Sermon 15th October 2006.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:12,13 NRSV)
As he was setting out
on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me
good? No one is good but God alone. You
know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You
shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false
witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept
all these since my youth." Jesus,
looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you
own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then
come, follow me." When he heard
this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Jesus
looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those
who have wealth to enter the
The writer of Hebrews knows nothing about the right to privacy. All is laid bare before the Word of God.
I remember seeing in the dining room of a friend one of those religious plaques on which was inscribed the words:
“Christ is the head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.”
I always found this a bit creepy, God as the divine eavesdropper checking every joke and reference. What a block to decent conversation!
But the writer of Hebrews goes one better, the word of God is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Now this does sound like big brother, and not the recent rather benign version of reality TV but the more sinister version given to us by George Orwell.
Do we really believe in a God that is that intrusive?
However, if we read the text more closely we discover that this is not as sinister at it may first seem.
The text does not just refer to God but to the word of the Lord. This concept is quite different from most of our ideas about God, the one “out there” disembodied, spook like wafting about in space. You know, the general idea of God whose existence is dismissed or affirmed by the man in the street.
For the writer of the Hebrews this idea of God would be dismissed as an idol of our own making. This God of our imaginings is displaced by the word of the Lord, that word that we come here each Sunday to hear. It is this word that exposes all before it simply by stating the truth about us.
This is a common facility of all language. We may be confronted by the words of a friend that penetrate our well established pretense. We may be confronted by a novel or a play or a poem that state a truth about us. And we may be confronted by a biblical text that strikes at our life.
So we are not dealing here with a mind reader God, but with a word a logos that strips our pretense from us. It is a word that “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit”.
It is here that we must differentiate between a general belief in god common to many and the Word of the Lord that is to be found specifically in the scriptures. This is the particular God of the bible shared by Jews and Christians whose word we come here each Sunday to hear.
In the reading from the gospel we see this active word at work cutting to the centre of the matter. A man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. This is no casual inquiry as the running and the kneeling, coupled with his address to Jesus as “Good” teacher makes clear. This man is about to experience pain, he is about to be cut by the two edged sword of the Word of God.
Jesus’ response to his question is another question and a declaration: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. Jesus directs attention away from himself to God. This is not a matter between student and teacher but it is ultimate, to do with God Himself.
Then Jesus lists some of the commandments and the man responds by saying that he has kept them since his youth.
So here we have him, a man enthusiastic, sincere, pious, law keeping ready to kneel before his teacher, thirsty for the eternal life that he believes Jesus is the source.
But this word made flesh, this living word that is sharper than a two edged sword, this Jesus, sees deeper. He sees that in his heart this man does not keep the most important commandment, mysteriously missing from his list, that he should love the Lord with all his heart and all his mind. He does not do so because he loves other things.
This is the barrier that keeps him from the pearl of great price, he stores up treasure on earth and his heart is set on it. For him, God has been displaced by wealth, mammon.
When told that he should remove this barrier by giving his wealth away he was shocked and he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. He is cut.
There have been some in the history of the church who have understood this reading to mean that they should give all their goods away and become mendicants, beggars. This is the reason that members of religious orders make vows of poverty, to remove the barrier of possessions between them and eternal life.
While this produced many lives dedicated to God and preserved the Christian tradition through dark times, it was obviously not for everyone. Just imagine the chaos if we all sold our houses emptied our bank accounts only to be supported by the state!
But this does not blunt the message. The message is that wealth makes us dumb unless we, hearing the sharp word of the Lord, discipline ourselves to keep it at arms length. When I say wealth makes us dumb I mean that when our lives are focused on building our pile we are insulated from the One to whom we must give account and from the person next to us, our neighbor.
Thus when we place the gathering of wealth at the centre of our lives we are made stupid to the real things in life and we are delivered over to a living death. This is the contrast between eternal life, the life that God gives that prevails against the powers of the world and the living death that the world promises ever more insistently in our age of advertising and life style and consumerism.
This is what salvation is. To live as though we have nothing, to live in the realization that all that we have may be swept away. Damnation is to place wealth at the centre of life. We only have to read of the lives of the rich and famous to have that affirmed.
We must remember the saying: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Your heart can only be in one place. Either it is with the Lord or it is with mammon.
The very rich deserve our compassion because they are in the most spiritual danger. If the man who knelt at the feet of Jesus had little in the world he could easily decided to follow in the way. It was his wealth that impeded him. Just so with the rich in our day.
We should be amazed that so many buy lottery tickets in the hope that they may join them in their peril.
These readings follow those we read last Sunday in which we hear Jesus say:
"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the
This is not about inclusiveness or the rights of the child.
Neither is it a kind of sentimentality about children. Rather it signals the
necessary condition for entry into the
They open their mouths and their parents feed them. Our relationship to the kingdom is similar. We are as fitted to the kingdom as the kingdom is to us. It is not a matter of what we deserve or how well we have done. The kingdom is our natural inheritance but only when we understand that everything else must be displaced.
After Jesus says those awful cutting words about the camel and the eye of the needle, the disciples say “Then who can be saved” For are we not all invested in the world?
Jesus answers them “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Just as it is possible for the blind to see and the deaf to
hear and the dead to be raised it is possible for the rich to enter the
This is the good news for the rich, that despite their riches, the word of the Lord has the power to humble them and teach them that they must accept life as a gift and not as their own project.
The good news for the poor is that there freedom from worldly trappings makes it easier for them to follow in the way. So both the rich and the poor are blessed. But the rich are in more danger.
So whether we are rich or poor we stand before the word of the lord and expose ourselves to its terrible edge. But be assured when we are cut, as we surely will be, the wound that results is our healing to eternal life. amen.