Who Then Can Be Saved?
Sermon preached by Dn. Jeff Smith on Sunday, August 27, 2023
Gospel: Matthew 19:16-26
The story we just heard invites us to examine what we value, to examine what we hold dear and to question our relationship with God. Let us open our hearts and try to understand the gospel together.
The young man eagerly approached Jesus and knelt before him with an appeal, “Good teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life,” not imagining there is no deed he can do to receive a gift. Although he follows all the commandments, although he can claim to be “good,” the young man knows that he still lacks something. Something is missing in his life. He longs for something more, for a more meaningful life beyond acquiring more things.
Jesus challenges the young man from the beginning, asking, “why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is God.” Jesus doesn’t identify with the Father at this point. Instead, he lovingly reveals the young man’s attachment to his wealth. If he wants to be perfect, Jesus instructs him to sell everything, to give to the poor and to follow him. Jesus is wholly committed to God in lowliness but notice the tension and resistance in the young man. To be a Christian is to be changed, to become not of this world. We are called to be innocent, in the world, but as sheep among wolves. This is the direction that Jesus is calling the rich young man to, when he asks him to give everything he has to the poor and to follow him. Imagine the possibilities if he had answered the call. Think of Francis of Assisi for example, who actually sold everything he had and gave it to the poor.
There is something disappointing and shallow about this young man. He was unable to probe deeply into the meaning of goodness. No abandon of the soul, no Francis of Assisi here. The man desired something but was unable to grasp it. He lacked the courage of a glorious surrender. After he slinks away in sorrow, Jesus notes, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
“Who then can be saved?” the disciples ask. Who can be saved if what we own becomes a barrier to our relationship with God?
I once read that there was a gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” named this way because it was so difficult to pass through with camels. Well, that changes the meaning of the gospel from one of impossibility and wonder to one of inconvenience. It was difficult to pass through the eye of the needle, but not impossible. That’s just wrong. I prefer the reading that emphasizes that with men alone, what Jesus is demanding is impossible. We cannot save ourselves, but with God anything can happen. With faith we can move mountains. That’s the reading.
Last week, I read a book called “Behold the Dreamers,” about a young family from Cameroon who struggle to survive in New York after the 2008 financial meltdown. The young father works as a chauffeur for a wall street trader, and although his life is difficult, it is clear that the wall street man with all the money and the power, is not happy. At least the Cameroonians have each other, their friends, and their ability to take pleasure in small things. To acquire true wealth, we are asked to notice the blessing of small things, of a breeze kissing our face on a sunny day or snuggling beside a warm fire with a good book on a rainy day, the blessings of a simple life.
Father Antony often emphasizes the need for radical transformation in order to see the world in a new way, to follow a new and surprising direction. This is difficult, perhaps even impossible, but God’s grace is boundless when we surrender to His transforming love and mercy. As Father Antony said last week, “let go, spread your wings, and learn to fly.” We can let go of whatever stands between us and God and find true wealth in lives of generosity and compassion. So, together let us lay down our burdens, receive the eucharist, the gift of thanksgiving, and embrace God’s mercy without reserve.