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Toshiki Toma

What is the benefit of being a Christian?

Flutt 16. október 2017 · í enskri messu í Breiðholtskirkju

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.

1.

Today’s Gospel is the story of a young rich man. I think it is rather a simple story, easy to understand what’s going on. A young man comes to Jesus and asks him what he should do in order to get eternal life. He says that he has followed the commandments of Moses well.

So Jesus says to the man: “You’re missing one thing. Go and sell everything you own, give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me.”(Mk.10:21) The young man is shocked at this and walks away sadly, since he is wealthy.

In the Gospel according to Luke, this young rich man is also said to be a local celebrity, so he might also be from a respected, good family.

By the way, many Jews came to Jesus and asked him questions, not because they were seeking answers, but because they were trying to find an opportunity to attack Jesus.

But this young rich man was not like that. He longed sincerely for guidance from Jesus in order to get eternal life. That’s why Jesus looked the young man lovingly: and Jesus’ sincere answer to him was the true answer for him. But despite Jesus’ tact and encouragement, the young man couldn’t take it.

When we try to find a message from this story, there are two directions, and both interpretations are right. The literal interpretation is that the story regards the wealth or money in our lives. In this understanding, the message is a warning about wealth. That is one of the important topics in the Gospels.

Going in another direction, we might come to the conclusion that the story is not literally about wealth: rather, it is that riches are a kind of symbol in our everyday lives, symbolizing things that we long for or value. Now let’s think a bit more in this direction, and seek the message for us today.

2.
This story is common to three of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. In all of them, the same story is narrated right before the story of the young rich man. And that is the story of Jesus blessing the children. Jesus blesses small children around him and says to the people: “(…) whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”(Mk. 10:15)

It is no coincidence that in each Gospel, this teaching is related right before the story of the rich young man. There is a meaning. The two stories contrast how small children receive the kingdom of God; and how the young rich man reacts to the advice from Jesus.

How do small children receive the kingdom of God? They receive it as it is, without any hidden agenda or any calculation about benefit and loss. OK, small children might already calculate a little bit, but not so much. They are still forming their own “ego”, their own foundation as a person. Their personalities and world views haven’t become solid yet, so they can’t yet calculate things with much certainty.

But this young rich man is in the opposite position. He has calculated. He asks himself whether he should give up all his property in order to obtain eternal life; or not. To obtain eternal life means to enter the kingdom of God. He weighs what is more meaningful for him: property or eternal life.

Unlike small children, as a grown up man his “ego” is already formed. His world view and table of values have been already established. By “table of values”, I mean the list of a person’s priorities: showing what is most important in his life; and what is next in importance, and so on.

We might not be clearly conscious about this table of values, but we all have more or less this kind of list within us.

Of course, we cannot easily compare our tables of values with others and say, “My value table is righteous, but yours is disgusting”, since we are different people and we have different ideas about what important is. Still looking around us in society, obviously there are people who place great importance on money and possessions.

Anyway, the young rich man has done his calculations and decided to keep his property rather than following Jesus and entering the kingdom of God. In my opinion, it was a poor choice.

3.
Jesus says that we should receive the kingdom of God like small children do: without any calculation. We should not believe in Jesus as the result of our calculation.

Now I would like to talk a bit about the Japanese religion. The religion of Japan is interesting when it comes to our own calculations, and where God – or gods – rate on our “tables of value”.

The two most influential religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism, though they have been much integrated through the centuries. There are many gods in Japan. We say we have 8 million gods.

In each shrine, there is a god who is in charge of the shrine. Usually it is the nameless guardian god of the area, but there are also many famous and popular gods. And it is very common that these gods have their own specialized field in which they can answer to people’s prayers.

For example, the god in Tokyo’s Yushimatenjin-shrine is an expert in studying and learning. So many young men who are supposed to take some important exams go to this shrine and pray for good result in their exams.

At the Umenomiyataisya-shrine in Kyoto, there is a god who specializes in pregnancy and ensuring safe births. So many women who have difficulty in getting pregnant or who wish to give birth safely go there and pray.
And there are more: gods who help us to find the best partners, gods who make us rich, or gods who heal our illnesses, et cetera, et cetera.

In Japan, people have certain wishes first, then go to the appropriate god who can answer their requests. So I would say that the religious attitude of most of the Japanese is totally based on calculation. A god is supposed to answer people’s particular requests, and bring them concrete benefits. But make it sure that yo go to the right god. You may not go to the god of pregnancy when you want to pray for good result in the exams!

It is considerably different from our Christian attitude, isn’t it? My Japanese friends have often asked me this question: “What is the benefit of being a Christian?”

4.
How do you answer? “What is the benefit of being a Christian?” In the connection to the Japanese situation, where people visit particular gods according to their particular wishes, I would say first of all that we Christians don’t have to go to different gods in different places. Our God listens to our wishes, whatever they are. Much more convenient! It is, however, not the point actually.

Jesus tells us not to calculate the benefit of entering the kingdom of God, but to approach it like small children, without calculation. In fact, it’s actually impossible to calculate the benefit of having faith right. Why? It’s because that the “table of values” that we have now changes through the act of stepping into the kingdom of God.

Suppose I am not a Christian now. Here is “I”, who has my own value table that shows my priorities. And I wish for things according to that value table. OK, I want to be rich first of all. Secondly, I want to be famous. I want to have high social status, too. Maybe I want to believe in Jesus a little bit, but it’s not with high priority.

I calculate which is better for me: to be a Christian, or to stay away from Jesus. And I think: “Perhaps something good happens if I believe in Jesus,” and become a Christian. After that, my life becomes a collaboration with Jesus.

Regarding some wish of mine, like obtaining high social status, Jesus might say: “OK, you may wish it. Social status can also do many good things for others. Go ahead.”

But in other cases, for example my wish to be rich, he could say: “O, no. You can be rich only when you have learned how to use money. You don’t really know it how yet, and you will be ruled by the wealth if you become rich right now. I won’t help you to become rich.”

My life would continue in this way, and eventually my “table of values” will be changed to different one than what I have now. By being a Christian, something that has been important for me till now can become something that doesn’t matter. Something that I had no interest in before can become a high priority. Our whole view of life, our whole “table of values” can be reset and become new one.

That’s the reason why we cannot calculate the benefit of being a Christian beforehand. The foundation of how we see things changes, so we cannot predict how Christianity benefits us or not. Of course, it is eventually a benefit for us to be with Jesus, since he leads us to the real value table of our lives, and to the true value of ourselves. We know it now, since we are following Jesus.

5.
Each of us has stepped into the kingdom of God already. We are not inside completely yet, but at least one leg is already in the kingdom of God.

Now we are on the way, and therefore our everyday life can be a struggle between our old, secular value table and the new value table that Jesus offers in the kingdom of God. We may struggle between our secular wishes and the teaching of Jesus. It is supposed to be so. Our view of life doesn’t change in one night. It takes time. No problem.

People may come to the church for the first time for many different reasons. Some might be determined to be baptized, right from the beginning. Some might just visit with their friends. Others might seek for practical support in their situation.

It doesn’t matter at all why we come to the church now. It was a good choice to make. It is the right thing that we are here, anyway.

And gradually we will find what Jesus offers us. It is the new value of our lives, a new view of life. And it is based on the forgiveness of God our Father offers us, and on peace with him. We become children of God our Father just like he intended when he created the first man on earth.

This will be the new foundation of our lives. Our heavenly Father loves us. As I say always: “Christian faith exists in the joy of loving, but not in the fear of punishments.”

We don’t know what happened to the young rich man in the Gospel after he had left Jesus. Did he just go away forever? Or did he change his mind and follow Jesus, giving all his property to the poor? The Gospel doesn’t tell us anything more about the continuity. We are supposed to find the continuity of the story in our own lives.

The Grace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Amen.

Text:

Mark 10:17-27

17 As Jesus was setting out again, a man ran up to him, knelt down in front of him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “Nobody is good except for one—God. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Never murder.’ ‘Never commit adultery.’ ‘Never steal.’ ‘Never give false testimony.’ ‘Never cheat.’ ‘Honor your father and mother.’”

20 The man replied to him, “Teacher, I have obeyed all of these since I was a young man.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. Then he told him, “You’re missing one thing. Go and sell everything you own, give the money to the destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me.” 22 Shocked at this statement, the man went away sad, because he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and told his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were startled by these words, but Jesus told them again, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in their wealth to get into the kingdom of God! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were utterly amazed and asked one another, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them intently and said, “For humans it’s impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

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