“THE SEARCH FOR ETERNAL LIFE”
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 first paragraph describes a rich young man who asks a common religious question—” what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As is so often the case, Jesus answers a question with a question. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” There was and is a human idea that the ‘good’ inherit eternal life—and further that goodness is something we can do. The problem with that thinking is that it leaves the problem of inheriting eternal life up to us and our obedience. The young man had obeyed the commandments and by that standard, he was good but Jesus raised the bar to expose the young man’s inability to ever be ‘good enough’. Jesus is beginning to expose that traditional ideas of obedience and goodness are always flawed. ‘Inheriting eternal life’ is a gift to the undeserving. It is a concept that requires us to give up our false self-sufficiency in order to live a life that matters and a life that is eternal.
”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.” is a command that is humanly impossible. Even Mother Teresa did not give up all that she had or she would have starved to death long before she died at 87. If this is to be understood literally, no human can inherit eternal life. This passage is not a morality tale about wealth and our responsibility to share it. It is about confronting our limitations—what we cannot do— and discovering a God who loves us. Jesus is exposing one of the most basic impediments to ‘inheriting eternal life’. Whenever we understand receiving love; inheriting eternal life or the gift of grace as a function of our good behavior, we separate ourselves from the very thing we seek.
I find it touching that we are told Jesus loved the young man as he sought to redirect his thinking. The man could not imagine God’s care if he did not meet the criteria. The man was shocked at such a radical command and grieved because he knew he would not follow Jesus’ instruction. For him, failing to follow Jesus’ command was a failure. He could not let himself receive a gift he did not qualify for. In real life, we share the same dilemma. If this command is the entry requirement into eternal life, all of us are in trouble. The first job of Christian is to learn that, quite different from human thinking, God’s love is a free gift. It is absolutely separate from our goodness or obedience. It is ironic how difficult that is to receive.
Like us, the young man’s obedience and his wealth were ways he avoided the vulnerability of living. He wanted an entrance requirement. He wanted to be enough. But none of us can be good enough or wealthy enough or even giving enough. Eternal life requires our receiving the gift of love when we are not enough. For the young man, at least on this day, that was too much to ask. So he separated himself from a man who saw him as he was—and loved him.
It turns out receiving the love we seek is really hard—and Jesus knew it.. “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.”
Yielding to love is directly contradictory to our hard wired impulses. Changing them, no matter how beneficial in the end, comes at a very high price. It means giving up what we see for a promise that is hard to imagine. It is hard enough to own our mistakes, live within our limitations and acknowledge our neediness in any relationship but it is particularly hard to live that transparently when we are wealthy or when we view ourselves as self made.
From infancy to adulthood, we want insulation from the radical dependency that is part of our creation. And wealth is one of the better insulators around. Wealth will protect us from hunger and from homelessness. Wealth will provide recognition and prestige. Wealth can provide security. Why look to God when we can have these things through our own efforts. No wonder we are so attached to making money. It is our safety net and very very few of us are willing to acknowledge how unreliable it ultimately is.
There are, of course, other attachments that can interfere with our relationship with God. I asked our FIRL groups what they felt they could not live without. Family came very high on the list. A life devoted to family is about as righteous as it can get. But what happens when we lose that source of connection—when the people we love leave us. When that loss comes through death, many will tell you that such grief felt absolutely unbearable. It did not seem possible that life could go on. But most do. But learning that care, regard and connection can continue after a parent, husband, wife or child dies is believable only after loss—great loss. It is a very narrow gate we must squeeze through to learn the possibilities we could not imagine. We must survive what we thought we could not live without. The disciples ask a very pertinent question: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” For all of the self books that emphasize ‘unconditional love’, in real life it is outside of human functioning. It is a wonderful ideal. It is not one we can aim for but not one we can attain.
Inheriting eternal life is really hard. It is counter intuitive. It includes great grief. It includes realizing that the things and the people in our lives—and even our own bodies—are temporal and transitory. It means giving up what we thought was essential and learning that regard, mindfulness and love is the life that gives life. All of the rest will fade and disappear.
It took me a minute to gain any insight into the last paragraph. It seemed more like a prosperity gospel scam than anything else. If you give up everything for my sake, you will be richly rewarded in this life. “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.” It sounds suspiciously like the solicitation for money that says, “send me money and you will receive ten blessings.” And it is most peculiar that Jesus throws in the phrase “with persecutions.”
But in FIRL, Lou Reaves pointed out, that when people lose family and friends, they often discover care they never expected. We see it when there is tragedy, when people lose their homes to fire or flood, when people lose their family and when people lose their country. Complete strangers open their homes and their hearts. Depending upon the kindness of strangers is a very scary way to learn that love and care go on—even when we have lost what we have counted upon the most. I still remember when my father had a heart attack and I was in High School, I was amazed at the number of people who reached out to me. This is the promise Jesus offers. There is something wonderful beyond our self sufficiency. We are not created to make it alone and we are better for it when we finally learn that.
We inherit a great promise—we are loved as we are and are called to share that love with others. Help us to see beyond ourselves and our self protections.
Help us to see what really matters—the life that is eternal. Let it be so.