FOR THE LORD’S DAY
Not long ago I read an article with the headline “Softening Rhetoric on Homosexuality”. It began with the observation that “engaging a younger generation about the biblical teachings on homosexuality may be today’s greatest challenge for the evangelical church.” The article paraphrased a view it ascribed to “political columnist and talk show host Dr. Michael Brown”: “Most older people have a biblically orthodox view on issues of sexuality…but he said they also have ‘homophobic tendencies’ and caricature all gay people as predators.” He asserted that because of their personal acquaintance with homosexuals, “younger people are more open to homosexuality.” While admitting that “many young evangelicals also lack a biblical worldview, leading to a more subjective view of sexuality”, he nonetheless concludes that “if they leave the church, the church is to blame” because “Many have failed to combine truth with compassion.”
The use of the cleverly prejudicial term “homophobic” is always suspect. It tacitly stigmatizes the effect of conscience by implying that the aversion to immoral behavior is some kind of mental illness. Can this serve any purpose but to encourage wrongdoing? Moreover, is it “compassionate” thus to stifle the reaction of conscience in order to spare wrongdoers the reproach that is, according to God’s word (Proverbs 34:14), intrinsic to what they do? While pondering these questions it makes sense for people who profess to make Jesus Christ their guide to consider the example he set for us.
Jesus has an encounter (Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-30) with someone who “came up to him, saying “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” To begin with, Jesus answered the question with a question: “Why do you ask me about the good,” he said. “The good is one.” Christ’s terse reply makes sense at many levels. Where there is only one good the only good thing to do is to conform to it. So Jesus affirms: “If you wish to enter into life,” he said, “keep the commandments.” But his interlocutor persists. “Which ones?” he asks. “And Jesus said: ‘Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor father and mother; and love your neighbor as yourself.’” The questioner (whom Matthew chooses at this point to describe as a “youth”) then avows that he has kept all these commands. He asks if there’s anything more. In response, Jesus says “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you possess and give to beggars; thus you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.” “When the young man heard this,” Matthew tells us, he went away grieving, for he had much wealth.”
I imagine that most professing Christians would agree that Jesus is the paragon of compassion. But would his handling of this situation be considered compassionate by the standards Dr. Brown and others want us to apply? Jesus begins his reply rather contentiously, by answer a question with a question. Moreover, the question he asks implies that his interlocutor is taking something simple and making it out to be difficult. The questioner seems to confirm this when he asks, rather disingenuously, “Which commandments?”, as if there was some doubt about what Jesus was referring to; or as if one can pick and choose among the commandments, which to obey and which to disregard. When Jesus recites a partial list of the commandments, Christ’s interlocutor claims an unblemished record of obedience. He speaks with certitude, such as only youthful inexperience, or youthful brashness, can justify. )This may be why the Evangelist here chooses to point out that he is in fact a youth.) Be that is it may, the young man claims a perfect record. So why does he ask if there’s something more? Why doesn’t the simplicity of Jesus’ logic satisfy him? Is he tacitly admitting that the perfection he claims is doubtful? Or does he already sense the thus far unmentioned standard of perfection Jesus is about to apply? Be that as it may, Mark tells us (10:21) that, for the sake of his earnest profession of obedience, Jesus loved him.
Ironically, the unmentioned standard of perfection is contained in the first of the commandments, whether of love or strict obedience. In either case, the first commandment is not about our neighbor, our parents or ourselves. It is about God. Jesus does not recite the words. He simply puts the standard into action by putting his interlocutor’s love of God to the test. It turns out that the young man’s first love is not for God, and on this account he does not place his obligation to God above all other ties. Faced with the choice between the way of life his wealth makes possible and the way that leads through Jesus to God and everlasting life, he chooses to esteem the treasures he has in his possession more highly than he esteems the treasure God has in store for him. He will not let “slip the surly bonds of earth”, perhaps because in youth their charms are still too powerful. They overcome the sense of true perfection that, also on account of youth, so strongly haunts his heart.
Consequently, he goes away unhappy. He quite literally turns away from the body of Christ. In every respect his exit must remind us of young people who do the same today. Like him, their hearts are inclined to do what is right by God, and for this Jesus loves them. But, they are also drawn by the glittering treasures of worldly experience, to turn away from the standard of good that transcends experience. By that transcendent standard the choice for good becomes, quite simply, the choice for God. Will they define life in terms of their love for the treasures of worldly experience, or in terms of the love of God, whose goodwill is the source and substance both of the world’s goods and the good that subsumes and lies beyond them? They are charmed by the colorful idols of the world, with their shades of good and evil, their interplay of light and darkness. Thus charmed, they are not content to take God at His Word. Yet and still, they long for goodness unalloyed with evil; and the clarity of love unburdened by the knowledge or obligations of mortality (like procreational marriage and child-rearing.)
So they are drawn to the specious thought that life in the here and now can be lifted to this perfection, if only we let ourselves revel in the possibility of what lies beyond good and evil; beyond the eye and thought of God. If all accept that all is good then it will be so. If all agree that none are bad, then all will be as good as we long for them to be; as good as the music that makes our aspirations soar; as good as the pleasure that the thought of God keeps just beyond our reach. Like the youth who questioned Jesus, today’s youth are drawn toward what can never be until they let go of what they are in order to “taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Psalm 34:8). And yet, enthralled by the tantalizing foretaste of that good, they are drawn by its flavor to turn from the one to whom its taste belongs.
Jesus does not seek to avoid or allay the distress occasioned by the tug of war between the goods that charm and the good that truly is what they only appear to be. In fact Christ responds to his young interlocutor with a distressing challenge that compels him to turn away. If, as Christians profess to believe, Jesus is the paragon of true compassion, what does his action tell us about the true meaning of compassion? Christ shows his love by moving the young man from self-satisfaction to grief. He challenges him to confront the distressing truth that his idolatrous fondness for worldly possessions separates him from the life for which he truly longs.
Is it better for us to challenge the young with truth, as Christ did, even if the challenge distresses them, and leads them to turn away? Or should we comfort their youthful self-satisfaction, even though by conniving at their mistaken sense of love, we mask the true sorrow inherent in their separation from Christ and truth and God? If the true relationship with God in Christ is the one and only thing needful for them to enter into life, and we deceitfully allay the pangs of spiritual dearth that alert them to their neediness, how is this compassion? Jesus’ response to questioning youth suggests that it is better for us to challenge them in a way that contributes to their lasting good, than to let them be ruled, as they are wont to be, by their present self-deceiving inclinations. For God nurtures the seed of truth. Sooner or later it grows to be the landmark that returns the heart to His way of the Cross. And though planted with sorrow and all our griefs, it is the only way to go from this place of longing to the place where we belong.