What does the promise of eternal life mean to you? In chapter 10 in Mark’s gospel, we eavesdrop on an encounter between Jesus and a young man who asks Jesus: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Picture the scene if you can. Jesus is going about the countryside, preaching and teaching about making the kingdom of God a lived reality in this world. He’s drawing quite big crowds, made up of a mixture of rural peasants, townsfolk who have journeyed out to view the latest entertainment attraction, and the better off, those with time to kill. Among the better off there were those who had a particularly religious interest in Jesus’ message – the religious elite with an anxious ear for anything that challenged their hold over hearts and minds. The gospels cover many such encounters between Jesus’ and this group. In the story of the young man, we catch glimpse of another constituency among Jesus’ following, i.e. the spiritually curious.
There are people who view the practice of religion as a process of painting by numbers or painting within the lines. These are the complacent and prideful; those who feel very satisfied at their own ability to meet the religious demands. Viewed from this perspective we might see the young man as one who prides himself on his own achievements, as in: Look at me, see how I have kept the commandments since my youth. But his question reveals that he is not one of those who stand with head raised before God, extolling the virtues of his own spiritual self-sufficiency. For him, fulfillment of his religious obligations leaves him with more questions than answers. His question reveals that his life of religious obligation leaves him wanting something more.
This young man in Mark’s gospel experiences himself caught in a spiritual-religious tension, a tension which I suspect is familiar to many of us to seek to live lives of faith that go beyond mere rule keeping, willing to risk giving up our spiritual self-sufficiency in favor of placing our trust in the energies of God’s grace.
Asking Jesus questions is something of a perilous affair because as this man discovers, Jesus is the master of the unpredictable response. From the outset, the young man gets off on the wrong foot with his addressing Jesus and Good Teacher. Jesus looks at him and says: why are you calling me good? Don’t confuse the messenger for the message. In response, I can picture the young man as he makes an involuntary intake of breath and takes step back.
So, Jesus now has this young man’s number, as we might say. He begins to answer the question by asking him: You know the commandments? The man affirms that he has faithfully kept the commandments since his youth, which given his age can’t have been a very long time. Jesus might have gone on the ask: so, in that case, what’s your problem?
However, Mark tells us that: Jesus looked at him and loved him. Seven eventful words that speak of Jesus profound ability to see straight into the depths of the human heart where he reads the true nature of this young man’s struggle within the tension between religious observance and spiritual longing.
The man’s opening question: what must I do to inherit eternal life might be reframed as: is obeying the commandments enough to inherit eternal life? because he already suspects that obeying the commandments is not enough to inherit eternal life.
Out of the Ten Commandments this young man has kept from his youth, only two are positive actions: keep the Sabbath day holy and honor your father and mother. The other eight are negative prohibitions prefaced by the words: you shall NOT.
Religion based on prohibition has a certain appeal, although it is, as the young man experiences, ultimately unfulfilling. Its appeal lies in the way it limits the area of responsibility, confining responsibility to essentially not acting. But its appeal is also its deficit. Religious practice based on non-action is ultimately unfulfilling. In refraining from doing that which is forbidden, responsibilities are met, nothing more is required. For those who long to love God and love their neighbor as themselves, which is how Jesus reframes the Ten Commandments, the religion of prohibition is not enough.
Jesus looked at the young man and loved him because the young man wanted Jesus to help him to the next level of response to God. He is about to discover that the promise of eternal life rests upon positive action in this life. You lack one thing, Jesus tells him; go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor.
Heartfelt questions occasion heart stopping answers. Mark tells us that the young man is deeply disturbed by Jesus words and goes away troubled for he is a man of great wealth. In his response we see plainly that his longing for God was no match for his worldly fear; a predicament with which I suspect many of us can identify.
As stewardship season approaches this story reminds us of an uncomfortable question: are we able to open our checkbooks as widely and we long to open our hearts?
Jesus answers the young man’s question by emphasizing that eternal life is about action in this world not hope for the next. It’s not what he does to avoid committing sin in this life that will give him a reward in the next. It’s what he does in this life. The promise of eternal life comes to those who have the courage to participate as God’s agents in the divine dream for the coming of the kingdom in this world’s real time.
October 21st, next Sunday, is the kickoff of our Annual Renewal Campaign or as NPR calls it our fall pledge drive, but to call it so is to trivialize the deeper currents that sustain our annual renewal process, which go beyond questions of financial support into those of spiritual inventory. The four weeks of spiritual inventory will be supported by a 40-day program of daily Bible passages, questions, and prayers – exploring scriptural teaching on social justice.
In his answer to the question about eternal life posed by the rich young man, Jesus teaches his disciples about the fundamental connection between gratitude, generosity, and social justice. For the goal of following Jesus is not to ensure that we go to heaven when we die, but to make heaven a reality in this world before we die.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on this earth in real time as it is already so in heaven.
The 40-day Social Justice Bible Challenge which will run alongside our 30-day Annual Renewal Campaign offers to bridge the gap between knowing the Bible and living it.
For those of us already heavily invested in issues of social justice, the daily meditations will connect our compassion with God’s Word. For others among us, who already take Scripture seriously, the readings, questions, and prayers will help us to shape a renewed vision for action.
Whether our need is to connect our commitment to social justice with God’s Word or let our love for God’s Word shape a renewed vision for social justice in this world, the resources of life are given to us not to hoard and protect but to enjoy as good stewards. Stewards of the kingdom do not hoard, they share. They are not motivated by fear of scarcity, but by the promise of abundance. Our individual prosperity is inextricably linked with the flourishing of our neighbor’s wellbeing. Do good and share what you have for the promise of eternal life is predicated on the practices of social justice.
In today’s America, rising inequality of wealth is reflected in plummeting commitment to wider issues of social justice. In his Atlantic article, which the men’s Op-Ed discussion group will review this coming Tuesday evening, Matthew Stewart writes:
Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose.
That’s why Jesus says it’s easier for the camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
 Even today some Christian traditions still preach obedience to the Ten Commandments. This is very strange because Jesus in effect abolished them for his followers by reframing them in the Two Great Commandments of love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet, the continued appeal of religion based on prohibition is because the religion of prohibition limits our personal responsibility. If you can refrain from doing that which is forbidden, your responsibilities are met and nothing more is required of you. We see the tone and effect of this kind of religion all around us in the so-called Christianity of the cultural-conservative right. The battle in some parts of the country over whether the Ten Commandments should appear in our courtrooms is put in perspective when we realize not only should they not appear in our courtrooms, but they have no place in our churches either.