17 As he 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?' 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 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; Honour your father and mother." ' 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.' 21Jesus, 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.' 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
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. 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.' 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?' 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.'
28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.' 29Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age-houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions-and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'
How hard we can work at being a good disciple, and yet feel somehow it doesn't work. For much of my life I have been the man running up to Jesus and asking ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' I tried so hard to do what I thought God wanted of me, and yet always it felt like something was missing... some thing that would make all the difference.
21Jesus, 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.' 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
One way to interpret this text is to ask ourselves, "What is my one thing?" What is the thing I am putting in the way of my discipleship? "You may have everything, Lord, except this."
That one thing may change, of course. We lived in church houses from the day we were married. The first one had never been properly painted; you could still see the builder's lead pencil marks on the fibro. In one, you could put your hand out through the cracks in the wall. We were not hung up on houses. Now we have our own; the thought of leaving is painful.
For any one of us chosen at random, it is likely that the one thing will have something to do with our physical security. Without 'bread' we are not likely to be interested in spiritual things, no matter how true it is that 'people do not live by bread alone.' (Matt 4:4) Yet significant spiritual growth involves a certain distancing from material comfort and security. Our becoming more human means going beyond the basic biological drives for survival.
We tend to look down on the man who "was shocked and went away grieving." We shouldn't. Jesus up ended his world. Time dulls our losses, but giving up all we have strived for, or wanted, sometimes flashes back fresh and sharp, decades later. Jesus was making a theological point in his instruction. Telling the man to give his goods to the poor was not merely a shrewd psychological insight on his part. Perhaps we even read the notion of "the one thing" into his words. He was overturning a theological system, which was underpinned by the idea that God's blessing is manifest in riches. The man was not only being asked to give away his possessions, but also to give up all that he believed; the way he understood the world!
That is why the disciples were perplexed. If the rich people, who have been blessed by God, can't enter the kingdom, then who can?!! We should remember here that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. As John Petty notes, the literal translation of this passage begins ‘And when he was going out into (the) way...' The Way is Mark's shorthand for following Jesus.
Peter's response to the image of the eye of a needle intrigues me. "Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you...'" Are these the words of a man who is seeking to justify himself? Certainly there is a sense that Jesus cuts him off; "Peter began to say..." But rather than more stern sayings, there is the promise of goods and family a hundred-fold; a delight to the false prophets of prosperity theology.
Perhaps Peter's question is more a cry for reassurance. The text feels to me as though Jesus breaks in on him, to reassure the disciples. "Truly I say to you..." This is the formula for an important saying from Jesus.
The measure of our material decadence is made by our response to Jesus promise of riches. Some of us think these are the riches of that extra room on the house, or the new iPhone. If so, we are less spiritually mature than the man who came to Jesus. Such an interpretation is clearly a contradiction of the eye of the needle.
Can we take his words literally? There was a time when it seemed my wife and I would not be able to have children of our own. I took great comfort in the delightful toddler next door, and the lovely children of our closest friends, whom we met in the remote settlement where we lived. Even now, when we have been struggling a bit, on less than a full income, how could I doubt the truth of the words of Jesus to Peter? The richness of the people in my Facebook friend's list is amazing. I ate well last night, and this morning. My question about tea today, is what it will be, not whether. The persecutions have been remarkably few.
Jesus' words are paraenesis and poetry, rather than a forensic statement of economics. Even so, I read somewhere that Jesus was wrong. But to say that Jesus was wrong in his statement, as though we are grasping some theological nettle that needs seizing, is surely a judgment on our western greed. As in Jesus time, we mostly starve or thrive with the rest of our community, although sometimes there is persecution. To refuse to give up "the one thing" is the issue. It can cost us everything worth having. Giving up all the other things is not the loss it first appears. It leads to riches.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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