The man of means asks Jesus how to "inherit" eternal life. Why does he use a word we might expect to hear, such as "earn" or "receive"?
told by Deborah
As Jesus was walking along the road out of town, a man ran up to him and knelt at his feet, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Good?” Jesus repeated, “Why are you calling me ‘good’? Only God is good.” He gazed out at the road before him, “You know the commandments: Do not murder; Do not commit adultery; Do not steal; Do not bear false witness; Do not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”
“Teacher,” he answered, “I have observed these all my life.”
Looking at the man, Jesus was filled with love, “You lack only one thing,” he said, “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor — and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”
The man blinked in surprise, then slowly rose to his feet and walked away, his eyes downcast, his shoulders sagging; he owned a lot of things.
Jesus watched until the man was out of sight and then turned to look at his disciples, “It will be really hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God,” his voice soft and low.
The disciples glanced at each other in confusion, thinking they’d misunderstood.
“Oh, my little ones,” Jesus said, “It’s hard to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were shocked by this, and began saying to one another, “Well, if the rich can’t get in, who can? It’s hopeless!”
Jesus said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
At the last minute — just as they were heading out of town — a man came running up and knelt in front of Jesus, forcing him to stop, abruptly (either that or rudely step around the fellow). We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus’ initial reply was equally abrupt: “What should you do? You know the rules; follow them.”
It was only after looking at the man: seeing him as he was, not as he appeared — probably dressed in fine linens and expensive jewelry — that Jesus gave a fuller answer. Taking his eyes from the road ahead, the Lord looked into the heart of the one who knelt at his feet, and was filled with love: “Get rid of all of the stuff that’s holding you, and follow me.”
The answer left the man surprised and distressed. He gave no answer, but sorrowfully walked away from Jesus, and off of the pages of the Gospel. We are left, standing with the disciples, wondering: what did he expect Jesus to say? What was he hoping to hear?
Mark’s report of this encounter (and its near-twin in Luke) always strikes me as odd, as the man asks Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Inherit? That’s a peculiar word choice: we’d expect, perhaps, “earn,” as a reward, or “receive,” as a gift. But “inherit” evokes the image of … well, somebody has to die for another to inherit something, don’t they?
The expression can serve as a foreshadowing of the Crucifixion — a subject never far from Mark’s thoughts. That event is the turning point in history, when we become inheritors of the Lord Christ’s legacy.
On the other hand, the word may represent precisely how the man believed this “eternal life” business works out: as an extension of this one. If you are among The Chosen now: healthy, wealthy, powerful, when you die you’ll inherit more of the same; your social situation is a reflection of your heavenly status: the rich are beloved by God.
It’s a version of the prosperity Gospel; the sort of thinking that’s been around for as long as there have been people: the belief that “the rich are different from you and me;” that those with money and position enjoy divine favor — are somehow better than the rest of us. We continue to succumb to this belief, even today: attributing great wisdom to film and television performers, politicians, and foreign royalty; paying undue, unmerited homage to “celebrities” with our attention and imitation. We make ourselves willing serfs: obeying the “teachings” of those we consider “our betters,” who are only too eager to take control of that power and authority: our power, our authority.
We ignore the second commandment at our peril: idolatry is one of the primary temptations that flesh is heir to, and it has nothing to do with golden calves or rock-hewn fertility symbols. Idolatry is the elevation of any mere created thing or being to god-like status; giving it our faith and our hope, our energy and our enthusiasm.
The idol is the shadow of the scapegoat. Just as the scapegoat carries all that we loathe or fear in ourselves, the idol channels the heroic aspect: the best and brightest and shiniest — so shining, in our eyes, that we are blind to flaws or failings. As far as we are concerned, our idol is purely good … and yet, as Jesus said, “Only God is good.”
Idolatry damages, perhaps even destroys, those caught up in its web, disguising faults and failings, distorting reality, inflating egos to monstrous sizes, and turning free persons into mere slaves. Not incidentally, we sometimes willingly surrender our independence; finding it easier to assign the responsibility (or blame) to another agency, person, or party rather than ourselves. That’s why it is called a “temptation” — because it can be attractive, even as it drags us down.
That’s the other peculiar point in this encounter between Jesus and the man of great wealth: the Commandments that Jesus doesn’t mention. I think it is significant that the Lord omits the teachings against worshipping other gods and idolatry, which are the first two on The List. Equally significant is that the man avoids mentioning them, too. Perhaps because they are the Elephant in the Room: the Issues that Matter Most?
We’re not inclined to like this fellow: at our first sight of him he is putting himself forward: in front of Jesus, ahead of the disciples, claiming a private interview, interrupting their travel — behaving as if he’s special, as if he’s someone who has the right to do such things. Apparently his social position has convinced him that he is a Special Case: different, better, superior. Others will have contributed to this condition by their idolatry of power and position: treating him as ifhe is special, through their cautious words and careful handling.
And then Jesus looks at the man — really looks at him — and sees the Divine Child underneath the spoiled brat. Beneath the finery and frippery and smug self-satisfaction there is a good person in a bad, corrupting situation; one for whom Christ has an overwhelming love.
Jesus does not condemn the man, instead he warns him away from the circumstances that are poisoning his soul. Get rid of what confines you, remove the obstacles that prevent you from living fully. Stuff and status can blind you to the needs of others, and cause you to see yourself as a godling, rather than a human being. Dying to the delusion of “inheriting” the Kingdom, the man will receive the Gospel: becoming one who no longer commands and demands, but who comforts and blesses.
But it is not to be. The man of means cannot accept the Lord’s prescription for living. He walks away, grieving — and our hearts hurt for him. How hard it is to surrender our faith in things! Who among us would “sell all that we have” in order to follow the Lord?
No, we are too accustomed to warm homes and soft beds and regular meals. What Jesus asks of the man is too difficult for us. Instead, we pray for God’s mercy, that our humble efforts to follow the Lord will be blessed; that we will resist the temptation to glorify ourselves or others because of status or wealth or possessions.
Wealth and power are tremendous temptations: wicked deceivers that can delude those who have — and those who don’t — to believe that they deserve special honors and respect beyond what is given to “mere mortals.” They distract us from what really matters, enticing us to worship mere stuff (and nonsense), leading us away from the God who loves us.
What matters is not what we have, but what we do; what matters is not what we get, but what we give. What matters is that we follow the Lord.
Christ’s grace and healing love,
Who or what do you “idolize”?
Are you unwilling or uncomfortable in admitting that you (or those you admire) have made mistakes, have fouled up and failed and fallen — have, in short, been human, rather than god-like?