I heard a couple of news interviews this week that sort of stuck out to me. The first was early in the week on a morning news show. The interviewer was working hard trying to get some answers out of one of the lawyers in the David Letterman scandal. She pushed and pushed for an answer, but the lawyer just kept dodging the question. Answering unasked questions and ignoring the one really at hand.
Later in the week it was a radio news story. The interviewer was speaking to an administrator for the US National Park system. A question came about the law that allows guns to be carried in the National Parks. The administrator was asked, “Do you agree with this law?” Expertly, the administrator answered, “My job is to find the best way possible to make sure the laws set by Congress are upheld.” He must have taken Interviewing 101 from Jesus, the first rule of which is, “If you don’t like the question they are asking, simply answer another one.”
Jesus does this all over Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has something to say, a particular message to advance in the world, and he doesn’t have a lot of time. The gospel speeds from one scene to another, from one village to the next, and Jesus has a message he needs to share. If the people interviewing him, questioning him, and learning from him aren’t going to ask the right leading questions, Jesus is just going to answer the question he wants to hear anyway.
A faithful man approached him one day. He fell to his knees in humility at the feet of Jesus, the sign of one who comes seeking healing, restoration to wholeness, a blessing. In humility he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” By his body language and his words we can only assume that he is sincere. A faithful man, devout and sincere, a man who recognized the goodness of God in Jesus, has come to the good teacher and asked for the key to everything! The secret for obtaining that last piece of security for a righteous man – assurance that life as he knows it will never end.
He’s looking for that golden ticket, that perfect retirement investment opportunity. Bankers and brokers have shown him countless options. He has read the portfolios of life insurance plans, mutual funds, IRAs, and 401 ks. He has searched the web, asked friends, talked to advisors, all so that he can build that perfect, responsible, safe nest egg for the future. And, heck, if it’s lucrative, too, well that wouldn’t hurt too bad either, would it?
A little safety net, that’s all he’s looking for. A little something to point to, to look at every once in a while, to hold on to, to know that even though he has kept the faith for his whole life, this is the one thing he has done to ensure that he possesses the most important thing a righteous man can seek – eternal life.
I mean, he isn’t asking for all the riches in the world. He isn’t looking for wealth to add to what he has. He doesn’t sound greedy or sinfully ambitious or like all he is after in the world is money. He has come to the teacher he has heard is good. He has come to the man he understands is next to God. He has come to the one he believes can give him a little security, help him rest a little easier knowing that his future is taken care of, his children will be fed and education, he and his wife will have a place to live, a place, in fact, in eternity. He has come with a very important question.
But like a well-practiced interviewee, and he certainly is by this point in the gospel, Jesus, doesn’t answer his question. First, he affirms what the young man has already acknowledged; he is in fact a man of committed faith. “You KNOW the commandments,” he says. Listing them one by one, almost straight from the stone tablets themselves, Jesus confirms not only what the man knows, but what he has done – faithfully pursued the godly way of life through his obedience to the letter of the law. So, next Jesus answers the question he wished the man had asked, “How good teacher, do I live with you in the kingdom of God?”
Do you hear the difference? Not “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” But “How do I live in the kingdom of God?” Not “What can I hold onto for security of the life to come?” But “How can I live life to the fullest, life with you, in this one?” It’s a huge difference. We find out, of course, that the young man is used to looking for things to hold onto. It doesn’t say he’s greedy, although that label has been placed on him by tradition. It doesn’t say that he has been unfair to others, although some say that’s why Jesus added the “extra” commandment “You shall not defraud.” It just says that he is rich; he has many possessions, and because of these he walks away grieving at Jesus’ answer to the question he didn’t ask, “How, good teacher, do I live with you in the kingdom of God?”
That’s the question that really matters – not “How can I live forever?”. Oh sure, he tells his disciples later, eternal life is part of the story, but it’s the part that comes in another age. Before we get to that age, there are some things we need to do. And like it or not, comfortable or not, those things can be hard for those of us considered rich by the world’s standards – not impossible, but hard.
The man is told by Jesus to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. This is more than a heavenly garage sale with the proceeds going to the food shelf. This is a complete reversal. This is a radical request! Sell everything you own. Let go of EVERYTHING you hold onto. Give up your security, your safety net, your nest egg for the future, your assurance that you will be taken care of. Sell it all, sell everything you own, everything that owns you, and give it to the poor. Make yourself poor.
For that’s another aspect of Jesus’ answer, isn’t it? If this man were to sell everything he had and share all that he got for it, he would become one of those he was serving. If this man were to do as Jesus says, if he were to follow the directions for living in the kingdom of God, he wouldn’t just serve the people with less while holding on to what he possessed, he would become one of them, without wealth, without possessions, without tangible comfort or security for the future. He would do more than walk in their shoes; he would give up his shoes to walk barefoot next to them, knowing his is just as needy as they are.
Jesus doesn’t answer the man’s question about what he can do to be sure he has comfort and security for his future; he doesn’t tell him what he needs to do to sock away the insurance policy for eternal life. Instead, he tells him the exact opposite. He tells him everything he needs to do to risk entering the reign of God, not in some undefined and eternal future, but here and now, in this world, surrounded by these people afflicted with this need.
Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor. If I stopped there, where would we be? Left with a challenging, if not impossible, instruction for life in the kingdom. Go, sell your house, sell your car, sell all your clothes, but the shirts on your backs, sell your toys, your books, your bikes, your time shares, your cabins, your pensions, your retirement funds. Go, sell it all, and give it to the poor. If I stopped there, where would we be?
“For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.” We can’t do it. Most of us can’t do it. There are some who do! There are nuns and monks and maybe others who live this kind of completely ascetic and sacrificial life, but most of us can’t do it. Does that mean we’re left out of the kingdom? Does that mean there’s no hope or no chance for all of us? “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.”
God can push our stubborn camels through the eye of that needle. God can, and does, call us into kingdom living and show us how to do it. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.” The God of possibilities shows us how to live in the kingdom, leaving the wisdom and convention of our families behind – turning “look out for number one” into look out for the poor among you. Leaving our love of money and desire to stockpile it behind – turning pay yourself first, into give the first fruits to God. Leaving our desire for more clothes, more food, more resources behind – turning “Keep up with the Joneses” into “When I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was naked you gave clothing.”
But this way of life, entering the kingdom of God here and now, doesn’t come without its risks. Leaving conventional wisdom behind often means separation, even if not physically than ideologically, from brothers or sister or mothers or fathers. Setting the collective norm aside to risk living according to the kingdom rules can mean leaving the comfort of the “home” we all know. But Jesus doesn’t promise us a safety net. Following him, entering the kingdom of God isn’t about the safety of the gift of eternal life. It’s about being saved from our misplaced trust and dependence and sense of security based on the things we own, the things we can hold onto, the things that we possess and that possess us.
In the end the question for Jesus is not, “How will I be saved?” That’s a question about eternal life which, while a precious gift from God, is a gift to be enjoyed in the age to come. The real question, then, is, “What am I saved for?” Jesus didn’t come to hand out safety nets. Eternal life may be the gift to be enjoyed some day in the age to come, but it isn’t just another possession to cling to, a balance in our spiritual bank accounts, put away for safe keeping. Eternal life is the sign of a new way of life, life under God’s rule, life in God’s kingdom, where living in the footsteps of Jesus is risky, but by the grace of God, not impossible.
Jesus came to invite us into the kingdom of God, a kingdom so radically different than any on this earth that the invitation comes with a risk. You may leave sister and brother; you may leave mother and father. You may leave your home, your fields, your safety and your security behind. You may end up dead last.
But the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it. This is the kingdom of God, only it just doesn’t look that way all the time. Some are rich, while some are poor. Some are joyous while others are grieving. Some are healthy while others are ill. Some are strong while others are weak.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it. Entering the kingdom of God isn’t something to look forward to in the distant future and the age to come. Entering the kingdom of God – a kingdom of equality, a kingdom of healing, a kingdom of forgiveness and compassion and grace – joining the risen Christ as he continues to build the kingdom of God is something we are called to do right here and right now. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.”