Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing…’
As (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, (There’s urgency here. Maybe this man has been watching Jesus for a while, trying to get up the nerve to ask his question. Maybe he sees Jesus leaving town and realizes it’s now or never; if he’s going to get an answer he has to ask it right now. So he runs up to Jesus, kneels before him and asks the question; the big question) ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Now this is an aside, but it’s very important—before we can get anywhere with this story we first have to understand the question. This man is not asking Jesus, “What must I do to get to heaven when I die?” Going to heaven was not his concern. What he wants to inherit is “eternal life”. And eternal life is not heaven in the sky when you die.
We’ve seen this before in another story we looked at a few months ago. The New Testament phrase “eternal life” is two Greek words: “zoe aionion”. Zoe is the Greek word for life—as in “zoology”, and aionion is Greek for age, or ages. Our word “eon” comes from here. Zoe aionion is a really long time, but it is not forever.
In Jesus’ day “zoe aionion” was a code phrase. It referred to “the age to come” or the age of the Messiah. So what the man is asking is not, “What do I do to get to heaven?”, but “How do I get a place at the Messiah’s side when he comes?”
Or to put it more simply, he’s asking, “How do I inherit God’s favor?”
Here’s the thing, though. This question at once both very sincere—he really does want to know what to do, and rather silly; because of that little word, “inherit”. What must I do to inherit eternal life.
It’s a silly question because inheriting anything—either a million dollars from your parents or eternal life from God does not depend on what you do, it depends on who you are. If you want to inherit a fortune from your parents the one thing you absolutely must do is be born to wealthy parents. But how do you do that? You don’t get to choose your parents; you take what you’re given.
You see where this is going, don’t you? If you want to inherit eternal life, the one thing you absolutely must do is be created by a life creating God. But how do you do that? You don’t get to choose your creator; you take what you’re given.
Sometimes, you know, we fuss way too much about silly questions.
I suspect Jesus thought this was a silly question, too, but he takes it seriously—because he has something in mind, something better.
18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. (In words other words, flattery will get you nowhere. Pay attention to what’s really important) 19You 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; (which, by the way, is not one of the 10 commandments. Jesus threw that one in for some other reason) Honor your father and mother.” ’
The man is disappointed with this answer. This is not what he wanted to hear. Not because he thinks keeping the commandments is a bad idea, but because he knows from experience that keeping the commandments does not bring life. It hasn’t worked for him; he doesn’t think it can work.
20He says to Jesus, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him—(most people who come to Jesus with questions don’t elicit this response. Because most of the time they’re trying to trip him up, to trap him in his own words. This man is different. He really wants to live; he wants to feel God’s heart beating in his own chest. Jesus sees this. He sees a 13th disciple kneeling before him and he makes the offer,)
21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; (it’s a little thing, really, an itty bitty, teeny, tiny little thing; almost nothing next to eternal life. I mean, I wouldn’t even mention it except you did ask. You lack one thing. Go home, take everything you own and give it all away. Free yourself of all your stuff. Be content with the treasure you have in heaven. Then come back and we’ll go for a long walk together.) Come, follow me.’
He’s close; so close. ‘What must I do to find life?’ was his question. ‘What’s it worth to you?’ Jesus wants to know. ‘Everything!’ he says. ‘Really? Everything? Then take everything and get rid of it because it’s in your way. Come be with me and I’ll show you how to live’. ‘Eternal life’, Jesus is saying, the “life of the ages”, the life worth living is found in following him; in living the ‘Jesus way’. Life is discipleship. Discipleship is life.
22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. He became unbearably sad because he was holding on tight to a great many things and he couldn’t bring himself to let them go.
Now do you get it? ‘What must I do to inherit life?’ was a silly question because the life he wanted was standing right in front of him urging him to take it and to live it. Here’s life, Jesus says. It’s free. You can have it. But here’s the question: are our arms so full things that we can’t reach out and take it? Are we so consumed with possessing that we have no time for living?
What are you passionate about? For the man in the story it was money and possessions. But it could be anything. Fame, power, fear, greed, sex, food, the certainty that you are right, your country, your candidate—it could be anything. But whatever it is, Jesus says, let it go and live; let it go and follow me.
I’ve always hoped that when the man got home and looked around at all his stuff and thought again about the offer Jesus made, that maybe he had second thoughts; maybe decided to let it all go so he would be free to be disciple number 13. And that might have happened, we don’t know. But that’s not the ending to the story we get here. He goes away sad. He choses, but he does not choose life.
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!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. They were perplexed because in their world, to be wealthy was to already be part of the kingdom of God. To be wealthy meant you had been blessed by God. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.’ Now this is a metaphor, of course. But its meaning is clear. A camel cannot go through the eye of a needle. It is quite impossible. A rich person cannot find the way into the kingdom life Jesus offered this rich man. It is quite impossible.
26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ They were flummoxed. This was unthinkable. The image of a wealthy person stumbling around in the dark, unable to find the door into the kingdom was beyond their comprehension.
To be fair, though, the only reason Jesus is talking here about wealthy people is because he has just been talking to a wealthy person. If you read the rest of the gospels you will conclude that middle class people are no more likely to find their own way through the door. Even poor people cannot find their own way home.
But that, don’t you see, is the whole point of this story. No one inherits the kingdom. No one inherits eternal life.
No one—rich or poor, powerful or weak. The kingdom of God is a gift. Always a gift. Life is always a gift.
‘What must I do? the man asked. Jesus says, ‘Don’t do—live! Life is free; like the air. So breathe, already. Breathe in God’s Spirit, as our Sunday school kids taught us years ago, and breathe out God’s peace. Open your arms and embrace the gift, keeping in mind that when you do, whatever you’re holding on to will fall from your grasp. That’s OK. Let it go. Whatever it is, you don’t need it. Life—“zoe aionion”. the “life of the ages”, is better than stuff; whatever your stuff happens to be.
For the disciples, though, this is a puzzle of epic proportions:
26The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ And that’s the real question, don’t you see. If the rich man can’t get into the kingdom—then what about me? 7Jesus looked at them and said (and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure there was a big smile on his face), ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’
Great God of impossibilities bring us home again. Make us alive with each new day and keep us safe we pray, in Jesus name. Amen.