Our gospel lesson is a bit tricky to understand. Is Jesus telling us that wealth is a bad thing? Do we have to be poor to inherit eternal life? Furthermore, why did Jesus allow this shocked and grieving man to flee the scene before finishing their conversation? At the very least this man needed to hear Jesus say “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” It would appear that Jesus missed an opportunity to transform this man’s life. This doesn’t sound like Jesus at all!
I must confess this is not one of my favorite stories in Mark’s gospel. Over the years, I’ve come to several different conclusions regarding how we’re supposed to interpret it. Thankfully, a shining ray of light came to me this week from Karoline Lewis who is a professor at Luther Seminary and a friend of mine. She writes a weekly column entitled “Dear Working Preacher.” Some of what I’m going to share with you this morning came from her column. She gave me a new lens through which I’ve been able to see the story more clearly. I am grateful for her wisdom, not only this morning, but more times than I can count.
Today’s story begins with a question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question is asked by a nameless man who runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. Both his addressing Jesus as “good” and his kneeling are signs of respect. We don’t need to read any hidden agenda into his question. He’s not trying to sweet talk Jesus by calling him good. He is simply him showing honor and respect. That being said, doesn’t kneeling seem like a weird way to start a conversation? Wouldn’t a warm hello suffice?
This detail inspired me to do some digging and here’s what I discovered. Every time someone kneels before Jesus in Mark’s gospel, they ask for a healing, either for themselves or for someone else. Perhaps Mark intends us to understand our gospel lesson as a healing story, which is something I’ve never considered before. If this is the case, what kind of healing might he be asking for?
Let’s go back to the question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a question we’ve all asked in one form or another: “What will happen to me when I die? Have I done enough good deeds in order to get into heaven?” This is a BIG question. Some might say it’s the BIGGEST question we can ever ask.
When we ask it, it means our spirits are not at peace. Our minds are filled with worry. Our hearts are racing because we’re not exactly sure “what happens next” when we leave our earthly bodies behind. So it’s likely that the man in the story has similar feelings, and the healing he seeks is a spiritual one rather than a physical one.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If we frame his question in this way, it may help us to understand why Jesus responded the way he did. If this man is seeking healing for a troubled soul, then Jesus’ reply cannot be heard with a dismissive tone: [Demonstrate] “Why do you call me good? Ugh! No one is good but God alone.”
I don’t think Jesus is scolding him here. That doesn’t seem like Jesus at all. In fact, any time someone asks Jesus for a healing in the gospels, he usually grants their request. So, maybe Jesus is not rejecting the man, but, instead, wants to disarm him and reframe his question. This is something Jesus did all the time! Perhaps, we need to hear Jesus’ response as an invitation rather than a rejection: [Demonstrate]—”Hmmm. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
When we hear it this way, I think Jesus is saying that being good and inheriting eternal life are not connected in the way this man thinks they are. He is asking what he needs to do in order to secure a place in heaven. As their conversation continues, we see that Jesus is trying to teach him that being a citizen of the kingdom of God, begins here on earth in the way we treat our neighbors in need. The man is thinking vertically, but Jesus is thinking horizontally. Do you understand what I’m saying?
The rest of their conversation reveals that “inheriting eternal life” should be understood as more than “getting into heaven.” It also means living life as citizens of God’s kingdom while we’re here on earth. Watch how the conversation develops and I think it will prove my point.
After disarming the man’s question, Jesus begins with a frame of reference this man could easily understand: “You know the commandments. It’s Judaism 101. I’m sure you’ve tried your best to follow them. 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.”
The first thing we need to notice is that all of these commandments have to do with our relationship with our neighbors. They are horizontally focused. Jesus left out the commandments about our relationship with God, which are vertically focused. This should give us a hint as to where Jesus is headed next.
The man responds with what we imagine as excitement and maybe even uttered a sigh of relief. “Whew. I might have this eternal life thing covered.” And so he says to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” In other words, “I’ve been a good Jew. I’d tried my best to honor the covenant God made with our people.”
At this point in the conversation, it’s important not to skip over the way Mark describes how Jesus is feeling. Mark says “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” In this description we see that Jesus is not trying to scold this man. He does not treat him as insincere or mock him as being self-righteous. Jesus knows he’s a good man. He’s trying to be faithful to God. The problem is that his life is missing something that’s important to kingdom living, to living life in all of its abundance.
And so, with love in his heart, Jesus says to him [gently] “You lack one thing.” Which sounds like it’s really small, when in fact it’s really big. I’m sure this man’s ears where eager to hear what Jesus had to say. He was almost there. He was on the verge of inheriting eternal life. “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; You will receive the inheritance you’re looking for. Then come, follow me.”
Mark tells us that when the man heard this, “He was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” The rest of the story speaks of our relationship with affluence and living life as a citizen of God’s kingdom.
This is the point where many sermons stray from what’s really going on in this story. This is the point where we usually hear that money is bad and we pretty much have to give up everything in order to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. But I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying at all. Here is what I think is the issue at hand. The man in the story is probably thinking “I’ve been a good and faithful Jew. I’ve tried my best to follow the commandments. God has rewarded me for this. My wealth is a sign of blessing. It’s there for me to enjoy.”
However, the one thing he was lacking, that is essential to experiencing life in all of its abundance, is sharing our wealth with others. We are blessed to be a blessing. It’s as simple as that. The reason why wealth is so dangerous is that it often makes us blind to the needs of others.
If we have a lot of money and resources we can protect ourselves from many of the trials and tribulations others experience in our world. We begin to obsess over trivial matters such as over-priced gourmet dinners and having that perfect shade of green in our dining room while others are hungry and homeless.
So, what must we do to inherit eternal life? The good Lutheran answer is that we can do NOTHING to inherit eternal life. It’s a free gift given to us by Jesus. That being said, if we want to live life in all of its abundance as citizens of God’s kingdom, this involves both a vertical and a horizontal component. The vertical is our relationship with God. The horizontal is our relationships with our neighbors, especially those in need. This, of course, forms a cross. It is the way of Jesus. We cannot have one without the other.
Hopefully, the man in the story eventually understood what Jesus was trying to teach him. Hopefully, we understand what Jesus is trying to teach us as well. Amen.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck