Hard Questions

Reading: Mark 10.17-31
A few years ago, the wealthy Getty family in Italy received a ransom note, demanding millions of lira in return for their kidnapped son. The general wisdom seems to be that you should never give in to ransom demands from kidnappers or hijackers. But what do you do when they proceed to send you an ear, or a finger, or the promise of the rest of a hand if their demands aren't met soon?

What's a life worth? What's the value of a hoard of assets and investments over against a life?

On one occasion Jesus said, "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul" (Mk 8.45-47).

A US railroad magnate was dying. Addressing his son who stood by his bedside, the dying man said, "Son, take hold of my hand," which he did. Then the man said, "My son you are holding the hand of the man who has made the greatest failure of any man that ever lived."

"But," said the son, "Father, why do you speak thus? You are worth a million dollars. You are president of the railroad. You number your friends by the thousands. Your word is as good as your bond. Why speak thus?"

The poor man looked up and said, "It is like this. I have lived for time and not for eternity. I have made no preparation for the next world. I must leave all here. It is all dark."

What must I do?

As Jesus was starting on his way again, today's Bible reading tells us, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mk 10.17).

Now there's enthusiasm for you! John Grassmick has noted, "His eager approach, kneeling posture, sincere form of address (Good Teacher, not used by Jews to address a Rabbi), and profound question revealed his earnestness and respect for Jesus as a spiritual Guide" (BKC).

There is a question back from Jesus, "Why do you call me good?" It was not that the description was inappropriate for Jesus, but the man didn't understand what goodness is all about. He assumes that Jesus is good because of something he has done - therefore, if I can find out what he has done and do it, I will be good too and worthy to inherit eternal life.

God alone is the true source and standard of goodness. "You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother'." (v. 19) Jesus is quoting five of the commandments that have to do with our relationship with others, together with "do not covet" - which, it has been suggested, supplements "do not steal" and "do not give false testimony".

The man believes he has already reached that standard. "Teacher, all these things I have kept since I was a boy" (v. 20).

That, of course, is a bold claim, though sincerely made. Paul himself made a similar claim - "in regard to the law, a Pharisee… as for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (Phil. 3.5b,6b).

Jesus didn't contest that sincerely-held belief - he surely could have! But to this point he hadn't mentioned the first four commandments. These all have to do with our relationship with God: God is to be the only god we worship. We are not to make an idol of anything, since idols are not to be worshipped as gods. We are not to use the name of the Lord in vain (as the King James puts it). God's name is holy and is not to be used when we curse or swear. And, keeping the Sabbath holy, setting aside one day for God, is a means of drawing us closer to God.

But what about the tenth commandment, "You shall not covet…"? Bruce Rockwell comments, "When we covet something that belongs to another, unless we steal it, our covetousness does not have to do with our relationship with our neighbour as much as it has to do with our relationship with God since when we covet something, we wish enviously for it. We desire it inordinately or culpably. We feel an inordinate desire for it. It becomes like an idol for us. It is something we must have. We are putting it before God."

Jesus doesn't question the man about whether he has kept the commandments that have to do with his relationship with God. Instead, he sets before him a course of action that tests him at that very point - "One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (v. 21).

To quote Bruce Rockwell again, "But what is Jesus saying to us? We don't have the vast material wealth the young man had. So, when we ask Jesus, what must we do to gain eternal life, what must we do to gain a closer relationship with God, what must we do to improve our spiritual lives, what must we do to live in God's Household, perhaps Jesus is saying to us that we must examine our own lives and see what idols we have that are keeping us distant from God. Perhaps Jesus is saying we should consider whether the material wealth we have, even though it may not seem like much, especially when compared to the man in today's Gospel, is getting in the way of our spiritual health."

A wealthy television evangelist was dying in his mansion, and his flock gathered round to ask him for his last wish. "Before I die," he said, "I would like to take a ride." And they asked the rich pastor what he required for that final ride before entering the kingdom of heaven. And he said, "I would like a very small camel and a very large needle."

What only God can do

The disciples of Jesus were puzzled. In Judaism, wealth was often taken as a sign of God's blessing. To say that it was impossibly hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God seemed to make salvation impossible for anybody.

In reply, Jesus was quite direct. "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God" (v. 27). That is a theme that keeps coming up in the Scriptures. Paul, for example, writes, "…[we] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2.16).

Salvation is impossible by doing what the law requires. That is why Jesus said to the man, "No one is good - except God alone. You know the commandments…" The law shows up even the best of us to be sinners in God's sight. In Romans 8, Paul celebrates what God has done: "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us" (v. 3,4a).

So, what must I do to inherit eternal life? By faith accept what God has done in Jesus Christ! Some people came and asked Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered them, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one whom he sent" (Jn 6.28-29).

Then we should qualify, thinks Peter - and with bonuses added in! "We have left everything to follow you."

Yes, Peter, you will receive back a hundred times as much as what you have left to follow me - "and with them, persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life." Discipleship involves service, and that will often include suffering.

Around this time of year, we receive our new offering envelopes. It is a time when we reflect on and review our stewardship. Too often we have thought of stewardship as a financial promotion because the church needs money. But the reality is that we need to give. Stewardship is part of our spiritual response to what God has done for us.

Many of Jesus' teachings have to do with our relationship with money and material wealth. Jesus knows that money is a major spiritual issue for us. Jesus knows we receive through giving. Jesus knows we experience the grace of God through our generosity.

We cannot do anything to receive eternal life - it is a free gift! But, having received it, we "do not belong to [ourselves], but to God; he bought [us] for a price. "So" let us "use [our] bodies" and all that we have and are "for God's glory" (1 Cor. 6.19b-20). And having received freely, let us freely give (Mt. 10.8b)

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 14 October 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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