Pastors have a frequent question when they begin to discover mimetic theory. “That’s great. But how does it preach?”
Reverends Tom and Laura Truby show that mimetic theory is a powerful tool that enables pastors to preach the Gospel in a way that is meaningful and refreshing to the modern world. Each Wednesday, Teaching Nonviolent Atonement will highlight Tom and Laura’s sermons as an example of preaching the Gospel through mimetic theory.
In this sermon, Tom explores the story of the young man who comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?” Tom flips the traditional understanding of this passage on its head. According to Tom, the problem with the man is that he “can’t trust that he is loved even though he is. The think he lacks is trust. He hasn’t learned to trust God and other people.” Maybe there’s a bit of that young man in all of us. What must I do to obtain eternal life? Tom’s sermon helps us to trust in God’s love for us and the world.
Year B, Pentecost 20 (Sunday between October 9 and 15 inclusive)
October 11th, 2015
By Thomas L. Truby
It’s Hard to Trust!
For the last three weeks we have been thinking about children and how open and eager they are to learn. Today’s gospel begins with a man running up to Jesus, kneeling before him and asking “Good teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?” The man approaches Jesus as a child and we think “Oh, he is on the right track.”
But then Jesus’ response confuses us. Jesus says “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God.” Why did Jesus say that? Is Jesus criticizing him for thinking Jesus is good?
Jesus sees a problem hidden in the question the man asks and immediately begins to counter it. I want to explore what Jesus saw.
The way the man phrases his question shows he divides people into two categories; good people and bad people; and good people inherit “eternal life” and bad people don’t. He assumes that Jesus, as a good person, can give him advice. Jesus doesn’t agree with the assumption the question contains.
Jesus knows that “goodness” has nothing to do with eternal life. The two are not connected. He knows the world isn’t divided between good people and bad people. That’s a myth. The world is divided between the Creator (God) and the created (the rest of us); the one God and the rest of creation. There is a division but it’s at another point than goodness and badness. Dividing humans between good ones and bad ones condemns some to worry and others to act with self-righteousness. It’s wrong-headed because God created us all and loves what he created. God insures that we have ongoing life. We can’t earn it. It’s an expression of his love for all humanity and I mean all. The question the man asks is moot.
How will Jesus work with this man who thinks he must do something to obtain “eternal life?” Jesus starts by reminding him of the commandments. Don’t commit murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, and don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.” These rules preserve peace between people and following them reduces stress and facilitates trust but they don’t impact whether or not God loves us. That’s a given.
The man’s question tells Jesus that he is inflicting unnecessary and self-imposed pain on himself. Life in the age to come is a given because God is a lover. It has nothing to do with him or anything he does or doesn’t do.
You notice I used “life in the age to come” rather than “eternal life.” I did this because the term has been misused so often that it no longer conveys the meaning Jesus intended. To escape what we bring to the term we must use phrases like “life in a web that holds you and can’t do anything but hold you from now on and forever”; or “life that is sustained by the creator who is love, our creator, who has no intention of ever letting us go.” You see, it’s not about you or me; it’s about God and what God has done. And actually this has even wider implications than these individual ones we are exploring. “Life in the age to come” is God’s counter movement to empire—a topic for another day.How do you get through to someone who thinks their soul is in danger when it’s not? And why does he think his soul is in danger? Our text says “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him.” I love that imagery! Jesus looked at him carefully and his heart was moved by compassion. Through soft eyes he sees the man is lacking something. Can you guess what it is?
To answer that question let’s see what Jesus asks him to do. He tells him “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”
Have you noticed what the man is lacking? The man can’t trust that he is loved even though he is. The thing he lacks is trust. He hasn’t learned to trust God and other people. Why can’t he trust? Maybe he doesn’t need to! He thinks he can buy everything he needs. He thinks he doesn’t need relationships that require trust as long as he has things. Maybe when he gained everything money could buy he lost his capacity to trust and became self-contained. Or maybe his awareness of himself as having much more than his neighbor caused him to be suspicious of his neighbor who he thinks will envy him and this blocks trust.
So here’s the rub. If he wants to be sure he has eternal life he has to depend on God. But being wealthy he is out of practice when it comes to depending. Plus he knows others will resent him for having more than they and this cuts him off from his neighbor, like walls we sometimes build around our homes. He asks “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” His question reveals a sadness and isolation. He is loved but can’t trust it because he thinks “on-going-ness” is a do-it-yourself project rather than a love-gift from God.
How will this man learn to trust? Jesus has a solution. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. And come follow me. In loving the poor with his money he will discover he is loved as he learns to trust God. The block to trust his suspicion of his neighbor causes him will dissolve and he will want to follow Jesus. His desire to follow Jesus will give him a sense of joy, gratitude and warm fellowship that comes from trusting. Now the man knows love is real and eternal because he has acted it out with his life and gained a sense of connection and peace.
Does he think it worth the price? Mark says he “was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.” So sad!
Jesus knew his disciples had been listening to all of this. No doubt they envied this man who looked to them to have everything they lacked. They were floored when Jesus turned to them and said “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom.” They thought wealth was proof of God’s blessing and not an impediment.
Mark writes “His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, ‘Children, (the fourth week in a row that children have been referenced.) Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom!’” That’s a flat statement said to anyone who wants to follow Jesus. It’s difficult and you have to do hard things that others don’t understand, like renounce violence in all its forms. And the more you have the harder it is. “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom?’”
When the disciples heard this “They were shocked even more and said to each other, ‘then who can be saved?’” I can understand their question. Jesus has successfully deconstructed all the ways they try to make themselves worthy of love. With a gentle eye full of compassion “Jesus looked at them carefully and said, ‘It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God!”
God has chosen to love us. His love for all of us is inescapable. Can we trust that? It’s harder for us rich people for we often forgotten how to trust and are tempted to depend on our wealth to give us a sense of worthiness. Yes, I count myself among the rich who find trust difficult. But all things are possible for God.
Could it be that learning how to trust, hard as it is, is more important than holding on to wealth? Could it be that in asking the man to give his wealth away Jesus offers him a new life of trust, gratitude, and love? Is it possible that he isn’t depriving him at all, but directing him toward a richness and peace he has never known? For God all things are possible.