'Are we ready for God to do the impossible?'
But it’s actually one of those sentences that can change its meaning depending on how you say it.
What do you mean, John? Let me explain!
He could have said 'What must I do to inherit eternal life?' or alternatively ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Still confused? Bear with me!
Let’s take option 1) ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
After correcting him on the subject of goodness (only God is good!), Jesus answers him by quoting a few commandments. They’re the ones to do with respectable living, the basics of a decent life; do not kill, do not commit adultery, don’t defraud anyone and honour your father and mother. This is a respectable man, so there’s no hesitation and the response is almost instantaneous. ‘I’ve kept them all since I was a lad! Is that it? Is that all I have to do? Blimey, that was easy!’ (I paraphrase!)
So he went back home a happy chap, knowing that being a nice person is all you have to do to earn eternal life…………….. well, that’s not quite how it happened, but it would have been a nice and easy option. In fact if that was the answer I guess that our churches would be a lot fuller than they are. Think about it for a moment, the church announces that all you have to do to be ‘saved’, to be a Christian, to earn eternal life (however you want to phrase it) is to lead a respectable life and ‘do no harm’.
And there’s the problem of course, because respectability, being nice is not enough. Not harming or hurting another person, either physically or mentally is admirable but on the whole it’s actually rather negative – it consists of not doing things!
At this point Jesus looks him in the eyes and probably sighed. Our reading says that Jesus loved him, and I think he probably sighed and shook his head a little. It’s that gesture we all make when our children say or do something silly or fail to understand something really important – it’s an arm around a shoulder, the quiet voice, an element of mild rebuke but it’s mainly about love, tinged with sorrow because Jesus knew what was really going on in this man’s heart.
Our reading from Hebrews says that the Word of God is ‘Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ And I think that’s exactly what happened next when Jesus replies.
‘Look,’ says Jesus, ‘you’ve been great about not doing some things, that’s wonderful, you’ve lived a respectable life thus far, you’re an upstanding citizen - but what good have you done?
Tell you what, you’re a successful man, plenty of fancy things around your house, how do you feel about selling them on ebay and giving the proceeds to charity?
You want to know what you can do, well here’s a start, and it would certainly demonstrate how much you want what you’re after!
Show me how much you want eternal life, how important
that is in your spiritual journey! Do you want it enough to
lose everything you have that is precious to you?’
Was Jesus being a little unfair? Did it really need this enthusiastic potential convert to give all his possessions away? Or was this simply Jesus testing him, asking ‘How much do you really want this?
How much do you really want to know what Christianity is about?’
And the response seems to have been ‘I want it, I really want it – but I’ve spent years building up my little world, it’s precious to me, I can’t give that up!’
And that’s where so many people get stuck! Jesus asks ‘How much do you want this? How important, how central to your life is the hope of Christianity?’ and we answer ‘Well, quite a lot really, but as long as it’s on my terms! Don’t start asking too much of me, because I’m quite comfortable with where I am at the moment!’
At which point, I guess Jesus turns to his disciples, sighs
again and talks about needles and camels.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had a simple notion of prosperity – it was the sign of a good man. If you were rich then God had blessed you. It was a proof of character. These days there are plenty of churches, particularly in the US which preach something similar – it’s called a Prosperity Gospel and I don’t see how it fits in with the Gospel message.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
That’s not what the man or the disciples wanted to hear, it went against the whole cultural thinking of the day – surely God would bless his people with wealth if they obeyed the Law.
'The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?"'
What’s the big problem with having ‘stuff’ and being relatively well off, as most of us probably are (in comparison with some people in the world)? What do we say to Christians who are also wealthy?
Well, it’s about values, and it’s about where our heart is fixed. We’ve grown up in a culture which hasn’t said that it is God who blesses us with riches, but rather that material possessions are a wonderful thing, to be desired and coveted, because they show how successful we are. Money = success. It’s a simple formula, and it’s probably got the world into the mess it is in now.
If we’re constantly evaluating our possessions, adding up the interest in the bank, the value of our shares, thinking about switching to a newer shinier car, watching the property market to see how the value of our house has gone up (or down) – if this is the thing that turns us on then our thoughts are very much fixed to this world and not very far beyond. It becomes difficult to see that there are some things, some values in this life that go way beyond being fixed by price. If you think everything that is worth having has a price tag attached, then you’re going to be disappointed, I’m afraid.
God’s not against earning money, or even getting rich – there
are plenty of wealthy Christians in the world. Jesus merely
points out the pitfalls.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The problem in the way this is phrased is the letter ‘i’, and
‘i’ is a problem throughout life – let’s face it, ‘i’ is right
at the centre of the word sin!
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘There’s nothing you can do’ answers Jesus, ‘Absolutely
nothing you can do!’
‘What!’ reply the disciples. ‘If there’s nothing we can do, then how can anyone be saved?’
‘Hang on!’ says Jesus, ‘don’t interrupt! There’s nothing you can do, but everything God can do!”
There’s nothing you can do, because it has already been done for you in the person of Jesus!
Which brings us back to our reading from Hebrews, where the
writer reminds us just why there’s nothing we can do. You see,
however respectable you might be, how upright a citizen, how
full of good intentions, there’s always the ‘i’ in the middle
of sin which spoils things eventually, and as the writer to
the Hebrews tells us (Heb 4:12-16):
12… the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
That is why there’s nothing I can do, because there’s nothing humanly that I can do to Spring Clean my life out, nothing I can do to get things right between me and God, no level of respectability that I can reach to earn eternal life…………. when ‘i’ is at the centre of what I am.
Which is why I said at the start that there are two ways of posing the question the rich man asked of Jesus, and the second is ‘What can I do to inherit eternal life?’
Now that might seem like a pretty subtle difference, but I think it shifts the emphasis from head to heart. ‘What can I do?’ is more of a cry for help, there’s humility rather than pride, a yearning rather than a desire, and that’s the starting point from where God does the impossible. The writer to the Hebrews carries on to say:
14Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Mercy and Grace are at the very centre of a Christian’s life. Mercy and forgiveness are there because of the ‘i’ problem, those bits of our life which that ‘sharper than a two-edged sword’ reveals, the rubbish we’d rather hide in a dark corner.
Grace is an undeserved and unmerited gift, and it is given freely by God to those who humbly ask ‘What can I do to inherit eternal life?’ It is though the Grace of God that we can inherit eternal life (the hope of all Christians) not through our respectability or a life spent trying hard to keep to the rules – that doesn’t sort out the ‘i’ problem. What can we do, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us is to ‘… approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace’
All we can do is come humbly to Jesus, confessing our sins and accepting the forgiveness that he offers to all who come to him with humility, leaving pride behind. There’s no need to throw ourselves at his feet as the rich man did, presenting to him all the things that we’ve done to try and earn favour and brownie points, but rather we need to open up our hearts and souls to Him, trust His Word and accept with confidence the free gift of eternal life that he offers, trusting that He can do the impossible in our lives, that he can and is willing to Spring Clean our hearts if we are willing for Him to enter and do just that.
‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ says Jesus. ‘Will you let me in?’
Are we ready for God to do the impossible?