17 As he 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “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, 30 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
The initial focus on this passage in FIRL was upon wealth, the stewardship of wealth and the way wealth could interfere with our dependence upon God. As a relatively wealthy group, the passage stirred up a bit of anxiety and defensiveness. Is it ok to have wealth? Is it ok if we give most of it away but keep some back to ensure our own old age? How much of our wealth can we preserve as a means of making sure we will not be a burden on others? Is the problem our money or our love of money?
These are all good questions but I believe they miss the point of the passage. In many ways they are variants of the question the man is asking Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We are looking for prescriptions that will make us eligible for the kingdom. The problem is that you can not do anything to inherit? Inheritance is a function of belonging not of obedience. We inherit eternal life because we belong to God. We belong to God because God declared that we are his children. None of us do anything in order to be called God’s children. We can refuse love but we have no control over whether it is offered. The man’s question, though well intended, shows that he fundamentally does not understand what Jesus is offering. In real life, this is a dilemma that is disturbingly familiar.
All humans both need love and worry if love will continue. One of the first tasks of a child is to learn how to control mom. What must I do to keep the source of nurture coming? Smiling and cooing usually work. Obedience certainly helps. So does saying what mom wants to hear. Find out what makes her angry and DON’T do it. These are the ordinary human experiences we project upon God. It is hard to imagine, much less experience that God’s love is much greater. God loves because God loves—not because of anything we do.
This is an understanding of God that is very hard to experience. The man was ernest. Jesus loved him. There is no hint that Jesus did not respect the man’s sincerity or his attempts to be a good man. But the man’s question made salvation about what he should do. When that is the standard, we can only fail. Grace is not possible in such a system. When Jesus points that out by giving the man a task that few, if any of us could attain. Jesus exposes the man’s limitations and inability. By this standard, we can never be enough. And because we believe we must be enough to belong to God, we too walk away grieving. He was attempting the impossible. He was trying to attain eternal life by his own actions.
In our initial discussion in FIRL , we did the same thing. We turned the focus to our doing and asked questions about how much was enough. We did not want to be expected to do what we already knew we could not. But the God of love does not rank, measure and quantify like we do. That is a secular way of thinking that we impose upon God. But it very often the first thing we do.
Experiencing love requires that we face the ways we are not in control. It means facing that we cannot escape our dependency. And that is frightening. We rely on all kinds of things to insulate us from our radical dependency. Wealth is just one. We imagine that our wealth will protect us. We praise self sufficiency. We claim that ‘every man is the architect of his own destiny.’ The wealthy can afford housing, we can afford nursing care, we can afford hospitals. We can buy care. We don’t need to depend on anyone. But such thoughts are illusions. Because, if we live long enough, no matter how wealthy we are, we will not only be vulnerable, finally we will be completely helpless. Someone else will take care of our basic needs—eating,bathing, bathroom, —even turning over in bed. No matter what you have written, planned, or paid for, other people will decide where you will be and how you will be cared for. So much for being in charge of own destiny.
The same is true of our understanding. Understanding and knowing is not enough. Our pretensions of control and self control are routinely challenged in real life. Who of us regularly maintain the disciplines that we know are good for us in our eating, our exercise and our spiritual lives? As a therapist, I often get the question: What must I do to improve my marriage, to get out of my depression, to relieve my anxiety etc. Sometimes I can point people in a direction and sometimes they can even know it is a good direction—BUT that does not mean they can actually do it. Knowing the right does not mean we can do it. This can be profoundly humbling but any honest self examination will demonstrate our limitations. As Paul says, we regularly do what we shouldn’t and don’t do what we should.
A number of years ago I was in an intense argument with my wife. Our fights were so familiar, they might as well have been choreographed. Either of us could go to separate rooms and write out the dialogue for both of us. There came a moment in the middle of the fight when I knew that if I said what was next on the script, there would be hell to pay for two weeks. I said it anyway. That’s when I knew I needed therapy. I could not manage my reptilian reactivity. When people feel threatened, rationality rarely helps. Knowing the right does not mean we can do it. This can be profoundly humbling but any honest self examination will demonstrate our limitations.
Our wealth, our education nor our understanding protect us from the embedded vulnerability of being a creature, created by God. This quite literally means we can not save ourselves. The rich young ruler could not tolerate his limitations and rather than face them, he walks away. It never occurs to him to offer his inability to Jesus. Such a concept literally does not fit. It is as hard as putting a camel through the eye of a needle. As soon as we have the secular belief that our failing, limitations and sinfulness are bad—and make us less desirable—we walk away from God. And we do it every day.
So Peter asks, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answered “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” And this bring us back to belonging and struggling to stay open to God’s choosing us. Indigenous to our very being is the conviction that we must ‘do,’ the conviction that we must be enough. He knows us and loves us. It is he that has made us and not we ourselves.
For God all things are possible. Do not decide for God. Do not walk away. Let it be so.