Sooner or later every pastor will have a conversation with someone who has decided to leave the church. On the surface, the reasons for this decision seem quite varied. It might be that the parents of a teen believe their child will be more comfortable in a church with a larger youth group. There will be others who aren’t comfortable with the Brethren belief that all war is sin. Occasionally, someone is hurt by another person’s actions, and would rather leave the church than trust the Matthew 18 process of reconciliation.
These very different-sounding reasons, however, have at least one thing in common: the person making the choice to leave isn’t completely comfortable with an aspect of congregational life and has decided to find someplace else to worship instead of working out the issue with the current congregation.
Situations like these are to be expected and are not necessarily a poor reflection of the congregation. But what is the best way to proceed when they arise? Historically, Brethren have made faith commitments based on obedience to Jesus, not on what seems most comfortable in the moment. In those times when our commitment to Christ and the church is more challenging than we initially expected, should we seek out a different congregation where we will feel more comfortable?
Let’s examine that question in conversation with the story of the rich young man from Matthew 19:16-22.
Our possessions and eternal life
Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man is part of a larger section of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus explains various demands of discipleship (19:1–20:34). Topics include marriage, divorce, and celibacy; wealth and salvation; and personal status versus servanthood. Comparing Jesus’ teaching on these aspects of discipleship with attitudes that are popular in our culture might lead us to suspect that “comfort” isn’t exactly what Jesus has in mind for Christians.
The conversation begins with a question that sounds remarkably modern: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Notice that the question reduces salvation to something that we can do, a once and done thing so that we can get on with the rest of our lives. Could it be that there have been other times when this man’s wealth has enabled him to do “good deeds” in order to gain something, and he feels this will enable him to secure eternal life now?
Jesus’ response points the man to the expectations any Jewish person of the day would have had: follow the Law (as represented in the Ten Commandments) and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s almost as if Jesus has already identified the man’s real problem and says to him, “If all you want is a list, here it is.”
But the young man decides to press the point (v. 20), and his follow-up question opens the door for Jesus to speak to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ answer moves the conversation about discipleship from the ways the young man might find comfortable to the one area that—at least in his life—is keeping him from true discipleship: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor . . . then come, follow me.”
It’s important that we understand what Jesus means with the word “perfect,” because it often causes confusion to modern readers. We tend to define “perfect” as “without mistake.” It might remind us of things like tests we took in school, and how we were regularly disappointed in our less-than- perfect scores. We already know we aren’t perfect, so do we have any chance at eternal life?
Thankfully, the Greek word for “perfect” (telos) conveys a different meaning. It refers to reaching a goal or achieving some intended purpose. Continuing the school analogy, telos has more to do with receiving our diploma than earning a perfect score on all our tests. Jesus invites the young man to learn how full his life can be if he will trust something other than his great wealth. Leaving his possessions behind so that he can follow Jesus is the way forward.
In this case, Jesus can’t address eternal life without addressing the man’s wealth. Jesus does not give everyone this particular instruction; for this man the attachment to wealth is the spiritual issue that must be resolved. But this isn’t comfortable, and the young man walks away from Jesus.
Comfort or calling?
I’ve heard quite a few sermons on this text—and preached a few as well—that examine it from the notion of giving up wealth. This makes good sense; this is what Jesus says, and even if we don’t consider ourselves wealthy, we can certainly imagine how our lives would change if we sold all our possessions. It is not a comfortable thought, by any measure.
But what if we consider the text from the perspective of those who would have gained by the young man’s generosity? How might life have changed for the unnamed “poor” if the young man had chosen to trust Jesus? And what lessons of faith does the young man never learn because he chooses what is certainly a more comfortable path? In what ways does he miss seeing the kingdom of God revealed in his own life?
Bringing that question into our own lives, what do we miss when we allow our own sense of comfort to control our faith decisions? How many people who leave a church for one with a larger youth group miss being the reason that the next family with teenagers stayed? How many people who leave when they are offended by another’s actions miss experiencing Jesus’ promised reconciliation? Like the rich young man, our resistance to being uncomfortable can get in the way of seeing the kingdom of God revealed in our lives.
At our best, we Brethren measure our faith as a response to call, not comfort. Responding to call invites us to see our lives as an ongoing conversation between Jesus, scripture, our congregation, and our life circumstances. It is the opposite decision than that of the rich young man, who preferred a manageable list of spiritual requirements that required only as much as he felt comfortable giving.
In the end, it may be that the most important words Jesus shares with the rich young man are not “sell your possessions” but “come, follow me.” Whatever faith decisions are before us, are we choosing comfort or call?
This year’s Bible study series takes a look at scripture texts and other ideas about our faith that are commonly misquoted, misunderstood, or applied incorrectly. My own list of potential topics for this column is long enough to fill out more than a year of articles. But if you have an example that you think fits in with this topic, I’d love to hear from you. Send suggestions to me at email@example.com.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.