Jesus is about to begin his life’s final journey toward Jerusalem. But his start is delayed by a young man who runs up to him and piously falls at his feet to ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Every word in this exchange is freighted with meaning. When Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good; there is no one good but God,” he is signaling that he has instantly taken his measure of this young supplicant, and knows that not only does the young man think of Jesus as good – he thinks of himself as good also. Jesus probes the man’s depth of commitment: “You know the commandments, ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother,” and the man cannot even let Jesus finish the list before interrupting him with the proud confession, “Yes sir, I have kept all of these commandments since I was but a child.” Jesus can tell this man has great spiritual goodness in him. He has spiritual potential. He has a yearning for eternal life. Jesus cannot help but note this man’s virtues and cannot help but love him. But Jesus also discerns the one chink in this man’s spiritual armor. His next statement exposes the man’s fatal flaw: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have and give it to the poor and destitute, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Upon hearing this, the man went away, devastated, because his earthly wealth was accounted as immense.
Please excuse me a momentary digression from our examination of the text before us, because I never think of this man before Jesus without thinking of someone I introduced to you in a sermon a few weeks before, Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s literary classic, Les Miserables. You may recall that Jean, a longtime convict, had been befriended by a gracious Catholic bishop, whose kindness Jean had repaid by stealing the bishop’s silver and rushing away into the night. Upon being apprehended and returned to the bishop, Jean was stunned to discover that not only did the bishop forgive his crime, but added to his loot, giving Jean Valjean two silver valuable candlesticks and telling him to use this wealth to transform his life into an instrument for good.
Jean Valjean did exactly that. Hiding his identity, he eventually established an immensely profitable factory that employed an entire village, raising everyone’s standard of living. His goodness, wisdom and charity became so legendary that he was appointed the town’s mayor. Everything in his life was proceeding perfectly until he learned that another man had been arrested and mistakenly identified as Jean Valjean, the parole breaker. This unfortunate soul was soon to be sentenced to life as a galley slave. The real Jean Valjean first regarded this as God’s way of setting him free from his past, divine providence providing a means whereby he would be forever liberated from his sordid history. This was literally his “get out of jail free” card, God blessing him for turning over a new leaf and doing so much good. Yet it meant that another man would suffer injustice in his stead. After hours of anguished prayer and meditation, Jean Valjean, against all reasonable expectation, resolved to tell the truth.
Jean Valjean entered the very courtroom that was on the cusp of convicting another man in his place and stood before the judge to establish his true identity. This confession, coming from a famous, well-respected, wealthy mayor, was so stupefying that no one moved or spoke. Jean Valjean said, “You all, you who are here, think me worthy of pity, do you not? Great God! When I think of what I have been on the point of doing I think myself worthy of envy.” He knew he had chosen the most difficult but right path. He surrendered his freedom, his great reputation, his career as a prosperous businessman and respected mayoral career. Why? Because he realized that only by doing so could he regain something far more precious, his sense of right relationship with God. And he had gained in return that which he regarded as supremely valuable, a sense of peace with God.
We can turn back now to gaze upon the young man who confronted Jesus and view him with understanding. You see, Jesus grasped in an instant this man’s core identity. This young man sees himself as good, as a servant of God, a lover of God, as one who has respected and obeyed God’s Law. He sees himself as thoroughly oriented around God’s Kingdom. But Jesus knows that this is a lie. Fealty to God is not at this young man’s core. At his core is his attachment to his wealth. His core identity is tied to the world’s respect for his riches. Jesus offers this man a formula for true spiritual liberation: ‘Sell what you have and follow me. I will grant you peace with God that will lead you toward your stated goal, eternal life.’ But the young man cannot do it. Jesus offers him a pathway to spiritual riches – but he leaves spiritually bankrupt.
By contrast, Jean Valjean for most his life had been a convict, without wealth, without respect, without any relationship with God save for one of anger and estrangement. But over time Jean Valjean had experienced genuine divine grace, divine love. He had known the peace with God. He knew that peace with God was a treasure to be valued above all others. So he could surrender his wealth and his status and his high reputation, for however highly the world regarded those accolades and achievements, he knew he had experienced something more important — the peace with God that comes from doing the right thing.
As always, you can only truly comprehend a Biblical text if you must place yourself within the story. As you approach our Lord’s table and partake of the elements symbolic of his love for us, the symbol of his body broken for you, the symbol of his blood shed for you, it is appropriate to ask yourself, ‘Where, really, does my self-image lie? What really defines me? What is the core of my identity?’ Is it your relationship with God? Or is it your role as a spouse, as a parent, as a grandparent, or a friend? Is your self-image inextricably bound to your vocation – or to your bank account? What really is the core of your identity? Sometimes when people come to me in spiritual confusion I ask them to engage in a spiritual exercise, to write down on ten separate slips of paper the ten things they cherish most in life. Then I ask them to discard them one by one, beginning with what is least important in that ranking. I tell them, whatever word is on the paper you hold last – that is your real god. It may not be God, but it is your true deity. That is where your core identity lies.
When we come to this table we are saying that we have taken upon our lives the name of Christ. That means that our allegiance to Christ must be our ultimate allegiance. That is not to say that we devalue the other loves and commitments we cherish, for we believe that all of our other blessings find their source in our commitment to God and our service to Christ. All that we cherish we regard as rooted and grounded in our commitment to God and our service to Christ. That means, we aspire to love like Christ loved and live like Christ lived. And we know, as Jesus made clear to the young man before him, if our allegiance to God is not at the core of our identity, then we will never really have peace with God. For it is only in giving ourselves absolutely to our Lord, sometimes taking paths hard to tread and making choices excruciating to make, that true peace with God is attained. And that is why we come to our Lord’s Table this morning.