Our sermon this morning at Six:Eight Church was all about compassion. It was given by our pastor’s brother-in-law and Zambian native Dr. Steady Moono. His text was the story of the rich young ruler’s distressing encounter with Jesus in Luke 18:
The Rich Ruler
A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He replied, ‘I have kept all these since my youth.’ When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’
Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ He replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’
Then Peter said, ‘Look, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’
In his explanation of the text, Dr. Steady (i bet you already have THIS SONG stuck in your head too) made a very insightful suggestion about the rich young ruler’s question based on Jesus’ response. Basically, Jesus told the rich young ruler that there was an error in his question because only God was good (wait, did Jesus just say he was not God?!?!?!? …ugh, skipping that for now). So why did the rich young ruler call Jesus good? What was he trying to suggest and, more importantly, why did Jesus call him out on it? Dr. Rockin-Steady-all-night-long suggested that the rich young ruler had probably been following Jesus around for some time – just observing from a distance – and had seen his many signs and wonders. He had seen all the good deeds Jesus was performing. Could it be then, that the rich young ruler assumed that Jesus had earned his right status with God by his good deeds? Dr. Steady-Rockin-till-the-break-of-dawn thinks so and I would agree.
Jesus’ further response to the man seems to suggest the same conclusion about the rich young ruler’s assumptions towards Jesus. Jesus turns to the commandments and asks the man if he has kept them all, but then he only lists certain commandments. Interestingly, he mentions commandments 6-10 of the Ten Commandments, which all relate to personal actions towards others. In other words, these are all “good deeds” (or “not bad deeds”) kinds of commandments. It seems to me that Jesus is playing into the young ruler’s assumptions about earning righteousness by mentioning only these commandments (especially when righteousness is defined as “right relationship”). It’s almost as if Jesus is leading the guy to believe that he’s about to say something like: “Oh, you’ve kept these commandments? You’re good bro! Welcome to eternal life!”
Of course, that is not what Jesus says. He explains that the rich young ruler must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor in order to inherit eternal life or enter the kingdom of God. A radical act of compassion is required.
However, this compassion looks very different from how we have come to practice it in most cases today. For us, compassion is practiced at a distance. Usually, it doesn’t require that we change much about ourselves. Sure, we “give up” some money, but there are usually not many lifestyle changes that go along with it. When we – the rich young rulers of the world – practice compassion, we do not typically give up our rich young ruler status. After all, it is this status that empowers us to “be compassionate” in the first place right?
What I’d like to point out is that the character of compassion that Jesus called for was a complete surrender, a giving up of power. Compassion literally means “suffering with” and Jesus knew that this man’s wealth would keep him from (a) suffering and (b) from truly suffering with others. Compassion requires our surrender of the means that give us power and status over the ones to which we are trying to be compassionate. Had the rich young ruler obeyed Jesus’ command, he would no longer be a rich young ruler – but he would have been compassionate. And, apparently, he would have entered the kingdom of God.
In the end, compassion is not about what we do – it is about who we are with. If we are compassionate, we will give up the very means by which we “act compassionately.” Compassion means giving up because otherwise we are just trying to earn righteousness through self-inflicted “wounds” that cause momentary “suffering with.” Real compassion requires more. Actually, it requires less – less doing, less striving, less power, and less control.