A certain ruler comes to Jesus. He wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. From the start of the encounter (Luke 18:18-27), Jesus is set on unsettling this ruler, unseating this powerful man. The man says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? Only God alone is good.” Jesus shows a humility that makes the man’s flattery fall flat. Jesus then reminds the man of the Ten Commandments, or another translation is Ten Holy Precepts.
Now, notice that Jesus doesn’t name all ten. Which ones does he leave out? He leaves out the Precepts that have to do with reverence for God. Hmm. The man doesn’t notice this omission. He answers right away, “O, I’ve been doing all those things all my life.” Ah. That was an awfully quick and confident reply.
So why is he coming to Jesus with this question in the first place? “Goooood teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Maybe this ruler needed a boost in his poll numbers among the Pharisees and he was just fishing for compliments from this new rabbi everyone’s raving about. “You all heard it from Jesus: I am high and holy, I’ve got eternal life in the bag . Those were his words, not mine.” Did you ever see that Onion satire about the Yogi Olympics? It was a competition of who can attain enlightenment the fastest. When the winner was announced he stood before the tens of thousands of roaring fans and shouted, “I am the serenest!” Pick your religion, pick your denomination, your time in history, whatever: spiritual pride is a real problem. And Jesus cuts through it.
From the start, Jesus sees right through this powerful man’s high and holy performance – he sees into the pride at its heart. “Well, you are missing something,” Jesus says. “Sell everything you own; redistribute the wealth to the poor.” Jesus’ words, not mine ;-). Then you will be well and wealthy in the realm of heaven. “And after that,” Jesus says, “follow me.” It’s that last part, that’s the real sticker. The man is stunned. He’s grief stricken, in fact, because he’s very rich and doesn’t want to lose all that. Jesus is laying him low. And this suggests to me that this man deep down is coming from a genuine place. If it was all and only a prideful performance he would have been angry with Jesus’ answer. Now there is pride at work here, clearly, but also something beneath it. Maybe he’s coming to Jesus with this question because he’s done all the right things, he’s successful and highly esteemed – signs of God’s blessing, right? – and yet, something isn’t sitting well in his soul, something he doesn’t want to admit. Jesus brings that unease to the surface – and he doesn’t just unsettle this man, he unseats him. Then comes the famous line about camels and needles and riches. This is supposed to be funny – usually it’s only poor folks who find the humor here. But here’s the bottomline, Jesus’ punchline to this whole episode: If we rely on ourselves, we can’t do it. But if we rely on God all things are possible.
What this man first seems to lack is humility, but deeper than that, what he lacks is love. Jesus shows that this man lacks love for God and love for his neighbors. Jesus is coy in leaving out the Holy Precepts that have to do with reverence for God. And we know elsewhere in the gospels Jesus makes it clear that the greatest commandment is love: love God and love your neighbor, with everything you’ve got. Humility is the pathway to that love. Humility: look at the image here of St. Francis – in such a moving posture of humility and open-hearted awe before God, the eternal Source and Destination of our mortal lives. Humility opens us to receiving the love from God that then allows this love to flow out from us, simple and free. When we put our love in god then god’s love lays us low, then lifts us up and moves us in love to be in the midst of all who are least and last and lost. But true humility is not hamstringing of oneself. Sometimes to be humble means accepting the mantle of leadership.
One of the things about Dr. King that people who knew him well like to tell is how he’d always be late for things because he was always getting engrossed in conversation with unimportant people. He’d always gravitate to the janitor working in the shadows or the church lady tending to some detail off stage. He’d get absorbed in their stories about their lives and their families and it’d take someone from the inner circle of the mighty Dr. King to pull him away so he could get to the packed house that was waiting for him to deliver a speech that will thunder through history. Dr. King’s whole life was dedicated to love, leadership in humble service of his people who have suffered under abuse of power and been rendered least and last and lost. He gave up the riches of a comfortable lifestyle in the academy. This life of leadership in humble service lead this Jesus follower to serve the least and last and lost among all people. The last years of his life Dr. King was dedicated to building a movement among poor folks of all races across this country.
Christianity loses its way when it gets too high and holy for the least and the last and the lost. Jesus, as we just explored, was always puncturing the pride of the high and the holy and revealing their sanctity to be just a self-serving performance that has little love at its heart, little love for God, little love for the neighbor or for the stranger. Now, we all have an image of what pride and hypocrisy looks like. But I must note: one thing that’s made me take a hard look in the mirror, is realizing that a much subtler way of being high and holy is the attitude of pity. Pity for “the least, the last, and the lost,” is not an uplifting posture. It is humiliating. It just underscores their lowliness and my own privilege. The way God’s love works is not like pity. God’s love uplifts the lowly and it humbles the haughty. For someone who has always been told how least and last and lost you are, to follow the Way of Jesus begins with allowing the Love of God to heal you, to witness you as you truly are, which means witnessing what the haters don’t witness: the fulness of your worth and dignity as a beloved child of the living God.
Now, for someone who has more to boast about, to follow the Way of Jesus begins with becoming honest before God about what is least and last and lost in oneself. We must be honest that it is not by our own power that we live and move and have our being, it is not by our own power or merit that we are saved. God’s Love humbles even Godself, so that God joins us and beholds us in all our beauty and our brokenness, in all our strength and our weakness, in all our fragility and our resiliency, all our foolishness and wisdom, all our sinfulness and saintliness, all our worth and unworthiness, all our absolute dependence on the source and destination of all life.
Thanks be to God.