Here is an experiment anybody can try. Read through any of the Gospels, paying close attention to things people say to Jesus. By one count, there are about 169 distinct passages in Matthew. In about fifty of them somebody says something to Jesus. If we know Jesus is God incarnate, then in effect each such passage is a prayer.
Not all of them are friendly. Nearly half are questions, not all questions sincere. There are confrontations with Pharisees trying to catch Jesus saying something foolish, to discredit him. There are taunts of Satan, and shrieks of demons. A large number are requests for healing, either for the suppliant’s self or on behalf of someone else.
Try to identify with each of these voices—the disciples and the pleaders of course, but even the Pharisees and the demons. There is a lot more to prayer than polite voices in straight rows on Sunday. You are not a bad person if your prayers to God, or your answers from God, seem unexpected, or even bizarre.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I get home from church, where we’re all saved and cozy, I still have to ask the rich young ruler’s question: “What must I do to be saved?” (Matthew 19:16) I worry about people who think they have this one sewed up. I have told my readers about the time, after fourteen years out of the church, I turned toward God, and found he was still waiting for me to Get It. I remember that every day, but there are circumstances that nearly make me forget. I think I’m doing what I should, and something I say blows up in my face. What went wrong, Lord? Dear God, not again!
One may prayer for guidance each morning before putting feet on the floor; offering the day to God. Does that mean things go well? No, it does not. People still get angry, sometimes unjustly. I don’t know which is easier to take: knowing I deserve it, so it’s somewhat explicable, or knowing I don’t deserve it, being in the right. It hardly matters, since half the time I don’t know myself. The point is, I can—and I doubt this is unusual—I can reach a point where I think God is not helping me. If there is any providence, and God is in charge, then he must be on some other team than the one I’m on. How did that happen? Have I deluded myself? Have I offended God somehow? What do I have to do?
The first part of Jesus’ answer to this young man, I paraphrase this way: Who you calling good? The second part (v. 21) is where he gets down to brass tacks: Take what you have and give it to the poor. That ought to shake many Americans, including good Episcopalians. One preacher told us this: We are richer than 90% of people who have ever lived if we have three of these four things: more than one pair of shoes; a choice of foods for breakfast; transportation to go farther than we could walk; and more than one set of underwear. I would guess that takes in most of us.
Jesus saw right into the rich young man, and we have the eerie fear that he sees through us just as easily. We do not mean to be vicious. Neither did that young man; his question is perfectly sincere. Jesus’ answer is not a rejection; it is an invitation. He holds out the call to become a disciple. The outcome is sadness, not condemnation.
Now consider Matthew 4:18–22, in which Jesus calls his first few disciples. We may envy them. We’d like to think we would recognize the magnetic personality, and readily follow him. But the truth is, that magnetic personality stuff doesn’t wash. This the same personality that gave the rich young man his answer, and he walked away from it. What would we do?