that nickel.
About the Eighth Commandment, Luther writes, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything." It isn't enough to keep from telling a lie in court, but we should do our best to help uplift our neighbor's reputation.
I was watching one of the judge shows today, and the defendant wrote horrible things about the plaintiff in her answer to the complaint against her. The purpose, of course, was to help her case; if the plaintiff was all these bad things, then perhaps she doesn't deserve to win this case. The judge saw through the words and even told the defendant that it didn't work; her answer actually made him trust her less. Her attempt to put down the plaintiff backfired and she lost her case. As a matter of fact, the judgment given was actually more than typically would be awarded, but it was the right and just decision in that case.
The thing is, the words might have been true. The plaintiff might have been guilty of whatever the defendant spoke, but the accusations had nothing to do with the case at hand. The words were written simply to make the plaintiff look bad. Instead of admitting her own guilt, the defendant attacked the one who was in the right to make herself look good, but in the end justice was served.
We might judge the defendant harshly for her actions, but don't we fail to do what is right, too? Don't we try to make ourselves look better than we really are? Don't we claim to be victims even though our own actions are what has brought on our difficulties?
I read an article today about trustworthiness. Someone did a study about trust and found that none of us are completely trustworthy. During one test they put a bunch of people in a room alone with a coin. They were to flip the coin and write down whether it was heads or tails. If it was heads, then the people would receive a reward and if it was tails, they would be given forty-five minutes of boring work. The outcome would be based on the honor system, but they did not know they were being videotaped. All of them said that failing to flip the coin or give the wrong conclusion would be wrong, but ninety percent did not flip the coin and wrote the outcome they wanted or they continually flipped the coin until they got the outcome the desired result.
We say what is right, but quite frankly none of us always do what is right. We might have a good reason or a valid excuse. That plaintiff might just be all those horrible things that the defendant reported in her answer to the complaint. That doesn't change the verdict. Justice means making things right, although we tend to have a skewed understanding of what is right and wrong. It is skewed toward what is right for us rather than what is right according to God's Word.
The man in today's Gospel lesson did what was right according to the Law. He observed all the commandments perfectly from when he was just a boy. Yet Jesus said, "One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me." The man was devastated; Jesus' words were the last thing he wanted to hear. He grew up in a world where righteousness meant following the Law and if you did that well, you would be blessed. Jesus told him that he had to give up his whole life. Which of us would respond any differently? Following Jesus means giving up everything; are you willing to pay so high a price?
The text from Amos shows us how life is made more difficult by those who do not do what is good and right with their resources. It tells us what happens when we put our own agendas or hearts ahead of God. We are to seek God first, to seek goodness so that we'll experience life, not death. God does not call all wealthy people to become paupers; He calls us to do what is good and right with our wealth. Unfortunately, those to whom Amos was talking were not seeking God or goodness. They turned justice to wormwood and cast righteousness to the earth. They trampled the poor in their work and in their pursuit for self-interest and pleasure. They took bribes rather than judged rightly and ignored the needs of their neighbors.
The writer of Hebrews takes us back to the days when Israel was escaping Egypt. He quotes Psalm 95 which reminds God's people of their rebellion in the desert against God. They were the chosen people, saved from slavery and promised a land that would flow with milk and honey. While Moses was on the mountain receiving God's Word for His people, they turned for that God and made an idol to worship. They quickly turned from the life God intended for them to a life of revelry, drunkenness and debauchery. Even while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments, they were disobeying all of them. They turned from God and because they did so, God turned from them. He caused them to wander the desert until the last one died because God refused to given them the rest He promised. They were tested in the wilderness and failed; their hearts were hardened. The promise would go to the next generation.
That generation may have kept their hearts and minds on the God who brought them out of Egypt, but it didn't take long for Israel to fail again. Over and over throughout their history, Israel turned to their neighbors for protection and the gods of their neighbors for provision. They sought an earthly king even though they had the King of kings as their leader. Their hearts went astray over and over again. Our hearts go astray, too. We learn from Amos that we will find our blessings in obedience. We will experience His grace as we follow Him; but if we turn away from Him, we will never find rest.
The psalmist writes, "So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom." Verse 11 of the psalm says, "Who knoweth the power of thine anger, And thy wrath according to the fear that is due unto thee?" We cannot possibly measure God's anger; if we did so we would be so terrified that we would not find rest. Yes, God's wrath is very real, necessary and frightening. God demands obedience and when we fail, He demands justice. Unfortunately, none of us are able to pay the debt of our failure. We deserve whatever He can give us. We don't deserve what we have received.
H. Richard Niebuhr said, "A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." This is a reminder the God that everyone would prefer cannot be the God we need. We would much rather ignore the God of the Old Testament and embrace the God that loves unconditionally. We want a God that has no expectations; we want a God that does not demand obedience. We want the warm fuzzies without the reality of our sin. The truth is, we could never have the warm fuzzies unless God got so angry at our sin that He decided to do what was necessary to make restore us to His Kingdom: kill His own Son.
Shocking to hear it put so bluntly, isn't it? The cross is God's wrath fully revealed for our sake. We are sinners in need of a Savior. And yet it is so easy to think of ourselves as good. I am a pretty good person. I haven't kept the commandments perfectly, but I've done fairly well in my nearly fifty-two years of life. I respond to the needs of my neighbors with my resources as I am able. I try to do what is right and to honor God with my life. And yet I fail. I try to seek God but sometimes the call of the world is much too loud. It is easy to justify some actions because they seem like the right thing to do at the time. It is easy to make excuses when I fail because it all seems like much, too much.
We aren't much different than the rich young ruler. We want to know what we have to do to earn the kingdom of heaven. We respond to Jesus' answer in the passage with a sigh of relief. It should be easy for us to earn heaven because we are generally good people. Murder, theft, adultery don't tend to be part of our daily lifestyle. We even try to bring our good life before the Good Teacher with humbleness and respect. "I have observed all these things." Jesus looks upon us with love.
Yet, in love He responds with a greater expectation. "One thing you lack," He continues. Even though we do everything right and are even quite generous with our resources, we still have something in our life that is more important. We aren't willing to give it all up for God. We aren't willing to let go of our old life and follow Christ without burdens and baggage. For this rich young ruler, the burden was wealth. He became quite sad when Jesus told him that he had to sell everything, give it to the poor and then follow. He walked away because Jesus expected too much.
When Jesus says, "one thing you lack" we are brought face to face with the truth that we too have our failings that separate us from God. Even the most pious or righteous person can't reach God's expectations. That's why we need Him. I wonder if the response would have been different if Jesus had said, "Give half your stuff to the poor." The man would then have still had enough to survive in the world without relying on the charity of others. He would have had a place to hang his hat. He would have had finances to support the ministry he may have been willing to do. Jesus said, "Get rid of it all." The young man wanted to know what he had to do to earn what God was giving for free, so Jesus made the payment beyond the young man's ability to pay.
What Jesus was trying to get across to the young man and those who overheard the conversation is that it is not about what we can do to earn our place in the kingdom, but rather what God can do and what God has done. Amos calls the people to live in a relationship with God. He shows them their faults and their frailties. He points out their injustices. Most of all, he shows them that they are no longer in a relationship with their Creator. They have turned away from Him. He was calling them to live a life of justice and peace, but that life was too hard. They focused on their wealth, and the keeping of their wealth. Amos told them to seek something better: the Lord. It might seem like a burden to turn around and follow, but it is there that the true blessing is found. It is there we will find rest.
We can't do this alone. We are all so easily tempted by the world. The excuses are right on the tips of our tongues. What harm is there in taking the reward when the boring work is probably pointless? Who is really harmed when I keep that nickel the cashier accidentally gave me in my change? The plaintiff doesn't really deserve to win her case because she really is a terrible person. The truth is we really do harm our neighbor when we do not live according to God's Word.
So, we need to help each other do so. The writer of Hebrews says, "Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called To-day; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: for we are become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end: while it is said, To-day if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation." It took just one voiced doubt in the desert to turn the entire nation of Israel against God. It takes just one moment of disobedience to set us on a wrong path. We need to encourage one another to be obedient so that we will all be blessed with the promise.
"And Jesus looking upon him loved him." He looks upon us and loves us. We fail, but He does not. He took upon His own shoulders the wrath we deserved. We get the warm fuzzies, the Kingdom of God and the Promised Land of eternal life because He died on the cross in our place. His expectations for us is greater than we will ever be able to pay, but that's the point. We can't but He did. Our response to that grace is simply to do the best that we can, to put aside everything to keep our eyes on God and to follow Him wherever He might lead. It is much easier to bear the burden of obedience when we can see Him helping us do so. It also helps to know that we are in this together, helping one another keep our eyes on Him.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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