belief … What is the point? (RJS)

I am going to go off on something of a tangent today, away from the usual issues of science and faith – but I would like to put up an idea and start some discussion, hear what people think.

Over the years I have heard many sermons – two a week in my childhood and youth, more in college if you count chapel services. One a week in much of my adulthood… well over 2000. Favorite stories, favorite passages have been covered many times. Luke 10:25-28 is one such passage, where a lawyer comes to question Jesus:

And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” and he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

Another such passage is the rich young ruler in Luke 18

A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “…You know the commandments,…” And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

The vast majority of sermons I have heard separate these two instances – they are discussed in different series for different purposes with different applications. Jesus is telling the two men something different, meeting them where they are. In particular the main message of the Luke 18 passage is that wealth keeps the rich man from truly loving God, it becomes an idol in the place of God.

But is this true? Do these two passages teach different things? Have different applications?

It seems to me that the answer in these two passages is the same. The problem in the second passage is not that wealth kept the rich man from loving God. While that can happen, it seems here that wealth kept the rich man from truly loving his neighbor. Wealth was not an idol in place of God, but a wall between the rich man and his fellow man. We are called to give everything to follow Jesus, but the purpose isn’t vows of poverty and desert hermitages in idyllic worship. The purpose is service and love and the Kingdom of God. Every choice filtered through the two great commandments.

Mother Teresa and Love. Along the same lines, one of the chapters in the recent anthology put together by Francis Collins Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith contains excerpts from writings of Mother Teresa. Her reflections put this in perspective. We are not called to give money to the poor – we are called to love our neighbor, the poor, the lonely, the questioning, the young, the elderly … even the neighbor who seems to have it all together.

Faith is lacking because there is so much selfishness and so much gain only for self. But faith, to be true,has to be a giving love. Love and faith go together, they complete each other. (p. 259)

Some weeks back I heard there was a family who had not eaten for some days – a Hindu family – so I took some rice and went to the family. Before I knew where I was, the mother of the family had divided the rice into two and she took the other half to the next-door neighbors, who happened to be a Muslim family. Then I asked her: ” How much will all of you have to share? There are ten of you with that bit of rice.” The mother replied: “They have not eaten either.” This is greatness.

Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So spread love everywhere you go; first of all in your home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to the next-door neighbor. (p. 260)

Abandonment is an awful poverty. There are poor people everywhere, but the deepest poverty is not being loved. (p. 261)

Mother Teresa turns to 1 John 4 … Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

This is a great chapter to include in a book on the reason for faith. The reason for faith is not affirmation of supernatural creation, joining the right club, or getting our doctrine letter perfect. The ‘reason’ for faith, and the best apologetic, is the body of Christ keeping his commandment … “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34

John alludes back to this commandment, these commandments, love for God, love for neighbor, love for one another in 1 John 2:4 …8: The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. … The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now.

What this means will vary from situation to situation – as it varied from situation to situation as we see in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles. It will vary with the gifts of each individual. For some it may mean “sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor.” It certainly includes generosity with money and resource, but it is not limited to this. Plain and simple: every choice filtered through the two great commandments. In my case I think the message may have included a call to stop hoarding time, focusing this resource on a successful career. But the purpose of “freed up” time isn’t leisure or pleasure – rather community, and includes, in my case, time put into thinking through the issues of science and faith on this blog.

What do you think? What is Jesus teaching and how does that relate to the way Christians should live?

How does it color the way you think about health care or immigration or education or work or family or …?

No debates on specifics please (I’ll delete them on this post) – just how does the commandment to love one another affect your thinking?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    Makes perfect sense to me.

    I appreciate your statement that wealth can sometimes create a wall between the rich and poor. This is so true.

    I also think, as you illustrated, that genuine love is always demonstrated. It is a self-giving love; one that focuses less on self and more on the other, even the unlovable…even an enemy.

    Holy Spirit…cultivate this posture of love within us everyday and in every way.

    Great post.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Very well said, thank you for this. I like to think of it is that Jesus did not tell us what to do, he gave us a posture toward God and others. If we adopt that posture then we will figure out what to do.

  • AJ

    Thanks for the post, RJS. I agree with everything in me. Increasing love for God and others is transformation into Christ-likeness. Transformation plays out in as many unique ways as there are people. I appreciate the way J.I. Packer puts it in Rediscovering Holiness:

    “Holiness…is neither static or passive. It is a state of increasing love to God and one’s neighbor, and love is precisely a matter of doing what honors and benefits the loved one, out of a wish to raise that loved one high. Holy persons, therefore, show themselves such by praising God and helping others. They know they should, and in fact, they want to. God himself has made them want to, however self-absorbed they may have been before.”

    I also resonate with the quote from Mother Theresa from above:
    “Abandonment is an awful poverty. There are poor people everywhere, but the deepest poverty is not being loved.”

    I would add to that – people want to be known and loved anyway. So many come to God/religion with pretense and then wonder why they still feel guilty, unloved, etc. If we can strive to know and love folks for who they are, they will see the gospel lived out through us and hopefully “get” it.

  • http://jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    “the greatest poverty is not being loved…” That is a life-jarring statement and throws us back on the Jesus Creed–the Great Commandment with all that we are, have and do.

  • Paul Whiting

    Thanks for this post. I did a sermon on the rich young ruler in Luke 18 and can to the same exegetical conclusions and applications as you. It is reassuring to see I was not alone in such an understanding!

  • normbv

    Outstanding RJS.
    The difference between the two examples is that the first included loving his neighbor while the rich young ruler agreed with everything but loving his neighbor as his accomplishments. You hit the nail on the head with your analysis. If we dropped our propensity to talk mostly about theology and replaced it with the call for compassion perhaps we would be abiding in the calling of 1 Cor 13 as the greater call.

  • Linda

    The rich men in both passages thought they could do something to merit eternal life, Jesus showed them they could not because they could not actually keep the laws of God. The Lord Jesus Christ pointed their need for the mercy of God to receive eternal life.

  • Linda

    Three things I get from the rich young man passage:

    1). A person may have desires for salvation, and yet not be saved.

    2). An unconverted person is often profoundly ignorant on spiritual subjects.

    3). That one idol cherished in the heart may ruin a soul forever.

  • rjs

    Linda,

    Certainly in the conversation after this incident when asked “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.

    This is a key point on which we rest – but the application isn’t then to ignore the commandments, but rather resting in God’s grace to have as our every aim obedience to these commandments.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    In response to Norm, I don’t think we should ‘replace’ theology with compassion, as though theology is somehow less important.

    A more appropriate response would be to give theology its proper place within the grand scheme of things. That is, our theology should be viewed as something that informs and shapes our compassionate response. Our ethics must be shaped and be anchored in the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of our beliefs. If we omit theology, our compassion initiatives may be short-lived; we’ll eventually wonder why we do what we do. Theology keeps us in check and continually motivates our service.

    Blessings…

  • Linda

    RJS,

    I agree believers in Christ are not to ignore the commandments of God, but both passages are about Jesus responding to unbelievers.

    The application from the passages for Christians is to show us how to respond to unbelievers if asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. We should first point them to the law, and show them that they cannot keep them, we must show them that they can do nothing to inherit eternal life – this will show them their need for mercy in Christ.

  • normbv

    Jeff,

    The Lord knows that I’m one after understanding theology but I framed my point within the 1 Cor 13 higher directive. I esteem those who may be lesser informed on theology but highly informed on the practice of compassion and Love as perhaps following the higher calling. If I’m understanding that chapter properly

    (1Co 13:1 ESV)
    If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
    And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

  • rjs

    Linda,

    I don’t see how this second passage is about Jesus responding to an “unbeliever.” More than that, his response to the man is essentially “obey” with a specification of that obedience in concrete action.

    Jesus responds later to his disciples that God makes this possible, but that changes nothing in their response or in the expected response of the ruler. In fact the disciples note that they did respond by giving up everything and Jesus acknowledges this.

    Your application doesn’t come from this passage, but from a specific and limited reading of Romans.

  • rjs

    Put more bluntly – in this encounter I don’t think Jesus had any intention of making the point that men could not do anything to aspire to “inherit eternal life” and that in total depravity they are powerless.

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    Norm,

    I hear you. Thanks for clarifying.

    The passage you mentioned, however, doesn’t seem to be articulating a foundation for compassion initiatives (though love should be the foundation for our response), but more about the central importance of love as it seeks to inform and shape the expression of spiritual gifts. I don’t doubt for a moment that there is a link between the two, but Paul’s focus in this particular context centered on the significance of love in the operation of spiritual gifts. This made perfect sense in Corinth where gifts, particularly tongues, were viewed as the primary means to gauge and determine ones spirituality.

    Make sense?

    I appreciate your perspective.

  • Fred

    rjs, thanks for the Mother Theresa reference. I have thought in the past that a great learning experience would be to put I Corinthians 13 up along side I John 4 and have the students try to draw parallels (or differences) between the two.

    Thanks, normbw (#12) for the reminder.

  • Linda

    RJS – you wrote:

    Certainly in the conversation after this incident when asked “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.”

    To put it bluntly this surely confirms that Jesus did believe in total depravity, yet that conversation was with His disciples and not with the rich young ruler. When Jesus was responding to the rich young ruler He was using the law to show the man he did not keep the law.

    The passage has primarily evangelistic applications more than it does “caring for others” applications.

  • Linda

    Most Christians today if a seeker came to them and asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” would take them through the “Four Spiritual Laws” and them have them say the sinner’s prayer and tell them they have eternal life, is this not true?

    Notice that Jesus does not do this, should not Jesus set the example on how we respond to seekers?

  • rjs

    Linda,

    I don’t think the passage has “total depravity” implications. In fact, I think we’ve messed up by using it to show people that they can never reach God through obedience. Even the later discussion about “who then can be saved” is in a particular context where people connected wealth with blessing by God.

    But I do think you are right that Jesus was using the law to show the rich man that he wasn’t keeping the law, that he did not, in fact, love his neighbor as himself. Jesus was indicating what the law really requires.

    Now this does not mean that I would take a view that we can work ourselves into rightness with God … I don’t think we can – and this is clear in many places. But it doesn’t come from this passage.

  • http://likeachildscience.blogspot.com like a child

    Great post, RJS. I was close to buying this book about a year ago when I saw it, but I hadn’t seen much publicity about it, so I held back. Thanks for the review.

  • Linda

    I do not won’t to get off topic, but since you are speaking about love, I think many Christians do not know enough about the love of God. I recommend reading the chapter on the love of God by A.W. Tozer in his book “The Knowledge of the Holy.” You can read it on-line here:

    http://www.heavendwellers.com/hdt_chapter_20_koh.htm

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    The love the RYR had for his wealth did indeed keep him from loving God, and from loving his neighbor, as well. When it came to choosing to have eternal life with God or to keep his wealth, he walked away.

  • http://www.intothedesertblog.blogspot.com Nate

    Funny, I never even realized those two appeared in the same Gospel before. Good questions.

    They’re essentially the same message. The first is to a scribe who trying to entrap Jesus, and then argues about who his neighbor is(probably to draw a line around the Jewish people and justify ignoring people like Samaritans and Gentiles). The Good Samaritan story then follows, which I take to be a prophetic announcement of what’s about to happen to Jesus, and who will respond(non-Jews/unclean people). Both result in someone having their sinful rejection of Jesus, despite the outward look of success/purity, revealed to them. Both also are examples of his call that echoes throughout the Gospels: follow me. By calling people this way, he designs for his disciples to know and love him more. These aren’t really “get saved” passages, but through them it becomes clear that both initial salvation and all that comes after it are clearly, unmistakably rooted in Jesus himself. In this way Jesus is making himself the center of attention simultaneously while illustrating the neighborly love that will result.

    A la Bonhoeffer, the passages show us that we’re not just told a bunch of true statements and then expected to believe them, and that’s what “grace alone” means. Rather Christ calls on us to follow him through his life, watching and imitating, so that we will know what ‘believing’ really is, and thus love and relate to him more. Guess who knows what it meant for Christ to be crucified? Someone who gets crucified themselves. This is the kind of existential knowledge(John 17:3) that he’s designed for the rich man(and us)- to have his something stripped away for the sake of the good of others and glory of Christ. In doing this he will know God(inherit eternal life.)

  • Glenn

    RJS,

    Interesting post. Jesus only gave two commandments to His disciples: (1) love one another as He loves us, and (2) believe in me… The two commandments the scribe asked about are the two greatest IN THE LAW, but NOT the two greatest in Jesus’ teachings. We get that mixed up quite often and it is a bit of a stumbling point for me in that I believe it is very important to make a clear distinction between two greatest commandments in the Law and the two greatest commandments overall. It makes a real difference how you live.

    To me these passages are not about total depravity (which goes off the reservation by going too far IMHO) and not about grace either. These two passages are about relationship and expectations. Relationship with God and godly expectations of how that relationship with God depends on our relationships with others around us are the focal points of these passages. One illustrates the need to know and focus our efforts on being loving toward God and how that works hand in hand with loving one another; and the other passage looks at how we love God and one another that bleeds over into every care in life – for the RYR specifically, by challenging his attachment to money – something that was in the way of his relationship with God, and challenging his stewardship focus on hoarding versus being a channel of blessing to those in desperate need – something that kept him estranged from his poorer neighbors.

    Both of these seekers approached Jesus from a sense of entitlement – being God’s chosen people they felt meant being entitled to eternal life as their rightful inheritance from the God who had chosen them. Jesus made it clear that God expects more than that, particularly from us in their responses to His choice.

    Relationship is never about entitlements. But who in today’s world could believe that? And these were not just any two guys. They were a professional student and interpreter of the Law and a rich young man who had obviously received much in the way of material blessings from God. Focus on entitlements will always bring up questions like these. Legal loopholes and selfishness towards God and others are born of an entitlement mindset.

    Love, on the other hand, is never about “what’s in it for me?” Love is all about “what can I do for you?” Love wastes no time with personal rights and wastes no time with sob stories about how we’ve suffered so much. Love is all about doing for others and giving up rights to bless others. Relating properly to God depends on getting this mindset. Eternal life is not a negotiable item. It is the fruit of life given as Jesus gave His life.

    Blessings,

    Glenn

  • Adam

    The first thing I notice in this conversation is that people are dropping one of Jesus’ commands to the rich man. Jesus said “Come follow me.” If we ignore the specific “wealth” aspect, Jesus is saying “Leave the life you are currently living and follow me.”

    That message could apply to anyone, rich or no.

    Then if I smash that idea with the interaction in Luke 10, I think Jesus is again centering eternal life on himself. The lawyer quotes, “Love God, love others” and Jesus says this is correct. Could he be referring to himself as God by this point?

    To the rich man he gave a specific command, “to sell and follow”. But to the lawyer he was merely less specific. What specifics would people draw out the command “to love God and others”?

  • rjs

    Glenn,

    You may be right about the sense of entitlement in the question, and I like the way you bring the “follow me” back in the picture, because this is clearly part of the instruction. And an important part.

    But I think every time we cast the RYR in terms of wealth getting in the way of the relationship with God we’ve missed an important part of the point. We cannot separate relationship with others from our relationship with God. In the 1 John passage 4:19-20 We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

    One cannot be in right relationship with God without love for others. If wealth comes in the way of relationship with God it is most often because wealth comes in the way of loving relationship with other people. It seems to me that this is a key point running through the entire NT.

    It is significant that Jesus commanded the RYR to give his wealth to the poor and that he called him to follow.

  • Timothy

    I spend most of my waking moments thinking on these things, and now you have sent me back to square one. I need even more basic help.

    QUESTIONS

    1. What is “salvation”?

    2. What are we being saved from? What are we being saved to? What are we being saved for?

    3. What is “eternal life”?

    BUMBLING ANSWERS

    1. Borrowing from Mother Teresa. Salvation= loving relationship with God and others

    2. From “poverty” of not being loved to the riches of being loved for the purpose of really loving others.

    3. Any moment in which “agape” is realized.

  • Kenton

    Great post! Resonates perfectly with my soapbox!

    These 2 passages are the only places Jesus uses the phrase “eternal life” outside the gospel of John, and both times he ties “eternal life” not to “believe” (in spite of what I’ve heard for over 40 years in my evangelical world) but to “do”. That is DEEPLY profound to me. “Believe” and “do” are inseparable. To the point that now I have to ask what’s the point of “believe” if it’s not completed by “do”?

    Timothy- I love your 3 answers. No bumbling at all there.

  • Kenton

    Linda-

    Did you really say, “The passage has primarily evangelistic applications more than it does ‘caring for others’ applications”???

    Are you serious??? (“Hello! McFly!”)

  • Kathryn

    RJS,

    What a powerful application:

    “In my case I think the message may have included a call to stop hoarding time, focusing this resource on a successful career. But the purpose of “freed up” time isn’t leisure or pleasure – rather community, and includes, in my case, time put into thinking through the issues of science and faith on this blog.”

    I am a recovering time-hoarder too. It’s hard to not believe the lie that every moment must be “productive,” especially when filled with good things like ministry. Great post.


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