Asking the Wrong Question
RCLPC 14/15 October 2006
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? 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; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 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.
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!” 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! 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
I would willingly bet all the money I have, and some I don’t even have, that this is not the most popular story in suburbia. In fact, the first time I ever heard this story was at a Presbyterian church in Yakima, my home town, which was known for its wealthy members. The first thing the pastor said was “don’t worry, you don’t have to give away all your stuff or your money.” That’s all I remember about his sermon—he definitely made an impression on my literalist teenage mind, and it was not a good impression.
And now here I am, standing in front of a congregation in a fairly affluent town near a famous city, and I’m tempted to say the same thing—partly because it’s my first week here and I want you all to love me, and partly because I am not sure that Jesus’ advice to this man is literally the same advice we need. I think Jesus’ point is what we need, but sometimes we get caught up in the exact words. And sometimes words can obscure the point. So, I’m not going to say “you don’t have to give away all your stuff and your money.” Instead I’m going to say, “it’s possible that this is about money for you or for me, and it’s also possible that this is not about money—it might be about something else for you or for me.” In the case of this man, though, it’s about money.
I’ve noticed that people with a lot of stuff or a lot of money often think in economic terms. They think about investments and inheritances. I’ve never been in a position before to think about those things, so I’m not really sure what it’s like. And also, frankly, it has always seemed a little odd to me to think about “my inheritance”—as though I’m just waiting for someone to die and leave me something cool. My mom died a year ago and I have inherited some cool stuff, but I would rather have my mom than her Professional-grade KitchenAid. So I don’t really understand why someone would ask a question that begins with the words “what must I do to inherit?” The answer seems, in our understanding of “inheritance,” that you must live longer than the person who has what you want. I think that fits the definition of morbid pretty nicely!
But this man’s question isn’t really about what he needs to do to get something when someone else dies. It’s about what he needs to do to get something when he dies. That’s what you might call a different take on the matter of “inheritance.”
Now, in the Jewish understanding of life and eternity, “eternal life” is something to be earned, to be worked toward. Not everyone gets it—only those who have followed the commandments, done good deeds, studied the Torah, and lived good lives get the front-row seat in the Kingdom of God —which is something that one only enters after leaving this life.
In other words, you must “do” something now in order to get something later. There might be material blessings on earth, but the main reward comes later—hopefully much later.
So this man comes to Jesus, asking a fairly run-of-the-mill question about what good deeds he needs to do to inherit this eternal life. And Jesus gives him a run-of-the-mill answer. It’s a safe answer in a Jewish worldview—to get eternal life you have to follow the commandments. That seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?
You may have noticed that Jesus only lists the easy commandments—the ones like don’t murder and don’t steal. Jesus kindly leaves out the difficult “no-other-gods” commandments. So the man has probably answered honestly that he has kept all these commandments! But he doesn’t accept this obvious answer to his obvious question. He doesn’t just take Jesus’ words at face value and leave happy—he pushes a little bit. By telling everyone about his perfection after he asked an obvious question, he implies that something is still not right…something is missing. It’s not enough. There must be something else he can do, right?
And Jesus looked at him—maybe the man even had the feeling that Jesus was looking into him—Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus looks at this man and sees a seeker, someone who wants to be in relationship with God. So he gets to the heart of the matter: he tells the man that there’s just one thing standing in his way to a close relationship with the Lord—his stuff. In the same way that I have boxes blocking my dining room, he has boxes stacked up in the road to abundant life.
Notice I said “abundant” life, not “eternal” life. The man asks a question about what he needs to do to inherit eternal life—something in the future, something out there, something that isn’t here, something he can earn.
But that’s not what Jesus said he was about. Jesus came to bring abundant life here and now, not just later. And, luckily for us, Jesus did the work—he lived and taught, he died and rose. There’s no work for us to do to have this abundant life—it’s ours through the grace of God. Jesus brought eternity, he brought the Kingdom of God, to here so that we might live abundantly. Not that we might live prosperously, as this man obviously did, but abundantly. It’s clear from this story that one can own nothing, carry no money, and yet live abundantly.
Jesus simply says “come, follow me.” Just as he sent the disciples out to preach with no extra clothes and no food or money, he tells the man to come—no money, no toys, no fancy clothes—and to follow. But the boxes are blocking his way.
I suspect this is not what the man was expecting from Jesus! He was shocked, and rightfully so. Jesus asked him to change everything—not just his lifestyle, but his worldview. The man has been living in a society that values prosperity as a sign of God’s approval, a society that insists on right action and living according to the letter of the law of Moses. And here’s Jesus saying “nope, sorry, that’s not really it.” He started out playing by the rules, but now he’s gone and changed everything up, just like Jesus always does. And the man doesn’t want to get it.
He is like the frog in one of my favorite stories by Anthony DeMello, which goes like this.
The Master, a spiritual teacher, was always gracious to the scholars who came to visit, but he refused to talk about theology with them.
When his disciples asked him about this, he answered them,
“how can one talk of the ocean to a frog in a well? Or about the divine to those restricted by their concepts?”
This man’s ideas about life, eternal life, blessing, and wealth are keeping him from following Jesus, they are keeping him in the well when there’s an ocean to discover.
I think that what Jesus has done here is to sum up the first commandments, the ones he left out of his list, by talking about this man’s possessions. He has said that the man has an idol. He sees his wealth as signs of God’s blessing, but it’s really taking the place of a relationship with God.
Idolatry is a tough word to swallow. We don’t want to hear it any more than this man did—or at least, I don’t! Right now I am living with all kinds of new things—a new house, a new car, a new refrigerator, a new bed—and also waiting for all my favorite things—my books, my clothes, my winter coats—to come from Atlanta.
It turns out I actually have quite a lot of stuff. And it’s possible that those things are distracting me from following Jesus. It’s also possible that my own self-image, my friends, my relationships, my anxiety about whether you’ll like me or not, or a hundred other things are keeping me from following Jesus. At any given moment there is probably something that is an idol in my life. And the hard part of following Jesus is figuring out what those things are and returning God to the top of the priority list.
This man may not have been able to do it—we don’t know. All we know is that he was shocked and he was grieving, and he went away. He started out asking the wrong question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” when he should have been asking “what idol keeps me from following Jesus?”
It’s a hard question to ask. Not my favorite thing to do with my free time, that’s for sure! But it’s important. Jesus never said it would be easy—he said it would be as hard as getting a camel through the eye of a needle.
The good news, though, is this:
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible.”
For mortals it is impossible to be perfect.
For mortals, it is impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven by good deeds. For mortals, it is impossible to get it right.
But not for God.
For God, all things are possible.
It is possible for God to forgive us when we are not perfect,
to correct us when we ask the wrong question,
to bring us close to God
in the church,
in the sacraments,
through the Holy Spirit,
and in one another.
And through God it is possible for us to identify our idols, to reorder our priorities, and to live abundantly.
I’m not going to tell you to sell your stuff and give away your money. I’m not going to tell you NOT to sell your stuff and give us your money. I am going to invite you to examine what idol might be blocking your road to the abundant life Jesus brought for us.
Jesus is calling, “Come, follow me.”