What must I do to inherit eternal life

What must I do to inherit eternal life

Sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:17-31

For this Thanksgiving weekend, I suppose I might have bumped the lectionary readings and replaced them with texts a bit more directly connected to harvest and thankfulness. But because we’d departed from the lectionary last Sunday so we’d have readings more directly connected to our community visioning day, I decided I didn’t want to skip yet another one of these readings from Mark. Besides, there’s so much packed into these verses I really didn’t want pass up the opportunity to have this text placed before us, so we could do a little honest wrestling with the strange good news it places on our plates.

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“As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good?’” Already I have to press the pause button. Why not call Jesus good? In that cultural context, to call a teacher “good” was an expression of respect, even trust. Yet Jesus presses him, asking “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The challenge certainly would have thrown the man a bit, and puzzled the disciples as well. I’ll come back to this little exchange in a few minutes, so for now just take note.

“No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” Press the pause button again. The commandments Jesus lists are drawn from what is called the second table of the Ten Commandments; the ones that have to do with one’s relationship to other humans. There is no mention of idolatry or of having no other gods, and no mention of not swearing an oath by the name of God or of keeping the Sabbath. Not only that, but the final commandment about not coveting a neighbour’s property is omitted, and—at least in Mark’s version of the story—one additional commandment is included: “You shall not defraud.” Not that a prohibition against defrauding a neighbour is out of line with the other commandments, and maybe Jesus was almost improvising as he went. No theft, no false witness—that includes fraud and bad business dealings, you know… In short, Jesus seems to have on eye on the commandments that both the most concrete and relevant for a person of wealth.

“Teacher, I’ve followed all of these since I was a boy,” the man replies, and it is hard to know if he’s pleased that he’s been on the right track all along, or still pressing for something more; something he could add to his practice, maybe there is something more he could do. Well, he certainly gets more.

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus loved him, issued the kind of challenge that this man least wanted to hear yet most needed, which left him shocked and grieving as he walked away. So invested was he in his property, that it had become his encumbrance; the thing that, for the life of him, he couldn’t release. And we have no idea if that man ever managed to make his way back.

It is worth noting that Jesus meets different people with different challenges. When he calls the first disciples, it is a challenge to lay down their nets and follow him in “fishing” for people. When he comes to Levi the tax collector, it is a simple invitation to “follow me,” but of course that also meant leaving his traitorous and lucrative occupation of collecting taxes for the Roman government. With Nicodemus the Pharisee, it is to die to his airtight theological system, and to start his faith life anew; to be born again. To the Gerasene man he’d freed from demonic possession—a man who begged to follow him—Jesus said, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” To the woman caught in adultery, it is a simple, “Go your way, and sin no more.”

So no, not everyone receives the same challenge from Jesus; not everyone is encumbered by the same thing, nor burdened by the same wounds. And yet for all that, Jesus does seem quite clear that wealth is a very particular kind of encumbrance. Wealth can easily create the illusion that I am self-made, and at the same time blessed. Yet wealth so often has a way of never being enough, and so often the richest of people spend the most time and energy on accumulating still more. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God,” he says to his disciples as they watch the rich man walk away. Hard? But we’d always believed that the righteous were to flourish, and that aside from the likes of those traitorous tax collectors, riches were a sign of blessing. “It is easier,” Jesus continues, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now that really throws them in to confusion. “Then who can be saved?” they ask one another, and again in the background is this idea that wealth is a blessing, in spite of the fact that there is much in the Hebrew scripture that challenges that assumption.

A brief aside. When I was in university, I heard a sermon on this text in which the preacher carefully explained that there was a small gate in the walls of Jerusalem known as “the eye of the needle.” The gate was so low that a camel could only go through on its knees. You see, the preacher had emphasized, what the rich person really needs to do it to fall to his or her knees, and to enter the kingdom of God in deep humility. The biblical scholar Larry Hurtado characterizes this take on the text as being both misinformed and “completely fanciful”, yet at the time it struck me as a rather reasonable explanation of Jesus’ teaching… and that’s the problem. Jesus isn’t intending to be particularly reasonable with his image of the camel. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible;” even something so absurd as threading a camel through the eye of a needle.

Still, the disciples crave reason. Can you hear the tone of Peter’s voice, as he protests “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”? We’ve done the thing you’ve just asked of that wealthy man; we’ve done the right thing, here Jesus. We deserve to be counted as in in the coming reign… To this Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” I suppose at that moment Peter may well have thought that giving up his fishing boat was going to pay some serious dividends, and in the circle of the church that proclaims what is called a “prosperity gospel”, this text is embraced as promising wealth and success to those who believe. The thing is, Peter and the others don’t wind up with houses and fields and big happy families; they wind up dead. So was Jesus simply wrong here, in talking about this abundance coming “now in this age”?

I find N.T. Wright’s reading of this passage to be incredibly insightful. “Everything will be upside down and inside out;” Wright observes, “all things are possible to God; the first will be last and the last first. In particular, though, those who have left family and possessions to follow Jesus will receive things back even in the Present Age—a new and ever-enlarging family of their fellow-disciples, with homes open to them wherever they go.” As the Jesus movement unfolds to become the early church, there is family based not on bloodlines, but on this radical kinship called the Body of Christ. And there’s always a home in which to rest, and a field from which food can be harvested… they just happen to belong to other members of the Body. Not exactly what Peter had in mind, I’d venture to say, but once he’d learned to let go of the assumptions with which he was encumbered, it was the very place he most wanted to be… persecutions and all.

Back briefly to the opening exchange between Jesus and the wealthy man. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man had asked, which probably means something like “what sort of good doings are necessary for me to be in the same place of favour with God as you seem to be, Jesus?” He’s focused on doings, in other words, on that which he can do or achieve or practice in order to be deemed good enough for the kingdom of God. If you hear his question in this way, then Jesus’ answer that “No one is good but God alone” makes all kinds of sense. The God who can thread a camel through the eye of a needle is the one whose goodness and grace are given us as sheer gift. The one needful thing is to stop kidding yourself that whatever you hold in your hands is the key—be it the wealth of this man or the theological certainties to which Nicodemus clung or the canny suspicions of things Jewish held by the Samaritan woman at the well—and to pry your hands open so you can receive the gift. Sure, in opening your hands things will drop away; absolutely. And it might even hurt to watch something treasured hit the ground. So be it, because what is then placed in your hands is better than gold.

Come to think of it, maybe this is a Thanksgiving weekend text after all.

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