Every Sunday morning, at approximately 8:02, Episcopalians at Christ Church and all over the world hear these words, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, ‘thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’” As I read and reread the Gospel passage for this week, I couldn’t help but notice that those words are not what our Lord Jesus Christ saith to the man who came to him seeking eternal life. I began to wonder what was it about this guy that he would receive such a unique response from Jesus? There is nothing in this story that would lead us to believe this man sought out Jesus with anything other than a sincere desire for eternal life. Unlike most of Jesus’ sparring partners, this man doesn’t appear to be a spy from Scribes and Pharisees trying to trap Jesus in a war of words. Rather, he is simply a faithful Jew, trying to gain a deeper understanding from this now famous itinerant Rabbi.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Isn’t that the question all of us have for Jesus? Please, just tell me clearly, what exactly must I do to gain entrance into heaven? Do I have to say the sinner’s prayer? Do I need to have a momentous conversion experience? Do I have to memorize Bible verse? What can I do to get my ticket punched? Jesus responds as only Jesus can. Jesus never answers a question directly, so he starts by inviting the man to think about the very natures of God and of humanity. If no one is good but God alone, then a) calling Jesus good would put him on par with God, and b) the man’s question is already answered in the asking. No one can do anything to gain eternal life because no one is good except God.
After a brief aside, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, essentially listing the last seven of the Ten Commandments. These are said to have made up the second of the two tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. They deal with how members of the community of the faithful interact with one another. It would seem that here Jesus saith only the commandment that is like unto the first, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Elsewhere in the Gospels, we are told that Jesus can see into the hearts and minds of those around him. When the Pharisees grumble amongst themselves, Jesus knows. When the disciples are afraid or confused, Jesus knows. Jesus knows the heart of this man as well. He knows that he has lived a good life; that he isn’t one prone to fraud, violence, or theft. Jesus knows full well that this man knew the second tablet by heart and that his life was defined by those laws.
“Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” By changing the way in which he addresses Jesus, the man proves that he is listening to him – that he will really looking to learn from this Rabbi and amend his life. It is no wonder that Jesus looked at him and loved him in this moment. How many others had approached Jesus with some sort of need, but were totally unwilling to be changed? This man was genuine, and Jesus loved him for it. And yet, Jesus knew the man’s heart. He knew that he did, in fact, lack one thing, and Jesus loved the man anyway. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” The man, who, we now find out was exceedingly wealthy, walked away from Jesus shocked and saddened. He had learned what he must do to inherit eternal life, and he knew he was incapable. Jesus had called him to a radical reorientation of his life’s values, and he knew that he couldn’t pull it off. The rich man had loving his neighbor down pat, but it was the first three commandments that he couldn’t quite get a handle on. Jesus, no longer the good teacher the man wanted, but rather the teacher that he needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something. It seems it is that pesky first commandment. You know, the one about having no other gods but God. It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth. His possessions were his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.
This is where we encounter the truth of the Hebrews lesson for this morning. Scripture really is a two-edged sword. As much as we might like to have this story be all about the rich man’s failures, it is about our own as well. It is easy to hear today’s gospel lesson and think, “Oh, that’s not about me.” When Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” and “It 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.” the reaction of most 21st century American Christians is to look at least one step up on the economic ladder, shake our heads, and think, as the Pharisee once did, “Gee, I’m glad I’m not them.”
This temptation is one we should be wary of. First, Jesus wasn’t too kind to the Pharisee in that parable. More to the point, however, is the reality that 21st century America is, by and large, a very wealthy place. Even the average minimum wage worker in the United States earns more than 93% of the rest of the world’s population. The monetarily rich, it would seem, aren’t that far away. Still, I can’t help but think if this passage is both about money and not about money. What if Jesus is using the example of the rich would-be-disciple to prove a larger point about faithfulness? In Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic bible translation, The Message, he translates Matthew’s version of the beatitude about poverty as, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
What if being rich isn’t just about money? What if being rich is about being comfortable. What if being rich is about self-reliance? Even if we are unwilling to characterize ourselves as financially rich, by virtue of our upbringing in self-reliant post World War 2 America, many of us are subject to this idea that we don’t need anyone else. Me and (maybe) my Jesus are all we need to get through life. When we look at the world this way, then yes, it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a person who is rich in self-reliance to enter the kingdom of God.
Kingdom living is about fully trusting in God’s grace. Kingdom living is about turning outward, looking at the world through God’s eyes, and seeing that life isn’t just about me, myself, and I, but about the communities in which we live and move and have our being. Kingdom living is about taking all we have, giving it up for the good of the world God created, and following Jesus.
Kingdom living isn’t easy. You might sometimes feel like the rich man, ready to walk away shocked and saddened. Other times, you might want to join with the disciples in throwing up your hands and wondering, “Who then can be saved?” I know I feel that way from time to time. In those moments, it is important that we hear another thing our Lord Jesus Christ saith, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Amen.