“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17-31
Thanksgiving 2015


At first glance, we seem to have been given a rather odd Gospel for Thanksgiving weekend – a reading that warns against plenty it for a weekend that celebrates it.

Not that Thanksgiving is about crass rejoicing in our wealth – I do understand that it is about giving thanks for the abundance that marks our lives – whether the abundance of love, of health, of security, of food – and the bounty of our earth in this season of harvest. And I know that many people use Thanksgiving as a time to note the ways in which that abundance is not evenly shared, to acknowledge their own unearned and undeserved good fortune in a world where others suffer unearned and undeserved misfortune.

But even so, we, in our relative wealth, are confronted by this difficult Jesus when we’d rather simply be looking forward to our feasts.

So let us begin with the pious young man. He is rich, but we don’t know that at the beginning of the story. Even at the end of the story, we don’t know if Jesus knows that about him.

We know he is seeking – that he is unsatisfied with his current spiritual and religious practices, knowing that there is something he is missing. And so he goes to ask Jesus, this rather famous teacher.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life.”

And his question gives him away.

This young man is not only pious – he is driven, a do-er, a go-getter. “What must I do?” He assumes that he is to be the active agent and that accomplishing his goal is within his capabilities. He is already doing the regular things, the things that make him a good person, the the things that keep him on good terms with the community and demonstrate his obedience to God – but he wants more.

He wants eternal life. And he’s ready to do what it takes to inherit it.

So Jesus tell him – “Join the family”

Because eternal life – life that knows no ending or beginning; life without bounds; life that is bigger than we can imagine – is not achieved or earned. It is inherited – simply received from the One who desires to give it to all the children in the family.

And joining the family involves a radical re-orientation to our independence, our status, our goals – and our wealth, however great or meagre it is.

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”

Free yourself from what holds you; relinquish control over your own life; engage in radical care for those in need – and join the family.

Eternal life is not the reward – it is the consequence. A life of freedom and trust in God; a life of generousity and justice; a life of deep and abiding community; a life in the presence of Christ.

The young man, however, does not receive this as good news and he goes away, grieving, for he had many possessions. And only then do we find out that this pious, driven young man is also rich.

And his wealth, which makes so much of his life so much easier, makes this so much harder.

As Jesus says, “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”.

Now, you may be familiar with a variety of attempts to explain this particular proverb away – or at least to minimize its impact. The Greek words for rope and camel are close. There is a narrow gate in the walls of Jerusalem known as “the needle”. Don’t buy any of it. Jesus means what he says – it’s particularly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Because wealth operates on a logic that is in opposition to the Kingdom of God because wealth is really just a way to measure and exchange power. Crudely speaking, more wealth = more power. And it is incredibly difficult to give up power.   And as we grow accustomed to power, we need more and more of it. Our whole world tells us that the only way to insure our power is to have more power. That the only responsible thing to do with our wealth, is to make more wealth. Power seduces us with promises of security, of authority, of popularity – all of which are most certainly for sale and are most certainly tempting.

They are even tempting for Jesus – consider the temptations he faced in the wilderness after his baptism – he is promised worshippers to love him, authority to govern the world as he saw fit, angels to protect him from harm.

But Jesus refuses, choosing instead a long and arduous journey to the cross, marked by healing and welcome and forgiveness.   And eternal life.

“Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”

It’s a hard thing to do – no matter how much or how little you own – but, both Jesus and statistics suggest that it might get harder the more you own. Although wealthy people give more money to charity in absolute terms – in the number of actual dollars – they give a lower percentage of their income than people who have less.

Let me take a moment here to assure you that I am not talking about you – or at least, if I am, I don’t know that. Each and every one of you may be remarkably free from the emotional, psychological, and spiritual bonds that wealth can impose, able to give with joyful abandon and unencumbered with desire for wealth and its advantages. But I’m not. Our society is not. Our world is not. The logic of this world is very persuasive – the first are first. And it’s up to me to make sure that’s me.

But Jesus’ logic; the logic of the kingdom, offers a different way. In order to receive eternal life; to enter into the new family of God – we have to have empty hands. It isn’t a trade – wealth for salvation; generousity for God’s love; poverty for holiness. That’s the logic of this world, the logic of wealth.

It isn’t a trade, something we do -it’s creating space for something new, a new life of freedom and trust, of communion with Christ and with all God’s children – space for eternal life – this remarkable, undeserved and unachievable inheritance which is entirely God’s to give…and which God wants to give.

So as we sit down to our feasts this weekend- or even just to our regular suppers which, make no mistake, are feasts in their own right – let us indeed give thanks. Thanks for what we have, yes, but, even more, thanks for what we can give and for the freedom God gives us to give it.



Post a comment