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Are We Meant to Take This Seriously?

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

I was speaking with a small group of friends about this parable and the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. The room quickly gave their stock interpretations:

“it’s about not having idols; it’s about loving God above all our possessions…”

“If the first Christians met in house churches, then obviously we aren’t really supposed to sell everything.”

“We are meant to be taking this as saying nothing is impossible with God; even the rich can enter heaven, even the camel can go through the eye of the needle.”

That’s when I interjected to ask, “But what if we’re actually meant to sell all our possessions?” The words stung as they fell upon the room, and they affected us all with a tacit discomfort. I instantly felt like a hypocrite. If I thought we were meant to sell our possessions, why hadn’t I done it? One of my friends asked exactly that… and I didn’t have an answer. So, like the rich young ruler, I went away sad because I had great wealth (Mt 19:22).

Well, I still haven’t sold all of my possessions. I’ve seriously considered it a couple times, but then my wife and I talk about practicality and timing and we return to our lives as before – complete with the subtle discomfort that we might be doing it all wrong. We live in a tense middle-state; it would be much easier to take these “sell all” passages as pure metaphor. Then we could be assured of our current mode of life. And then I wouldn’t feel like such a hypocrite. But something in me stops me from doing that. And the disparity between that call and my own actions can be difficult to live in.

Jesus’ sermons don’t back off a point in order to make something easier to swallow. He literally commands us to BE PERFECT (which, by the way, doesn’t always work well as coaching advice). And then he doesn’t say anything like, “By this I mean, do the best you can, sport.” The text literally just says “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Churches and denominations love to add layers of interpretation to make this more palatable because… Jesus couldn’t actually be commanding us to be perfect, could he? But here I am again, entertaining the radical notion that Jesus meant what he said. And here I am again, struck by my own shortcoming.

We serve Jesus Christ… we are trying to imitate the most perfect human of all time. So of course, we fail constantly. There will always be a difference between us and Christ, the Son of God. And if we preach Christ, then there will always be a disparity between what we say we should do and what we do. Paul knew this very well when he wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom 7:19). And this is a necessary extension of the Christian walk. If we only preached our own actions or our own lives, we would be preaching ourselves, not Jesus.

An atheist once told me that he doesn’t go to church because all Christians are hypocrites. I didn’t know what to say at the time. But looking back, I can see why he would think that. In some ways, attempting to follow a perfect savior as a broken human does make us look like hypocrites. There is almost always a difference between what we say we should do and what we actually do. If there is not, then we’re either actually perfect, in which case… wow I did not see that one coming OR (more likely) we’re not taking the calls of Jesus as seriously as we could be, as we should be. It is obviously far less comfortable to live this way – continually questioning our actions and our lives, continually being convicted of our failure.

Take heart that all of our shortcomings are forgiven. And it is because of that forgiveness, poured out on us when we were in the thick of sin, that we are called to respond by taking Christ’s teachings as seriously as possible. If we take our salvation seriously, we need to give thanks for it through taking Christ’s teachings seriously. We must continue to adjust ourselves to his image and not some lesser, handmade image that is more tolerable with our tastes and sensibilities. This means looking at all of Jesus’ commands and asking, “Are we meant to take this seriously?” – not massaging them to make them more agreeable. When we measure ourselves up against the living Son of God, of course we fall short. But we may rest in our forgiveness and strive to become more Christ-like at the same time.

 

 

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Brandon Miller

Brandon Miller is currently a student at Duke Divinity School and a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. He and his wife Meredith live in Durham, North Carolina

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