The Word of our Lord in the Gospel this morning follows immediately after the story of the rich young man that we heard last Sunday. That young man asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, sincerely believing that he had already been keeping the Commandments of the Law, and yet looking for something else, for whatever it was that he was still missing. It was in love that Jesus responded by exposing the man’s fatal attachment to his wealth and riches, by telling him to give it all away to those in need, and to follow after Jesus as a disciple to the Cross. Upon hearing that challenging Word, the rich young man went away deeply disappointed and sorrowful. He was, at that point at least, unable to let go of his stuff in order to lay hold of Jesus and His free Salvation.
It was then that your Lord Jesus looked around at His disciples and began to catechize them with the Word that you have heard from Him this morning. He would teach you, as well, how hard it is for those with wealth and riches to enter the Kingdom of God. But to understand what He has said to you in this case, it is necessary that you bear in mind the context and circumstances. Otherwise, it is far too easy to hear His Words as a criticism or condemnation of material wealth, or as indication that self-imposed poverty is somehow the key to entering the Kingdom of God.
As I pointed out last Sunday, your possessions are not the problem, though they may well present a challenge to your repentance, faith, and life, as they did for that rich young man. But it is neither material wealth nor poverty that is decisive in determining whether you will live with God.
The real issue that confronts you here is the question of what you cling to and depend upon. What is it that you fear, love, and trust above all things? Which is really to ask: What is your god? What is it that you worship with your heart, mind, body, and soul, with your time, treasures, and talents?
As Dr. Luther describes in his discussion of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, your god is whatever it is that you look to for life and depend upon for your happiness; and when you have it, you are content and satisfied, you feel safe and secure, but if it is threatened or taken away, then you panic and are thrown into despair, as though there were no longer any hope or happiness.
With that in mind, it is apparent that those who are poor in this body and life are no less tempted to make wealth, money, and possessions into their false god than those who are rich. The fact that you may not have it certainly does not mean that you don’t want it more than anything else in the world! The poor often spend their lives thinking that, if only they were rich, they’d be happy.
Even so, those who are poor do have an advantage in this regard, that they are less likely to fix their hopes and rely upon what they don’t have. In recognizing their poverty and need, they are more likely to repent of their sins and to look to the Lord for His forgiveness and His gift of life. That is yet another way of becoming and learning to live like a little child in the presence of God.
The especially difficult challenge for those who are rich in their worldly possessions, is that they do seem able to rely upon those material things for life and health and all manner of advantages. Their wealth and their possessions are all good gifts and blessings from the Lord their God, but it requires the humility of repentance and the clarity of faith to receive them with thanksgiving, to use them to His glory and for their neighbor’s benefit, and not to put their trust in those things.
The same thing holds true, of course, whether your “wealth” in this world happens to be money or some other gift and blessing of God. Your intelligence and education may become your idol and false god, to which you cling for security and success. Or your athletic abilities, your bodily health and strength, or your outward attractiveness, charm, and charisma. Or maybe you are more tempted to “fear, love, and trust” in your marriage and family, your husband or wife, your children and grandchildren. Or you might be prone to rely upon your track record of dedicated service to the church, as though that were your ticket to eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
Bear in mind that these examples of “wealth” are all good things, gracious gifts and blessings from the hand of God. But the problem, again, is found within the attitude of your sinful heart, when you cling to and depend upon the gifts instead of their Giver; when you worship your wealth of whatever sort it happens to be, instead of worshiping the Lord your God. That is not to be!
Sad to say, you do fix your heart, mind, and strength, your body and life, upon your possessions and your stuff, your achievements and activities, your hopes, dreams, and aspirations, instead of fixing yourself on Christ and following after Him by faith in His Cross and Resurrection. Which is why you must let go and leave behind all of those idols in order to enter the Kingdom of God.
Consequently, the more of whatever you have, the more you are called to give up and leave behind. Not that you must necessarily liquidate everything and donate it to charity, or quit your life and go into seclusion. On the contrary, it is much more to be a change of heart and attitude, whereby you live by faith in God and in self-sacrificing love for your neighbors. It is not so much your stuff that is the problem, far less the people in your life, but the idolatry of your sinful heart and flesh.
What you must give up and leave behind, therefore, are all of your attachments to everything other than God, whether people or things, whether tangible or intangible, whether it be what you have or what you really want. It is necessary that you give up and leave behind all of those attachments; that you take up the Cross and follow Jesus; and that you die to yourself and live unto God in Him.
Unfortunately, whether you have a lot or very little, in your native sinfulness you are not able to give up your false gods and leave them behind. You simply cannot do it, no more than that rich young man last week. And do not suppose for one moment that St. Peter and the other disciples gave up everything they had to follow Jesus by any reason or strength of their own! It was rather that Jesus called them to repentance and faith by His Word of the Law and the Gospel. He called them to take up the Cross and follow after Him, even to the point of persecution and death. And it was only by the power of His Word and Holy Spirit that they answered His call and followed.
It is the same for you, as well, who are called by the Gospel and enlightened by the gifts of His Word and Spirit. Otherwise, your sinful heart would go on trusting your own wisdom, reason, feelings, and opinions, relying on your money and material possessions, and prizing your family and friends above the Lord your God. Well, if you are honest with yourself, you will know better than I do what are the idols and false gods in your life. They are, again, those things which, when they are in place, then you are content and secure; but whenever they are threatened in some way, or if they are taken away from you, then you become frantic with despair and hopelessness.
To be sure, left to yourself and your own devices, all would be lost and hopeless. To save yourself is not simply difficult; it is impossible. You cannot save yourself. You cannot even come close!
Thankfully, what you could not do for yourself, the Lord your God has done for you in Christ Jesus. He has obtained salvation for you by the sacrifice of His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead. And now He saves you, by His grace, by the Word and Ministry of His Gospel.
In willing obedience to His God and Father, in perfect faith and holy love, He let go of all that was His and made Himself nothing — even to the point of His death on the Cross — not to achieve any benefit for Himself, but to atone for the sins of the world and to reconcile sinners to God.
So it is that, by the preaching of His Word, and by the gracious working of His Spirit, He calls you to receive and trust what He has accomplished for you by His Cross and Resurrection. All that He has done for you and gotten for you, He offers and gives to you here by the Ministry of His Gospel.
It is likewise by His Word and Holy Spirit — by faith in His forgiveness and the sure and certain promise of His Resurrection — that you are set free from your reliance on riches and from your worship of wealth; and you are able, then, to receive whatever God has given you in this body and life with thanksgiving, and to use it in faith and love according to His good and acceptable will.
It is likely the case that repenting of your misplaced trust in wealth and riches will sometimes mean that you must give up on certain things altogether, in order to alleviate their hold upon your heart and mind, body and soul. Various addictions can only be broken by going “cold turkey.” And it may well be that the fruits of repentance will include the surrender of things you have relied on.
Beyond all that, however, it is not so much your stuff or your habits but yourself that you must give up, and set aside, and put behind you. It is the work of the Cross, within your Holy Baptism and throughout your life, that puts you to death and buries you with Christ through daily contrition and repentance. And it is the forgiveness of His Cross that raises you up to a brand new life in Him.
By and large, repentance and faith in the true God do not require that you must give up or get rid of your possessions, far less that you must abandon your neighbors. It is rather that repentance and faith result in a brand new relationship with the people and things in your life, so that you are able to enjoy and appreciate whatever you are given with a heart that fears, loves, and trusts in God.
To say it simply, your entire life is lived under the Cross of Christ in the hope and promise of His Resurrection from the dead. Relying on His forgiveness of sins, you find true peace and Sabbath rest in the grace of His Gospel, regardless of how much or how little you may have in this world.
In actual fact, to inherit eternal life and to enter the Kingdom of God by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, is to receive one-hundredfold the gifts and blessings of God in the Body of His Son. That is true already here and now within His Church on earth, the household and family of God to which you belong by His gracious adoption, and wherein you are surrounded by numerous brothers and sisters in Christ. So shall it be, all the more so, in the Resurrection of your body to the life everlasting of your body and soul in the Kingdom of your God and Father in heaven.
Oddly enough, among the gifts and blessings that you have from the Lord, the most important — although it is the hardest of all to receive and understand — is the strange, divine, paradoxical blessing of the Cross. That includes, for example, the persecutions that Jesus says will come your way on His account and on account of the Gospel.
Such persecutions in this body and life, and the Cross of Christ that you bear, will take many and various forms — some of them subtle, and some of them quite obvious and traumatic. They may at times involve the loss of your family and friends, or the loss of your house and home, or the loss of your money and goods, as happened in the case of Job, for example, in the Old Testament.
Be that as it may, whatever the particular shape or form of the Cross in the course of your Christian faith and life, it remains the gift and blessing of the Lord your God. It is the Cross of Christ Jesus that you bear, with which He has marked you as His own by His Word and Holy Spirit in your Baptism. And as the Cross is the height of His own divine glory as your Savior, it is likewise your greatest glory as a child of God, because it is the power and wisdom of God for your salvation.
It is by the Cross of Christ that you are saved. And so it is that, when you bear that Cross, you are already sharing and participating in the eternal life and salvation which Christ has thereby obtained for you and all, which He gives to you and bestows upon you by His grace and through His Gospel.
Thus does He feed you, here and now, with His own sacrificial Body and Blood, given and poured out from His Cross into His Church, for the forgiveness of all your sins, and for life and salvation in Him. What is more, it is in and with that Holy Communion that you receive and share the fruits and benefits of His Cross, and that you are united with the entire household and family of God, which is the Bride of Christ, His Holy Church, who is your Mother in the same Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.