Tuesday with Michael Spencer
Jesus Makes Things Complicated for Us
Jesus makes things very complicated for American Christians. If you simply follow him around in the Gospels, you are going to get into trouble. Why? Because he isn’t just talking evangelism. He’s talking about a whole life of Kingdom-dominated, life-transforming discipleship.
Let me use an illustration. Years ago, I found myself in a young adult men’s Sunday School class at the church I was serving. I was joining in for some fellowship with men my age, and I wasn’t teaching. The lesson that day was on Matthew 19:21-24. Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it the poor, then come follow him. The young man refuses, and Jesus says it is very difficult for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom.
There was a tangible discomfort in that room full of young doctors, lawyers, realtors and entrepreneurs. They didn’t consider themselves “rich” by American standards (which is absurd,) but the text hit close enough to home that the discussion quickly took the tract of “Well….of course, he didn’t mean that we should actually do that. Right?”
I don’t want to critique those guys. I just want to note that when the Jesus of the early chapters of the Gospels gets loose at the party, things don’t head directly to the subject of church growth or the latest evangelism tract. He gets inside ylur suit, and he irritates you. He wants things to change, and it makes us nervous.
You see, Jesus is proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15), and at the heart of it are two things that are fairly challenging to all of us in the materialistic, prosperous west.
1) The announcement that a climactic time has arrived, and the present age has come to it’s fulfillment point. In other words, a new world, a new creation, is arriving with Jesus. Something happens. “Personal Savior?” I don’t think so.
2) The call is not simply to believe some short form outline of “How to get saved,” but to repent and believe the good news. There is a reorienting/rebirthing of life at fundamental levels. Big questions get asked and answered: What is your God like? Who is your neighbor? How does the Kingdom look when you live in it? Will you follow Jesus to the cross?
These concerns are present in the epistles, but the Gospels go far beyond the epistles in putting the Kingdom in front of us, because everything Jesus says and does is dominated by this Kingdom he is announcing…..and his actions and words make it very clear what kinds of changes must take place. The disciples are blown away by it all, and that’s our cue to get our helmets on as well.
So when you read the Gospels, Jesus is including the excluded, healing the hopeless, remaking Israel, reaching out to the pagan, overturning the religious professionals, redefining all the predictable terms, shocking those who know all the answers and, in general, making it unmistakably clear that the Kingdom isn’t just about forgiveness and “heaven,” but about the life we are living- and will live- in the Kingdom here, now and in the future.
Most of our study of the early chapters of the Gospels ignore what Jesus is doing, and leave the impression that Jesus wandered around Galilee proving that he was the Son of God, so that when he died we would get the whole, “God’s Son died for your sins” thing. We don’t seem to get the purpose of all of this. It’s not the warm-up act for the cross: it’s the Kingdom. It’s what Jesus came to bring, and to give to us. It’s a Kingdom with a crucified and risen Messiah, but it’s always a Kingdom where believing and belonging mean revolution.
In fact, Jesus is teaching, eating, doing miracles, staging prophetic announcements and performances, shocking the authorities, teaching on a reborn/remixed Israel, training disciples, telling stories and all the rest for the express purpose of saying that if God is here now, and his Kingdom is present now, then YOUR life is going to be deeply transformed. God himself is going to give your life an entirely different definition and direction.
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Photo by Alex Hognon at Flickr. Creative Commons License
27 thoughts on “Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Jesus Makes Things Complicated for Us”
I’ve also imagined that later the rich man had a change of heart. That Jesus planted a seed that day and it slowly grew and he became a disciple. I hope thats what happened. After all God is known for his slow and thoughtful work.
Wasn’t thinking of money, really, but social capital
So far, Trickle-Down has just resulted in dragons sitting on their hoards, competing for who has the biggest hoard.
“Will you follow Jesus to the cross?”
well, that question takes us out of our comfort zones, yes, in the same way that a Christian martyr from the Lutheran tradition speaks to us about the meaning of the Incarnation of Christ, this:
Bonhoeffer on the Incarnation:
“” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The Incarnate Lord makes His followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all on earth that bear the name of human. The form of Christ Incarnate makes the Church into the body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity falls upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne. The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed: in other words, they must be conformed to his death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4). The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.”
In biblical and Church history, poor saints outnumber rich ones by a considerably high margin.
well, Charlie, sometimes the Holy Gospels apply to our present time with all of its storms and suffering, so the message of the Gospels is not kept neatly on a shelf to be taken down and read and then replaced . . . sometimes the Holy Gospels can even help us to consider the plight of those seeking asylum in our land from persecution
There are no problems in our world for which the Holy Gospels do not have a response . . . . they are meaningful for all time in a transcendent way
“”Love not just those of your own tribe, your own class, family or people,
but those who are different,
those who are strangers,
who are strange to your ways,
who come from different cultural
and religious traditions,
who seem odd,
those you do not understand.
Love as the Samaritan loved the man he found beaten up by robbers,
somewhere on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.”
(Jean Vanier, ‘The Body Broken’)
…I can have faith and have money…
But what if the Jesus is really saying you have to choose?
With regard to the Jesus of the gospels making us uncomfortable, I think that there may be a desire to be able to choose our sacrifices and make sure they fit into our lifestyle, i.e. accessorize our ‘stigmata.’ If we follow Jesus, it’s likely we won’t be able to choose the scars we incur, and very probably they won’t work well with our current wardrobe.
I’m sorely lacking in Scripture memorization. I’m often, however, aware of things Scripture has spoken about.
So you just google it and VOILA, you can find the reference.
we have chosen to recently greatly enrich the top one-percent of our people and also our corporations, which I suppose was done by them what said the monies would ‘trickle down’, an old theory much tested but not proved (proven?)
that together with all of our floods and tornadoes and hurricanes and fires (courtesy of ‘climate change’ that is non-existant) has left the country reeling and in need of something called ‘federal help’ . . . . which we saw in full display being delivered to Puerto Rico after Maria destroyed its infra-structure.
so there is not ‘enough’ left of a tent to stretch over ourselves much less anyone coming to us for asylum?
Is this the case to be made? In practical terms?
The concept of the common good is to be defined only in terms of wealth? I’m okay with it being defined in terms of ‘wealth’, but I am not able myself to ONLY define it in those terms, no.
Seems a great battle has formed between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our own country, and the strangest thing is that so many of the ‘have nots’ are devoted to leadership that likely will not make changes to benefit these souls or their communities . . . if you are into ‘sociology’, take a look at ‘What is the Matter With Kansas?’ and it is one example of voters working against their own interests . . .
Seems to me, when people thing only of ‘wealth’ and serve only ‘wealth’ that everyone loses in the end ….. like pandering to the fossil fuel industries by denying climate change. I suppose if I were to raise any more argument limited to ‘political and sociological’ areas, I could say that in doing so, we may be building on sand . . . . don’t forget that a lot of fundamentalist-evangelical religious leaders and very anti-science, so the ‘wedding’ of evangelicals with the Republican Party has not exactly yielded the benefits of scientific wisdom in some major decisions, and when the dam breaks so to speak, all downstream perish, both the rich and the poor, the greedy and the helpless . . . .
My argument would be that if we remove a sense of ‘responsibility’ and ‘stewardship’ from any equation involving ‘the tent’ and who gets to come under it,
something is lost to us that helps keep perspective and balance . . . . there must ALWAYS be a humane and moral factor in the equation, unless we want to foster the ‘survival of the fittest’. If so, the concept of ‘the common good’ as it is defined in my Catholic faith will not be in evidence in such a fractured world. There are reasons that ‘moral conscience’ and ‘character’ are necessary for a nation’s survival. Haven’t we learned this lesson yet?
Rick Ro. I like your perspective on this, well stated, thanks.
Not that anyone cares about MY take on this scripture, but here it is…
When did Jesus ever demand “perfection” or “holiness” BEFORE a person could follow him? Never. Jesus is just applying here what he teaches elsewhere, basically, “You will be judged by how you judge others.”
Thus, I see his “sell everything” command as a judgment upon the rich young man who has made “holiness” all about THINGS. There’s the banter about “what good thing must I do,” Jesus plays along by telling him the things he must do, the guy responds that he HAS done those things, and then…BOOM…Jesus says, “Okay, you keep looking toward THINGS you must do, so here’s the one you’ll be judged on: sell your stuff.”
I truly, honestly believe that if this man had grimaced and said, “I’m not sure I can do that, but can I still follow you?” Jesus would’ve said, “Ah…there’s the beginning of wisdom. Come along!”
I still hold out hope that the rich young man had an “A-ha” moment later and realized all he had to do was begin to accept that Jesus came in part to make eternal life NOT about the things we think we need to do to attain it.
So are we only to take the Bible “literally” when it says something that we agree with? I always read the passage to mean be careful what you value and why. The great appeal, the great root of the tree, the foundation of Christianity is that it was for all. As my Grandmother use to say , God loves poor people , that is why he made so many. Christianity was a religion from the bottom up not the traditional top down.
It is what we now call demographics, which allows change as society , culture and politics change and applies to religion as well. The Greeks influenced the world in mighty ways except their religion did not gain fertile ground even in their time as it was modified for local consumers . The early Christians , for the most part , had nothing to lose except their lives. They were true believers.
We are know the description “Christian” was not a compliment but a slur, a description of a people so demented they believed in a higher power, of God, who allowed himself to be killed. They practiced what they preached until they had real earthly possessions , than they took a less literal viewpoint.
Actually, I think most people of Christian faith have done a good job of balancing their faith with real world living. Christianity has changed the world for the better even with the aid of the rich man. We all know Money is not the root of all evil, it is the love of money that is the root of all evil, as Mrs. Bullard , noted Christian scholar and fifth grade Sunday School teacher taught us. We all sure would have loved to have some money to buy a Nehi soda and a moon pie.
Usually, the people who say money does not matter are people with money. Usually people who believe money is evil is people with no money. Money in the this world gives one freedom and options that those without money do not have. Faith gives you freedom and assurance that the things in this world are secondary to trusting Jesus as your savior and all are welcome, based on accepting Christ , not now much, now little or what your works are. As the song goes, money can’t buy me love or salvation nor can poverty . Again “poor” is a relative term in today’s world for sure. I sure do thank God I was born in the USA, I can have faith and have money whereas due to their system I would only have one choice.
The only take I have seen on the story of the rich young man that makes full sense of it is that of George MacDonald: Jesus is pleased with the man and offering him a reward. He is being called to be an apostle and follow Jesus on the road with Peter and James and John etc but he turns Jesus down because he can’t conceive of dispensing with his property and doing so.
George MacDonald points out that what was being offered to the young man was not a burden but a privilege, and if we are not called to sell all we have and join Jesus in the road as an apostle it’s because we are not worthy of such an honour. We needn’t be afraid if losing all our stuff because God doesn’t consider us worthy to be asked to.
> support those whom society has left behind:
How? Who are those people? There are so many different categories if need! How and who prioritizes them? Ah, now we are talking politics.
From Scripture comes wisdom Ken.
BTW, those two verses are sometimes called the “middle-class prayer.”
Talking about Money is talking about Politics.
Any separation is an illusion.
Politics is how human society manages Power.
Money is an instrumentation of Power.
Yep, Money = Econoncis = Politics. And soooo many pastors like to pretend to be a apolitical, when their just cowards.
I would argue that Jesus is telling us that we are to support those whom society has left behind: the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless. Just look at the parable of the sheep and the goats. I would argue that many Christians are more like the rich ruler who wanted to “earn” eternal life on our terms.
The idea of the “commonwealth” is getting frayed these days, because the tent is being stretched over people with whom we have less and less in common. Please think about this before going all antifa on me.
I’m speaking politically and sociologically, not theologically. The USA is not the “Kingdom of God” or an episode of Barney the Dinosaur. You want a robust public sector? Work on the “common” and we can start to build the “wealth”.
I thought this post was about Jesus and bringing the kingdom here, transforming people, renewing, changing the religious perspective to God’s perspective. Commentary on evangelicals, etc…
Why does it have to turn to politics all the time?
So glad I’m going to be out of internet range for a couple of weeks…won’t have to read the tiresome political rhetoric when we’re (supposedly) talking about Jesus and his words? His life?
Wonder what Jesus would say?
Hmmmm, maybe some deflection?
Oh perhaps I missed the point of the post?
Americans do seem to have the same viewpoint as Jesus’ disciples, incredulity at the idea that wealth and personal success in life are NOT a sign of God’s favor or preference. Who then can be saved? You don’t have to be a proponent of the Prosperity Gospel to think that billionaires are in touch with reality in a way that all the other regular folks are not. I mean let’s face it, isn’t this really why Trump got elected? The perception that financial success is a form of validation?
But hey while I’m no billionaire I do enjoy my own privileges. But what if Jesus really meant his words to be taken literally? Uh oh.
is possible Americans have no idea that Social Security and laws protecting insurance status for pre-existing conditions (the Affordable Care Act), and Medicare, and Medicaid are all ‘social’ programs, intended for the benefit of the common good . . . .
so are laws that guard the health of our medicine quality and the restrictions on polution of our water supplies and the Great Aquifer under the midwest, and provide licensing for professional care-givers . . . . all intended for keeping scam artists out of areas where people rely on integrity, professionalism, and accountability of services provided to the public
as for them what wants all these laws removed, and all the social programs ‘privatized’? those vultures will ALWAYS be there . . . . waiting . . . . . and the public must be vigilant against them
In the readings for this last Sunday at my Lutheran Church, we including Acts 4:32-37.
What would American Christians think if they were asked if they would follow the example in Acts 4:32? They would scream that this is socialism or communism.
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
Many Christians state they are “stewards of what God has given them” but they act more like owners.
Okay, you can recite your Bible word-for-word.
What else can you do?
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.
Wealth can certainly be problematic