Theme(s): Wealth as a hindrance / Following Jesus unreservedly / Seeking justice / The sharp two edged sword of God.
Sentence: Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (Psalm 90:14).
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
We read this diatribe against those who through injustice become wealthy with half an eye on the gospel. There is a hint there, but no more than a hint, that the wealthy man may have gotten his possessions by unjust means. Either way, it is always good to be reminded, including in our world of 'inequality,' that God's will is for justice and not for injustice. For people to be treated fairly, for bribes to be refused (12) and for active 'establishment' of 'justice at the gate' (15).
Wealth -looking ahead to the gospel reading - appears to satisfy but ultimately does not. True satisfaction comes from knowing God, from realising that God loves us with a 'steadfast love' (14).
The letter to Hebrews, as we opened up last week, is generally a call to Jewish Christians tempted to stray backwards from Christianity to Judaism to reconsider in the light of the arguments put forward by the writer, particularly that Jesus is superior in everyway to all competitors. Last week, superior to the angels, this week to the high priests (14-16) - although this theme will be developed in much greater detail in succeeding chapters. Between last week's reading and this, the writer has discussed Jesus in comparison to Moses (and, slightly, to Joshua, 4:8). In that discussion the theme of 'rest' was opened up. Under Moses, the people of Israel wandering in the desert had, because of grumbling, failed to enter into their 'rest', that is into the Promised Land.
In such a context, ending in 4:11 with 'Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs', we try to make sense of what seems like a change of topic, verses 12-13 on the 'word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.' At the very least the introduction of this topic as a kind of aside relates to what has gone before because it reminds readers whose disobedience may be private (compared with the public grumbling of Israel) that God is able to judge even 'the thoughts and intentions of the heart' (12). The judgment is via the 'word of God' meaning that what distinguishes good from bad, obedience from disobedience, wisdom from foolishness is not arbitrarily determined but rests on the word of God, the word revealed to Moses, revealed through Jesus as 'his powerful word' (1:3).
The theme of high priest has already been introduced in 2:17, in relation to offering 'a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of people.' In our passage this high priest is our example and inspiration. 'Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession' (14). That is, let us not go backwards under pressure of internal false teaching or external persecution.
Our strength to be faithful, to hold fast includes that fact that we have a high priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, tested in all respects, yet not failing by falling into sin (15). From such a priest we can receive help. Verse 16 is then one of the great promises of Scripture.
There is no comparison explicitly with the high priests of Israel but implicitly comparison is entering into the writer's presentation of Jesus: no other high priest ever offered what offers. Thus we head on into chapter 5 with further talk of high priests.
Following on from the children coming to Jesus and Jesus saying the kingdom needs to be received as a child would do, we have an 'adult' encounter between Jesus and 'a man' (17). Clearly a sincere and committed man, he 'runs up' to Jesus and 'kneels' before him, addressing him as 'Good Teacher' and asking the adult question, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?' (17) This is, in fact, the question of all religious people willing to live according to God's will.
Jesus' response is not what ours may have been.We might well start in with the list of commendments (19). Jesus begins by turning the address of the man towards consideration of God: 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone' (18). On the one hand Jesus is directing the man towards God who alone can answer such a question, thus bringing into play the commandments which God has given. On the other hand, there is some irony in the response. Later, the church, understanding Jesus to be identified with God, will puzzle over this response: it sounds as though Jesus is denying that he, as the Son of God, is indeed 'good.'
Intriguingly, Jesus lists the 'social' commandments, the ones which impact on our relationships with others in society, rather than the first commandments which focus on our commitment to God. Also, the list is a slight variation on our usual 'Ten Commandments'. Instead of the 10th commandment not to covet, there is a commandment not to defraud. Was Jesus testing the man, who later in the story turns out to be wealthy. Wealthy people have no reason to covet but they may have achieved their wealth by fraud. So, Exodus 20:17 is replaced by Leviticus 19:13. Is Jesus implying that the man has wealth because he has defrauded fellow Israelites (Ched Myers, Say To This Mountain, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996, 125)? If so, then is Jesus shortly asking of him an act of reparation? (21)
The man is calm in his response. He has kept these commandments since his youth (20). Something about the man - presumably his sincerity and perhaps his humility - draws affection from Jesus: 'Jesus, looking at him, loved him' (21). But what he then says shocked the man. Jesus' spiritual diagnosis means he does not say 'Come on in' or 'You've passed.' Jesus (we imagine) looks the man in the eye and says 'You lack one thing.' At this point the man does not lack earnestness or sincerity. nor does he lack insight because he has, after all, come to Jesus. What he appears to lack is ridding himself of the one thing that is preventing him from following Jesus. 'Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me' (21).
This is too much. He cannot do it. He is shocked. He walks away. Grieving, 'for he had many possessions' (22). There will be a challenge for many hearers today: many of us are fabulously wealthy by global standards. Wealthy to the point where we have possessions we do not think impinge on our ability to obey God's commandments. We may not even think of these possessions as hindering our following Jesus. But, if it came to the crunch - here is a testing question for all - could we sell our possessions and give the money away to the poor? If we cannot answer that question, is there something we need to work on?
Incidentally is it an adult trait to cling to possessions and be unable to give them up? Is the child-like embrace of the kingdom of God (10:13-16) in part an easy attitude to owning things and to giving them away? (On reflection: better would be to acknowledge that in a world of modern possessions, a child might be as possessive as an adult (cf. those occasions when a child refuses to share precious toys with another child) but in the ancient world, children likely had no possessions.)
If the question is difficult to answer, we are in good company because the disciples themselves were 'perplexed' by what Jesus had to say (23-24). Jesus repeats himself, 'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God' (23, 24). To rub the point in he uses an extravagant metaphor. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (25). Their perplexity continues: 'Then who can be saved' (26). Presumably they too have a few possessions, perhaps back in Capernaum where their boats were being leased by others and their families remained in their houses.
What then does Jesus mean in verse 27, that this is a situation which is impossible for mortals but not for God? At the least, and in keeping with other things said about salvation: it is God's work which saves us and not our work. It is impossible for ourselves but possible for God. But the question arises why God didn't make 'salvation' possible for the man who walked away. Again, we could surmise that many are called but few are chosen, and the wealthy man is not one of the chosen. But we could also surmise that, while salvation is God's gift to offer and to make possible for us, we have power to resist the work. The man came awfully close to salvation. Jesus 'loved him' and reached out to him. But a greater love compelled the man, love of his possessions.
Verses 28-31 then become a reassurance, both for Peter and the disciples, and for later readers. Effectively his question in 28 is, 'Is it worthwhile giving up everything to follow you, Lord?' Jesus says it is worthwhile when it is done 'for my sake and for the sake of the good news' (29). But the rewards are not - despite initial appearances - about repayment in this life. Mention of 'persecutions' and of 'in the age to come eternal life' mean that the repayments are kingdom repayments. For example those who have left family will have a new and much larger family. Those who have left houses behind will always have a welcome in the houses of kingdom members.
Verse 31, familiar from other parts of the gospels, reminds us all that the kingdom's values are 'upside-down' relative to the world's values.