Last Sunday we had the gospel reading about the rich man who comes to see Jesus and asks the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Here’s what I said.
Down at the swimming pool John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming. His muscles were well toned and he had learned how to breath correctly in time with the strokes so he didn’t swallow any water. He knew all about how to get off to a flying start, how to turn quickly at the end of each length and how to pace himself. But he still didn’t seem to be making any progress. So one day John said to his swimming coach “I know all about these things but I still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?” The coach, took a deep breath and said,
“Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have to actually get in the water.”
The rich man who comes to see Jesus in our gospel reading this morning has a problem. And like John and his swimming he knows he has a problem, but he can’t see what it is. It’s obvious to everyone else, but he hasn’t a clue and needs it pointed out. And like John who hadn’t yet got into the water it’s fundamental.
The problem for the rich man is that he wants eternal life, he knows that the basic requirement is keeping the commandments, he knows there’s something he hasn’t got right – but he can’t for the life of him see what it is. But Jesus – just like the swimming coach – can see exactly what it is and perhaps is even wondering why the rich young man is oblivious. And, perhaps more interestingly, everyone else witnessing this encounter would have seen exactly what the man hasn’t got right. I wonder whether you have? Because like any good detective story, the clues are there staring you right in the face.
Let’s think about what happens in this encounter. A rich man comes to see Jesus to find out what it is he needs to do that he isn’t yet doing that will mean that he can inherit eternal life. He has clearly recognised in Jesus someone who will be able to help him sort his problem out. And what is Jesus’ response? He reminds the man about the commandments – which the rich man would have known anyway. Just look at what Jesus says: You 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.
And the rich man’s response is, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
And that’s the problem. Look again at what Jesus says, and his list of commandments. He’s quoting from the ten commandments, but he gets one wrong – at least he appears to. Have you spotted the mistake? Who knows the ten commandments well enough to know which one that Jesus mentions isn’t one of them?
None of the ten commandments says you shall not defraud. Has Jesus simply got the commandments wrong by mistake? Of course not – no first-century Jew would ever get the commandments wrong. What Jesus has done is, seemingly quite deliberately, replace the commandment you shall not covet with the commandment you shall not defraud.
And this is why. We live in a capitalist society. Some people happen to be rich and unless there’s clear evidence to the contrary we assume that they have got rich legitimately. That’s not how it was in Jewish society at the time of Jesus. They were anything but a capitalist society. They lived – as far as they were able given that they were occupied by the Romans – under the law of God. And the law of God, as any intelligent reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, will show you is that equality and justice is at its heart. There was an understanding that in economic terms everyone was supposed to be equal. As one commentary I read this week puts it Economics were viewed as a zero-sum game (Apologetics Study Bible). And therefore if you were rich there was only one way you could be so. It was commonly understood that the rich had become rich by defrauding others of their fair share. Fraud was seen as the particular way covetousness manifested itself in the rich.
And so when Jesus lists the commandments to the rich man, he reminds the rich man of the particular form of covetousness that everyone knew the rich were guilty of – fraud. So how does the rich man respond? Well, he clearly doesn’t get the point. Everyone else would have! Everyone else would have understood what Jesus was saying. But he misses it entirely. And he goes on to reply to Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And there is the problem. He hasn’t. Jesus knows, and everyone else knows, that since he is rich he has broken the commandment of covetousness because he can only have become rich by defrauding others. But he can’t see it for himself.
And it’s obvious what he needs to do but he can’t see it. So Jesus points it out to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Essentially what Jesus is saying to the rich man is, your one problem is that you haven’t kept all the commandments, even though you think you have, because there’s one you’ve broken – you have coveted to the extent that you have defrauded others of their rightful share. So put things right by selling your riches and giving the money back to the poor where it belongs.
And as we know from the story the rich man is shocked by the response from Jesus. And he goes away grieving for he had many possessions. He is faced with a dilemma. Eternal life or continuing to break one of the commandments. Mark never tells us whether he was able to overcome that grief and give his possessions away or not. Perhaps he was, in the end, able to embrace that one thing that Jesus says he lacked. We shall never know. But this is what this gospel today is all about – embracing the one thing that Jesus says we lack in order to inherit eternal life.
Imagine that you are there, on that day, instead of the rich man. Imagine that you are before Jesus. You are there, just where the rich man was, kneeling in front of Jesus. Are you as anxious as he was to know the answer to your question? For like the rich man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for.
Just as he looked at the rich man with the eyes of love and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on you with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is you need to do. Kneel before him and say to him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus first establishes that you are already keeping the commandments, as he did with the rich man, because if you’re not already at least trying to keep the commandments that needs sorting out first. And then he says to you, “One thing you lack …”
How do you think he might finish that sentence, speaking to you? “One thing you lack …” What might that one thing be for you? Don’t be like the rich man and make yourself believe that you’re keeping all the commandments – we all fall down somewhere. What might that one thing be that you lack?
Only Jesus, and you if you are willing to listen, can know the answer. The rich man was not keeping one of the commandments. What is the commandment, or commandments, that you struggle with? Be honest with yourself. The rich man couldn’t be, yet Jesus knew, just as he knows what we struggle with. His answer to us may well not be “go, sell what you own”, because it’s not the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus, it’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back. What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which is difficult for him to put aside. And he cannot acknowledge that in his case his wealth was not his by right but gained through fraud.
The answer Jesus gives to each one of us will be deeply personal. We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity. Many things can become a kind of spiritual security blanket and stop us facing up reality. The particular problem that Jesus says you need to address might well be possessions as it is for so many. But it might be something quite different – memories of wrongs done to you that you’ve never forgotten or forgiven, pride in your own abilities, addiction or destructive relationships, something bad you’ve done in the past and can’t bring yourself to confess, or you cannot allow God to deal with your guilt.
It might even be that feeling – and it’s a dangerous one but many Christians have it – that there is absolutely nothing in your life that you need to change or to deal with because actually you’re a good, upstanding, moral Christian already. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What is the answer Jesus gives to you?
We might feel that to acknowledge what Jesus says to us deep down in our hearts, to deal with whatever it is Jesus says is the thing we lack or have to deal with, would just be a step too far and we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly. So we’ll just struggle on as we are.
But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible. For the rich man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned and he had to go away bruised and heavy-hearted. But at least he asked, which so many never do. Kneel before Jesus, ask him what you need to address in your life, what you need to change, what you need to give up, what you need to take on, what you need to deal with. And hard though the answer may be allow God to achieve the impossible by letting his Holy Spirit come into your life to change it. Don’t do what the rich man did – turn around and walks away. No conversation with Jesus, no more discussion, not even a “But…” He just turns and walks away without a word. Jesus was there, waiting to talk things through and to help him achieve what might seem impossible, but the rich man didn’t hang around long enough to find out that Jesus was on his side because, as Mark tells us, he loved him.
Stay, kneeling at the feet of Jesus, and let him help you to achieve what might seem impossible, to help you deal with those things that seem impossible perhaps to deal with. Those things that Jesus has said to you when he said, “One thing you lack …”
And then do what Jesus told the rich man to do – follow him. Follow Jesus with all that you are and all that you own at his disposal – with your whole life centred on him and the kingdom of God.