With these words we hear again a text which, more than just about any other of which I can think, has Christian people in the wealthy society of the West - preachers and congregants alike - scrambling to try to manage and contain the radical challenge of Jesus. In speaking of this text I may well expose myself as one who is no better than anyone else in this regard.
There are a great many fascinating details in this encounter between Jesus and this man, an account of which is told in Matthew and Luke as well. There’s one detail I want to treat today in the time allotted, and that is the phrase “eternal life.” Hear again the man kneeling before Jesus, asking:
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
What does the phrase “eternal life” mean here?
The answer heard in many Christian contexts for a long time - and certainly in my own upbringing - has been that the gospels are telling us “how to get to heaven.In my life this meaning was reinforced by many repetitions of John 3:16 in the context of sermons and exhortations about becoming saved and being rescued from an eternity in hell: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Is this man asking Jesus about how to get to heaven when he dies?
N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop and celebrated New Testament scholar, wants us to know that the phrase translated “eternal life” refers in the gospels and the writings of Paul to “one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up.” Time was divided in this view into two ages. There was the present age, and the age to come. Jews who understood the world in this way looked forward to the age to come, when the justice and peace and healing intended by the Holy One would come about on the earth. For ancient Jews, God’s project was not to rescue people out of the world, but to bring restoration to the world.1
Eternal life, then, is the quality of life in the age to come, the age in which God restores the world, establishes justice, makes things right, establishes God’s rule. This is the “age to come” spoken of by Jesus in this very passage, when those who have left all for the sake of Jesus and his good news will “receive a hundredfold now in this age... and in the age to come eternal life.”
Eternal life is synonymous with the life of the kingdom of God, which Jesus announces as present now, and coming into fullness.
The man kneeling before Jesus is asking how he may inherit a share in this eternal life, this life of the age to come, and Jesus, looking at him with love, gives him a challenge which pierces right to the heart of the man’s attachments and loyalties.
It seems to me that Jesus is telling this man, who we later find out has “many possessions”, that the life to come is not granted in the way that we inherit something. We generally don’t have to “do” anything for an inheritance. It’s just given to us.
But Jesus, asked by the man what he must “do” to gain the inheritance of the life to come, actually gives the man something to do that will ensure his inheritance. After having given away all his possessions and relieved the burden of the poor around him, and after joining Jesus on the road in his itinerant band, he’ll have no stake in anything but the life of the age to come.
This proves to be too much for the man to do, and, shocked and grieving, he goes away.
Jesus’ comment deserves to be heard deep down by all of us who, in this Western world in which we are the richest people who have ever lived, and yet live in a world of haves and have-nots; a world in which the accumulation of wealth and the suffering of real people are all too often linked in very discoverable and traceable patterns of relationship.
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
His comment strikes right to my heart, and I imagine to yours as well.
How hard it is for those who have wealth in this age to welcome with our hearts and hands and voices the desires of God that are essential to the age to come, and to give ourselves whole-heartedly to the cause. It is hard for us, because money - which is the form of wealth common to most of us - is a power in our lives. And like all powers of this world, we can either use it for the aims of the age to come, the age of God’s peace, and God’s justice, and God’s healing - or not. We can leverage our access to money for God’s purposes, or we can be controlled by money such that the acquisition of it, the preservation of it, the accumulation of it, gets control of us. Money, unless we are very deliberate, becomes an idol.
In short, the power money has over us can keep us from investing ourselves in caring for others. It can keep us from enjoying the world as a gift, of seeing in the world the abundant possibilities for creative action for the common good. This is a form of oppression to which we easily submit.
This power need not have dominion over us. William Stringfellow wrote of the sacramental possibilities of money:
“Freedom from the idolatry of money, for a Christian, means that money becomes useful only as a sacrament -- as a sign of the restoration of life wrought in this world by Christ.”
He turns our attention the centrality of the offertory in our liturgy as our way of representing the offering (oblation) of the totality of life to God.
And, observing that, “in American society at least...every relationship in personal and public life is characterized by obtaining or spending or exchange of money,” he goes on to say that about the offertory in the Eucharist: “it is well that Americans use money as the witness to that offering.”2
In other words, our money is not our own, because our lives are not our own, just as Jesus Christ’s life was not his own, but belonged to the world. In the same way, we belong to the world for which Christ came in love and forgiveness and challenge and blessing.
Another great Christian thinker of our age spoke similarly:
“How to overcome the spiritual “power” of money? Not by accumulating more money, not by using money for good purposes, not by being just and fair in our dealings. The law of money is the law of accumulation, of buying and selling. That is why the only way to overcome the spiritual “power” of money is to give our money away, thus desacralizing it and freeing ourselves from its control….To give away money is to win a victory over the spiritual power that oppresses us.”3
There are many more things that can said about this encounter, but there’s not enough time. I close with what I take to be a comforting sign in the midst of this extremely challenging Gospel story.
We see that Jesus, before he leveled his great challenge to this man, “looked on him and loved him.”
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, you promise us such fullness of life, and you invite us into your abundance, into a world made new by deeds that are just and loving and healing. Look upon us as we come to this Eucharistic offering today, knowing our lives belong to you, but scared of handing them over in full, as you have handed your life over to us in full. Love us, please, as you did that man long ago, and grant that we may not turn away from you sad but follow you along your way. Lead us into the age to come, this very day, and may there be blessing for all those around us because of our response to your invitation. Amen.
2Bill Wylie Kellerman, ed., A Keeper of the Word, Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994) 248-249.
3Jaques Ellul, quoted in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Vol. 4, (Westminster John Knox, 2009) 169.