But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Someone recently asked me, what’s the difference between Christian love and the love of unbelievers?
There is an idea out there that the love of Christians is of a species separate and distinct from others. I’ve always had a problem with this because it now places the burden of proof not on what is certain (Jesus) but on what is uncertain (my ability to love others). We end up in discussions about how there are great atheists who love their wives and children, while there are awful Christians who beat their wives and children. Or we end up getting mystical, saying things like, “Sure, it may look like Mr. Atheist loves others, but does he really? Deep down, the Christian actually loves truly, because the Holy Spirit is behind his love.”
This all misses the point.
What, then, is the difference between Christian love and the love of unbelievers. There’s a simple answer to this which puts the focus not on the subjective but the objective, and which leads into the theme of our passage for today. The simple answer is, Christian love is eternal, where the love of unbelievers is not.
The love of unbelievers is passing. It will not carry over into the next life. It’s fleeting, transient. By contrast, the love a Christian has for his spouse or children will carry over into the world to come. This adds an eternal depth to even the little love we may be capable of giving in this world, something to eternally build on and expand on. Whereas the love of unbelievers dies with them.
Much like possessions. Possessions are passing. Possessions are transient. Possessions are nothing.
That’s why it’s useless to pray for them. Why pray for nothing? If you pray for nothing, that’s exactly what you will get. When Jesus teaches about prayer, the climax is that, just as you get “good gifts” from your evil fathers on earth, so you will get “the Holy Spirit” from your heavenly Father. These are good gifts of the Spirit, namely, what the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer outline.
Possessions are like balloons inflated from human desire, from our covetousness, from our desire to take what belongs to God by self-deceit, that is, to defraud God. These balloons then become idols, little projections of our selfish desires wed to material stuff. “That car will give me status.” You’ve just taken from God His Fatherhood of you – no greater status than that – under the deceit that a new car will give you the status you lack. On and on we could go.
We’ve been contemplating how Jesus tinkers with the 9th/10th commandments on coveting. In Mark He replaces the covet commands with “Do not defraud,” and in Matthew He replaces it with “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We’ve thrown in St. Paul’s teaching that covetousness is idolatry. Given the fact that this seemed to be the commandment the man most struggled with, a picture is emerging what’s going on in the text.
As for defrauding and idolatry, this is exactly what the rich man was doing! He was trying to take what belonged to God by self deceit. To God belongs goodness. Or as Daniel confesses on behalf of Israel, “To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness.” The man tried to take that goodness that belonged to the “Good Teacher” and assume it for himself: “What must I do.” That’s fraud, taking by deceit what belonged to God. He became His own idol! And when Jesus called him to die to Self and all its inflated, covetous claims, he can’t do it.
As for “Love your neighbor as yourself,” this is exactly what the rich man was incapable of doing! Giving up the products of his human desire – dying to Self – for the sake of others, in this case, the poor. He had no love or others, so consumed he was with love of self.
Possessions are fleeting. Possessions are transient. Every Christian must understand this, or he too will live under the self-deceit that possessions are capable in some way of “saving” him. Then they become idols. “This new toy fulfills this craving and desire I have, a desire I believe, if fulfilled, will make me feel godlike.” What deception. But if we are not careful, this could happen all the time.
Goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, says Luther in his great hymn. They win nothing. If we deify them, they will be transient and fleeting. If we, by contrast, focus on what is eternal, and on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we will lay new foundation for goods, fame, child, and wife. Will not such thing be in the world to come? I sure hope my child and wife, at least, will be there. Then why not goods and fame? Lazarus the poor man has great fame, and Jesus promises goods “a hundredfold” in the world to come a few verses after our Gospel.
That’s the difference between Christian and non-Christian love. Everything with the Christian is eternal. Everything with the non-Christian ends at death. Imagine the horror of that. Is that not a horrific way to see hell? No love, because there’s no objects of love, because there’s an eternal inflation of Self and its desires that forever crowds out all care for others? Eww.
But what a wonderful way to view the world to come. Whatever we love here, when not idolized, but willing to be given up, will carry over in the world to come, because it is given up for Christ. As Jesus says in Luke regarding this Gospel, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”