A Good Man is Hard to Find

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You may be aware that this talk is called ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’.  Some of you may have thought that this would be a support group for frustrated women, or advice on dating.  Although the talk could be applied to dating, dating is not our focus.  We have pulled the title from a Flannery O’Connor short story that will shed light on a passage in Mark that Kelli and I will be sharing with you.

 

The Flannery O’Connor story starts:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy.

Grandmother: “Now look here, Bailey, see here, read this. Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

Bailey didn’t look up so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots. “The children have been to Florida before. You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change. They never have been to east Tennessee.”

The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.

“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head.

Grandmother: “Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?”

John Wesley: “I’d smack his face.”

The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself.

She sat in the middle of the back seat with John Wesley and June Star on either side of her. Bailey and the children’s mother and the baby sat in front.

The old lady settled herself comfortably. The grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.

Around about noon, they stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a stucco filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it.

They all sat down at a table next to the nickelodeon and Red Sam’s wife came and took their order. The children’s mother put a dime in the machine and played “The Tennessee Waltz,” and the grandmother said that tune always made her want to dance. She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her. He didn’t have a naturally sunny disposition like she did and trips made him nervous. The grandmother’s brown eyes were very bright. She swayed her head from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair.

Red Sam came over and sat down. (Let out a combination sigh and yodel.) “You can’t win. These days you don’t know who to trust. Ain’t that the truth?”

Grandmother: “People are certainly not nice like they used to be.”

Red Sammy: “Two fellers come in here last week, driving a Chrysler. It was an old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?”

Grandmother: “Because you’re a good man!”  

Red Sammy: “Yes’m, I suppose so.”

Grandmother: “Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that’s escaped?”

Red Sammy: “A good man is hard to find. Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more.”

The family drove off again into the hot afternoon. The grandmother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing.

Grandmother: “There was a secret:-panel in this house.” She was not telling the truth but she wished that she were. “And the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .”

John Wesley: “Hey! Let’s go see it! We’ll find it! Where do you turn off at? Hey Pop, can’t we turn off there?”

June Star: “We never have seen a house with a secret panel! Hey Pop, can’t we go see the house with the secret panel!”

Grandmother: “It’s not far from here, I know. It wouldn’t take over twenty minutes.”

The children began to yell and scream that they wanted to see the house with the secret panel. John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother’s shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do. The baby began to scream and John Wesley kicked the back of the seat so hard that his father could feel the blows in his kidney.

Bailey: “All right! Will you all just shut up for one second?”

Grandmother: “It would be very educational for them.”

Bailey: “All right, but get this: this is the only time we’re going to stop for anything like this. The one and only time.”

Grandmother: “The dirt road that you have to turn down is about a mile back. I marked it when we passed.”

They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.

Bailey: “This place had better turn up in a minute, or I’m going to turn around.”

The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.

Grandmother: “It’s not much farther.”

But just as she said this, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey’s shoulder.

The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road. Bailey remained in the driver’s seat with the cat clinging to his neck like a caterpillar.

As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car. “We’ve had an ACCIDENT!” The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey’s wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree. Then he got out of the car and started looking for the children’s mother. She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder.

The grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.

Grandmother: “I believe I have injured an organ.”

Bailey’s teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the shirt. The grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee.

In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly. The grandmother stood up and waved dramatically to attract their attention. The car continued to come on slowly. It was a big black battered hearselike automobile. There were three men in it.

It came to a stop and for some minutes, the driver looked down with a steady gaze to where they were sitting. Then he muttered something to the other two and they got out.

The driver stood by the side of the car, looking down at them. He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He was holding a gun. The other two boys also had guns.

The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was. He moved away from the car and began to come down the embankment, placing his feet carefully so that he wouldn’t slip.

Misfit: “Good afternoon. I see you all had you a little spill.”

Grandmother: “We turned over twice!”

Misfit: “Once. We seen it happen. Try their car and see will it run, Hiram.”

John Wesley: “Whatcha gonna do with that gun?”

Misfit: “Lady, would you mind calling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you all to sit down right together there where you’re at.”

The Grandmother scrambled to her feet and stood staring.

Grandmother: (Shriek!) “You’re The Misfit! I recognized you at once!”

Misfit: (Smile as if pleased with himself.) “Yes’m, but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”

Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.

Misfit: “Lady, don’t you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don’t mean. I don’t reckon he meant to talk to you thataway.”

Grandmother: “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (Remove a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.)

Misfit: (Point the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again.) “I would hate to have to.”

Grandmother: “Listen, I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!”

Misfit: “Yes mam’ finest people in the world. God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold… Ain’t a cloud in the sky. Don’t see no sun but don’t see no cloud neither.”

Grandmother: “Yes, it’s a beautiful day. Listen, you shouldn’t call yourself The Misfit because I know you’re a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell.”

Misfit: “I pre-chate that, lady. Hiram, you and Bobby Lee get the man and that little boy to step over yonder with you. The boys want to ast you something. Would you mind stepping back in them woods there with them?”

The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with them but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground. Hiram pulled Bailey up by the arm as if he were assisting an old man. John Wesley caught hold of his father’s hand and Bobby I,ee followed. They went off toward the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned.

Bailey: “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”

Grandmother: “Bailey Boy!” To the misfit: “I just know you’re a good man. You’re not a bit common!”

Misfit: “Nome, I ain’t a good man, but I ain’t the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. ‘You know,’ Daddy said, ‘it’s some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it’s others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He’s going to be into everything! I’m sorry I don’t have on a shirt before you ladies. We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we’re just making do until we can get better.”

Grandmother: “That’s perfectly all right. Maybe Bailey has an extra shirt in his suitcase.”

Misfit: “I’ll look and see terrectly.”

Grandmother: “You could be honest too if you’d only try. Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.”

Misfit: “Yestm, somebody is always after you.”

Grandmother: “Do you every pray?”

Misfit: (shakes head)  “Nome.”

There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence.

Grandmother: “Bailey Boy!”  

Misfit: “I was a gospel singer for a while. I been most everything. Been in the arm service both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet. I even seen a woman flogged.”

Grandmother: “Pray, pray, pray, pray . . .”

Misfit: “I never was a bad boy that I remember of, but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive.” ( Look up and hold her attention by a steady stare.)

Grandmother: “That’s when you should have started to pray. What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?”

Misfit: “I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain’t recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come.”

Grandmother: “Maybe they put you in by mistake.”

Misfit: “Nome, it wasn’t no mistake. They had the papers on me. It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it.”

Grandmother: “If you would pray, Jesus would help you.”

Misfit: “That’s right.”

Grandmother: (trembling) “Well then, why don’t you pray?”

Misfit: “I don’t want no hep. I’m doing all right by myself.”

Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.

Misfit: “Throw me that shirt, Bobby Lee.” (He puts shirt on and buttons the shirt.) “No, lady, I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.”

The children’s mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn’t get her breath.

Misfit: “Lady, would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?”

Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, “Jesus. Jesus,” meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.

Misfit: “Yes’m, Jesus thrown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn’t committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course, they never shown me my papers. That’s why I sign myself now. Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right. I call myself The Misfit, because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.”

There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report.

Misfit: “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”

Grandmother: “Jesus! You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady.”

There were two more pistol reports.

Grandmother: “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!”

Misfit: “Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead, and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.” (SNARL.)

Grandmother: “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.”

Misfit: “I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t. I wisht I had of been there. It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady, if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” (Face close to Grandmother.)

The grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry.

Grandmother: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Misfit: “Take her off and throw her where you thrown the others. She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life. It’s no real pleasure in life.”  

——————————

Defending her use of extreme violence, Flannery O’Connor has famously explained:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.

Flannery O’Connor believed that humanity is fallen and needs redemption. She believed in the desperate necessity of the cross.

But O’Connor understood that her audience—like the Grandmother—daily dress themselves up in jaunty hats with violets and go merrily and self-righteously along.

She understood that her audience—like the Grandmother—doggedly pursue their own whims, fancies and desires, though they lead them down a dangerous, even fatal, road.

O’Connor understood that her audience—like the Grandmother—believes themselves, and others, to be basically good.

And O’Connor understood that nothing short of a gun to the head would penetrate the thick skulls of her audience—or the Grandmother—and convince them of anything different.

Just before she dies, the Grandmother has her moment of clarity. Her moment of grace. A stripping away of her false understanding of self. She reaches out to the Misfit, identifying with him and his falleness and his pain and his suffering and his torment.

The Misfit knows he isn’t good. He had been tried and punished—though he believes unjustly. And he knows something of Jesus. A Jesus who has power over life and death. A Jesus who demands our all. A Jesus who throws everything off balance.

 

———————————–

I teach a course here at Moody called Faith and Learning. As a part of this course, we cover the various foundational beliefs that comprise a person’s worldview.  The term “worldview” is thrown around a lot in Christian circles these days. Many of us want a “Christian worldview,” and we are aware that the relativistic, postmodern worldview is on the march, replacing the scientific, modernist worldview some of us remember from the 50’s and 60’s. 

Unfortunately, though, many of us have only a vague idea of what a Christian worldview looks like or how to get one. The term “worldview” comes from the German word “Weltanschauung.”  It means a general philosophical platform on which a person stands to observe the world.  This philosophical platform includes our concept of God—called our theology. Our concept of reality—our ontology. Our concept of knowledge—our epistemology. Our concept of value—our axiology. Our concept of reason—our logic. And finally our concept of humanity—our anthropology. Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us has fundamental beliefs in each of these areas. And those fundamental beliefs govern our lives.

I work in Christian Education, and I enjoy quizzing students about their worldview. What I have found in my questioning is that the grade school and junior high children in our Christian schools, who have Christian parents and attend evangelical churches, are developing quite well in four of the six areas of worldview.  Where they fall down is in the area of values—their axiology—and in their understanding of what it is to be human—their anthropology.

In these two areas, they do not understand the teachings of Jesus.

These children grow into the young adults who are leaving our churches in record number. According to one recent study by the Southern Baptist Convention, as many as 88% of evangelical youth leave the church after high school. I believe that this is, at least in part, because they do not understand some essential truth about themselves. And when they don’t truly understand who they are, their values and their love for Christ and his church are sadly deficient. 

 

In Mark 10, verses 17 through 31, we have an account of a man who—like many of us, and many of our young people—didn’t understand the truth of his own nature.

This man—like O’Connor’s Grandmother—believed himself to be already good.

And as a result, this man—like O’Connor’s Grandmother and like many of us—could not understand what was of real value.

Jesus effectively threw his world off balance.

 

Please read with me. Mark 10:17-31.

The Rich Young Man

 17As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

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

19You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]

 20  RYR: “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

 21Jesus looked at him and loved him. JESUS: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples:  “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God!

25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

 27 Jesus looked at them. “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

 28Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”

 29“I tell you the truth. No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

 

The story is also found in Matthew where the man running to Jesus is defined as ‘young’ and in Luke where he is defined as a ‘ruler.’  We are looking here at one of the region’s rising stars. A young man who has been given much authority.

He is responsible, respected, righteous, and running. 

He comes up to Jesus with all the energy and bravado of youth.  And he has a burning question.  There is something that he wants and he wants it passionately.  This is no pharisaic cynic.  This is not a question asked to catch Jesus out.  What are his motives? If we take the question at face value, we are led to believe that he wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life.  However, if we look carefully at how the scene plays out, we see that Jesus believes him to have other motives. 

Have you ever asked a question, not because you wanted to know the answer, but because you wanted to create the opportunity to show off something about yourself?  I know that I will ask a question about whether someone has ever traveled in Europe. I am not really asking them so that I can hear of all the places that they have been.  No!  No!  I want to tell them all the places that I have been.  I want to tell them about the time that I traveled by train to Copenhagen and the train drove right onto a ferry boat.  I want to tell them how I saw the street performers on Charles’ Bridge in Prague.  If they have seen them too, all the better, but I really want a chance to show off my own achievements so they can think, “Ahhh!  What a seasoned traveler he is!”  Yes, I am that obnoxious.  And I am pretty sure I’m not alone.

So the rich young ruler comes up to Jesus perhaps so that he can show off something about himself.  And Jesus immediately draws attention to what he is doing.  When he addresses Jesus as a “good teacher,” Jesus asks him a strange question. 

Now if someone called me a good teacher, I’d thank her or ask her which of my many methods she thought was so devastatingly innovative. I would be only too pleased with the flattery to smell the rat that Jesus does.  He asks the rich young ruler why he called him ‘good’.  He knows that this rich young ruler thinks that he is good, and Jesus wants to go after that.  Jesus knows that the ruler has asked the question so that his righteous acts can be catalogued, and he can go away with an even greater status with the people and with a solid assurance of his own religious standing. 

But Jesus baits a trap. Jesus—with his divine insight—lays out all of the laws that he knows the ruler has kept.  And he allows the rich young ruler to boast in his obedience. If how we behave makes us good, the law-keeper is good. But our good deeds are without value. And Jesus loves the rich young ruler so much that he won’t allow him to inflate himself like a balloon. Jesus has a very sharp needle.

The passage says next that Jesus looked on him and loved him.  Jesus looked on him and had compassion.  Jesus looked on him and saw that he was full of vain, self-serving good deeds and he pulled out that needle.  In love, Jesus threw his world off balance.

We too often act as if love must be peaceable, permissive, painless. It must preserve the status quo at any cost. If our loved ones are happy and undisturbed, then we have loved them well … isn’t that what we think?  Sometimes, however, love must speak truth.   

So instead of empty accolades, Jesus offered discipleship, a heart to heart relationship—but at a price.

The price was everything. Jesus instructed the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him.

Gaining power and influence often brings the accumulation of wealth.  Jewish society would have thought that a wealthy person was particularly blessed by God.  Abraham’s blessings included land, wealth and descendants.  Job had everything taken away but when God restored him he had more than before.  The model that the Jewish young man would have followed would have counted the riches he accumulated as a blessing, but Jesus—to the astonishment of all, especially the rich, young ruler—shows them to be a curse, a hindrance, a distraction.

Jesus is not looking for a devout poster boy. He wants devoted pupil.

But the rich young ruler’s heart is not available. Good deeds he was prepared to lay on the altar. Good deeds would have been the bargaining chip that would enable him to keep his wealth and his comfortable life and his status in the community.

But Jesus said, I need it all.

As the air leaks out of his ego, he goes away sad.  Like Flannery O’Connor’s audience, he is blind and deaf. His material wealth clouds his eyes and prevents him from seeing what is of true eternal value. His own good deeds ring loud in his ears and prevent him from hearing the truth about his own depravity.

And when Jesus offers himself alone and effectively asks, “Am I enough?” the rich young ruler clearly answers, “No.”  

I believe that Jesus sighs as he turns to face the disciples.  I do not believe that he is triumphant.  No, “Aha!  I brought him down to size.” No. He turns and shares with them the same truth, rooted in his love for them. 

He wants them to be anchored in the truth that the possessions of this world are a diversion that will lead to divided loyalty. 

He wants them to be anchored in the truth that the person who considers himself good and has built his own kingdom will have great self-esteem.  He will esteem himself so highly that when the kingdom of God is presented he will choose his own. 

To drive home his point Jesus explains that it is easier for a dromedary to pass through the eye of granny’s sewing needle than it is for the rich to live a life under the authority of God. The camel is one of the largest animals in Palestine.  The eye of a needle is one of the smallest openings.  People have invented gates in Jerusalem and replaced the camel by translating the word as rope to try and make it a bit easier for the wealthy.  However, C. S. Lewis brings a little humour to their efforts by saying:

All things (e.g. a camel’s journey through

A needle’s eye) are possible, it’s true;

But picture how the camel feels, squeezed out

In one long bloody thread from tail to snout

The disciples then ask: “Who then can be saved?”  If a moral life does not cut it?  If earthly wealth has no value?  What does?  Again Jesus offers his father and himself. “With God, all things are possible.” But only with Him.

Follow me, he has said to the ruler.  Follow me, he has said to the disciples. 

I imagine Peter almost cutting Jesus off. “We’ve already done that!” Peter exclaims. “We left everything and followed you!”

And I imagine Jesus’ patient nod in Peter’s direction. “Yes, Peter, I tell you the truth… No one who has sacrificed all for me and for the gospel will go unnoticed.” Jesus assured them. “Your needs will be met—but not without persecution. Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Disciples of Jesus must learn to be last.

So to sum up, what can we tell about the Rich Young Ruler and his worldview?  

First of all, he had problems of anthropology. The Rich Young Ruler—like Flannery O’Connor’s Grandmother—had a false confidence in his own goodness, a false understanding of the role of his obedience in his salvation.

I have been studying spiritual growth recently as part of a focus group at my church.  In The Critical Journey, author Janet Hagberg identifies distinct stages of faith development.  This ‘stage theory’ is posited by a number of authors. Here I want to focus on the role of the law and obedience.  Thinkers, like Robert. T. Sears, see that in the first stage of Christian growth we are in simply in awe of God and his works.  Like Abraham we have a basic trust of God.  There is nothing wrong with that basic trust, but there is more that we need to understand about who God is.  So we look to teachers who explain to us the ways of God and His followers. 

In the second stage, then, the law becomes more important to us. We seek to obey what those teachers teach us. However, we are carried along frequently on the coat-tails of our church, college, or community.  And though there is nothing inherently wrong with being influenced by the teachings of godly men and women, we are prone here to a smug comfort and confidence.   

However, there is a third stage where our faith is ‘individuated’.  In other words, God separates us off at points in our lives so that he can work on the particulars and force us to look deeper into our own soul. Important examples of this are shown in the biblical accounts of Job and Jeremiah. The simple obedience to God’s law is understood, but in this stage God takes us deeper into a relationship with him and shows us more fully who we are—depraved, broken human beings. Nothing apart from God.

Jesus, as God, in this passage is inviting the rich, young ruler to move from his simple faith of obeying the law to a deeper, ‘individuating faith’. Jesus wants to work on his particular pride and his attachment to wealth. And if he grasps the hand of fellowship that Jesus offers him and walks through what is described as this third stage, he will emerge in stage four. There he will die to self and become a true servant.  Jesus offers a deeper, what some call ‘I-thou’ relationship with himself which will be a life of sacrifice.

Secondly, the Rich Young Ruler had problems of Axiology or values. Like Flannery O’Connor’s Grandmother, he valued comfort and fulfillment. He had a fierce aversion to personal sacrifice.

Let’s think about ‘sacrifice’ for a second.  We do not think of sacrifice as too hard in the west.  I have lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there is a different understanding there.  In the west, we consider giving the last helping of dessert to someone else worthy of the term ‘sacrifice’. We consider it a sacrifice if we miss the Superbowl to volunteer with our church youth group. 

Jesus’ idea of sacrifice is much more powerful than we allow.  Not only does he call rich people to give up their riches, but in Luke 14 he says that those who are not willing to take up their cross daily are not worthy to be his disciples.  In Hebrews 11 we see a catalogue of the faithful that builds to a list of martyrs.  As we develop we must see the role of sacrifice as instrumental in our growth. We must value it. Rather than balk at the ideas of God allowing poverty, illness, and hardship, we must see them as a means to obtain more of God’s riches. 

The rich young ruler would not die to his wealth and title.  The sacrifice and suffering was too much for him. Spiritual growth writers, stage theorists, call this facing The Wall.  To get through the wall we need to realize that suffering is not necessarily punishment; it may not be discipline.  As in the case of Job and Jeremiah, we may suffer as a witness.  It is the privilege of the persecuted to suffer for glory.  God’s glory is most powerfully shown in the blood of the martyrs.  But the rich young ruler would not die. VALUE

 

So what about us? Today?

What about our anthropology? We live in a society that agrees very much with the rich young ruler and embraces and propagates the idea of the goodness of man.

E-Bay, for example—whose tag line is “The Power of All of Us”—has published its anthropological treatise. It says, “People are good. It’s what Pierre Omidyar was thinking when he started eBay in his living room back in 1995. His idea was simple: That people could buy and sell goods and services from one another honestly, fairly, and openly. Almost 10 years and millions of transactions later, his idea has proven to be more successful than anyone ever imagined. Today, people are doing more than just buying and selling on eBay. They’re establishing personal connections with like-minded strangers, discovering the things they love, and starting and running their own businesses. They’re joining a community where anything is possible if we all put our mind to it, and believe.”

People today are more inclined to trust eBay’s anthropology than the Bible’s. It surely makes us feel better about ourselves.

Or maybe we go with the more moderate “most people are good” position like the creators of mostpeoplearegood.coma new website devoted to research on the human condition.

They say, “Here you will find posted examples of people and stories supporting our theory that most people are good. But you will also find examples of exceptions to the theory: Some people are not good. You will find, then, a discussion of what is good and what is evil.” The philosophy goes that if confronted with certain outside influences, some people could be persuaded to be bad.

Jesus says, “No one is good except God.”

 

We also live in a society that promotes an axiology very different from that of Jesus. What do Americans value?

Dr. L. Robert Kohls, Director of International Programs at San Francisco State University, developed a list of 13 commonly held American values which is intended to help foreigners understand why Americans act as they do.

From his list we learn that:

1.      Americans value personal control over one’s life and environment.

2.      Americans value change, which leads to development, improvement, progress.

3.      Americans value equality and fairness, believing we all have the same right to life, liberty, and happiness. Not just the pursuit thereof.

4.      Americans value the self-help initiative, the self-made man or woman.

5.      Americans value practicality and efficiency, asking will it make me money? What is the bottom line?

6.      And Americans value materialism, believing their acquisitions to be the natural benefits of their hard work and serious intent.

Jesus says, “Sell all you have, give to the poor, look for treasure in heaven, and follow me.”

Sadly, the church is not exempt from a false anthropology and axiology.

We are not exempt.

How might it manifest itself?

Our false anthropology might show up…

When we are reluctant to preach or speak about the depravity of man.

When we are reluctant to confront sin in our own lives and the lives of those we love.

When we think we are good enough.

We don’t really need to obey all of the rules. Or all of the commandments.

We don’t really need to be people of complete integrity.

Or when we think we are better.

            We don’t break the rules.

            We don’t live like that.

 

Our false axiology shows…

When we think we deserve the perfect boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, family. The perfect wedding. The perfect home. Not the hard work of marriage and parenting.

When we think we deserve our dream job or ministry. Not to be unemployed. Not a job that we find dull or difficult. When we think we deserve to be financially comfortable. Not in debt. Not having to sacrifice our daily latte. Not having to count pennies.

When we think we deserve rewards for what we do. Not to go unnoticed. To go unappreciated. To go unrewarded.

When we think we deserve an education that suits our fancy. Good grades. Entertaining lessons. Stimulating assignments. Not the daily grind of authentic research and writing. Not the cerebral struggle of questions with elusive answers.

When we think we deserve to have a good time. To satisfy our desires. To live an easy life. Not the hard work of integrity and responsibility. Not suffering and pain.

In a word—it’s our sense of entitlement.

We are good, the false belief goes, so we deserve a good life.

 

Lest we give you the impression that Peter and I are free from entitlement issues, let me tell you a little bit more about us.

About seven years ago Peter and I decided we were ready to start a family. Since that decision, we’ve experienced numerous failed attempts at medical intervention, two miscarriages, three domestic adoption false hopes, and what looks to be a 4-year delay on our China adoption by the time it comes to pass.

I have had many discussions with God in the wee hours about this situation.

I have believed that we deserve a family. We deserve to have children. Everyone else has them. Even people who don’t want them.

 

Four years ago Peter and I decided to move both of my parents to Illinois to live with us. They both had cerebral palsy and were needing extra care.

We all purchased a house together, a house that I love. A big, beautiful 1920s Arts and Crafts home. I saw it as almost a reward for the noble act of sacrifice we were making.

Shortly after we purchased the home, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Our lives were focused on caring for her. And we have been very thankful that we were able to do that.

Just over a year ago my dad fell and broke his hip. His care needs became greater than we could handle at home and he had to move to a local nursing facility. This is expensive.

My mom was dying, my dad was struggling in the nursing home, Peter and I were running back and forth trying to care for both, and the money that had been allocated to help pay for our shared home was now going to the nursing home—and much more.

I had many discussions with God in the wee hours about this situation.

I believed I deserved to keep our home.

He had already messed with our dream of having children. He was taking my parents. Now it seemed he wanted my home and my inheritance.

I was a good daughter, a good person. Peter was a good son-in-law. We deserved something of a good life.

But my Savior says, “I want it all.” Put it all on the altar. Follow me. I am enough.

Suffering is our best opportunity for sanctification.

He says, the more you sacrifice of yourself, the more you can receive of me.

 

I long to be a Good Man.  However, I know that I am flesh and blood and flesh is fallen.  I yearn to be a good man, but I am born corrupt to the core.  “Every intent of the thoughts of my heart is only evil continually.”  “The good that I want to do, I do not do,” the Bible says. And when I check my motives, I am frequently selfish and seeking to assert my independence.  I do not acknowledge my dependence on God. 

 

Through my own efforts it is impossible for me to be a good man.  That is why I desperately come to God and throw myself at the foot of the cross.  I run to God and I find a Good Man.  I find the God Man. 

 

The God Man has no corruption in his soul.  The God Man does not seek independence from His Father.  The God Man is not hard to find once we get past ourselves.  Once we lay it all on the altar. Once we crucify our own desires. Once we see Him and we fall at His feet and ask him what we must do to inherit eternal life, we leave our pride in a moral life, we leave the financial security and comforts that money can buy, we leave the life we think we’re entitled to. 

 

Yes, we are justified once and for all.  We are good in the eyes of God when we have surrendered our lives to Him.  But a transformed person is not preoccupied with his own goodness.  He is so wrapped up in his relationship with a Holy God Man that he naturally leaves all impediments behind.  I want to be a good man because I want to walk with the God man. It is in this walk that spiritual growth and transformation occur.

 

We take His hand and we follow. We walk wherever he leads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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