The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

Victory Out of Tragedy

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Nine Christians and their rampaging executioner lived their last day on earth yesterday. Growing reports of the terror-inflicting mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon seeped into news broadcasts leaving readers and listeners dry-mouthed and uncomprehending. Why do people do these things? When eyewitness accounts described the shooter’s demands to know who were Christians and had them rise to meet his deadly aim, we began to understand his motive, but we could not comprehend his inhumanity. Wrong! Everything in us cries, ‘What he did is wrong!’ At times like this we all know without a shadow of a doubt that there is a moral standard to life. Right and wrong exist. Wrong brings death and horror and pain. Today we feel it and it weighs heavily on our hearts.

But yesterday’s tragedy is not the climax of the story. Those nine brave and true individuals who rose in integrity to stand for the truth of the One who died for them are not victims of tragedy alone. They are victors over the spirit of this world’s sullen attempts to snuff out their light.

“You are the light of the world,” explains Jesus to His followers. It implies the existence of darkness. Jesus well knew the dark influences that would demand the ransom of His own life in exchange for the lives of many. But darkness can’t hold a candle to real light—the brilliant, God-exuding light of truth and goodness and love. “Let your light shine before men,” adds Jesus, “that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

I suggest we view the nine victims as victors for good reason. These nine individuals stood up to a horrific threat, well aware of the consequences of their stand, and accepted the results of identifying with Jesus Christ, even though it meant sure death. Their stand shines a bright light on what it means to be created in the image of God. Their stand, we might even suggest, saved the lives of those who lay on the ground, diverting the gunmen’s bullets from others to themselves. Their choice to stand as followers of Christ in the face of death helps us consider the source of their strength and courage. Christ is that strength.

So terror and death exist, but that is not the end of the story. Christ’s strength makes it only the beginning. The gunman was right about one thing. His victims would not be annihilated by his hateful act but rather meet their Maker in glorious welcome. We sorrow in the loss of their earthly presence, but the great tragedy is the gunman’s own submission to evil and self-destruction. He became the worst victim in the tragedy.

What is the take-home message of this event that tears at the moral fabric of our society? I suggest that each of us ought to think long and hard about what we would have done in a similar situation. Would we have taken a stand for the One who stands forever at the side of those who love Him? If our answer is, “I’m not sure” or even “No”, we are invited by God, the loving Father of every human being, to come to Him in humble prayer. We have the opportunity to turn more fully to His compassion and faithfulness, to ask for His strength and courage to follow Him, and to grow spiritual muscles that will help us to stand for Him in whatever comes our way.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” invites Jesus, “and I will give you rest.”