“What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?”

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler23nkjasc90-largeThis sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on October 14, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Mark 10:17-31. 

Today’s gospel lesson is another provocative story that may very well cause a little squirming. Several years ago, I was having lunch with a a wealthy member of my suburban congregation; we got to talking about scripture, about how to live as a Christian in the world. He said something that has stuck with me for a long time: “Some of Jesus’ words I like, some I find hard, but the one that I have the hardest time with is the one about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I came from nothing and I’ve worked hard for what I have. I don’t think it should keep me out of the kingdom.”  It’s hard for me to argue with that notion.

I want to put at the center of our reflection the question this rich young man asks of Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The content of the question is odd. In a sense, it’s an absurd question. You can’t do anything to gain an inheritance. To inherit something is by definition passive. If my father has an inheritance set up for me, the only way I get it is for my father to die. Then it comes to me. I haven’t done anything for it. My father might choose to give it to me before he dies, but even then, I have done nothing; I simply receive. So, from the very outset, the young man is going in the wrong direction if he wants to discover anything about eternal life.

There’s something else a little odd.  How quickly Jesus changes the subject from eternal life to how the rich young man is to live in this life. If the man is asking about salvation, if he’s asking about his relationship with God, Jesus answers his question by urging care for his neighbor. It’s the same thing that seems to be going on in the lesson from Amos. The relationship between the nation of Israel and God is broken. The symptoms of that broken relationship are not what the people are doing directly to God, but all the ways that they are living out an oppression to their neighbors, especially the poor. Did you catch all the references to justice and oppression in that reading from Amos? The leaders are trampling on the poor, exacting oppressive tax burdens on the poor, offering and taking bribes and showing favoritism when bringing cases before judges. It seems that for both Jesus and Amos, the sign of God’s presence in the community is communal justice, a focus on furthering the common good and caring for the most vulnerable.

And that’s where things get difficult for our young man. See, there are apparently obstacles to the life that Jesus offers to this rich young man, obstacles that have continued from the first century to the 21st century. For both him and us, one of the most serious obstacles is our possessions. My friend that I referred to earlier had a bit of nervousness about that. What if Jesus’ words are true? That’s where the squirm factor comes in. Some of hearing this story this morning are even by your own standards wealthy. Probably many of the rest of you would not consider yourselves wealthy; yet chances are you have stuff, and you have money and you have some interest in either keeping that money or making more of it. And maybe you yearn for more stuff. Even beyond that, simply by virtue of being born in the western world, we are among the wealthiest people on the planet. Compared to the rest of the population of the world, we are probably among the 1%. So, for all of us, Jesus’ words are a warning. What we have can serve as a serious obstacle to life in the kingdom of God. Here’s how that works: If we are determined to hold on to what we have, if we place what we have at the center of our lives, if that’s what we think gives life meaning and purposes, if our stuff and our money become the measure of what life is all about, if our stuff and our money are what we are clinging to for security, then we are holding on to only a fragile and hollow shell of life. Jesus encourages a willingness to let go of the fraudulent and collapsible supports for life, those supports that are epitomized, but not limited to wealth. Believe me, there is a long list of things we are tempted to rely on. No wonder the rich young man went away sorrowful; no wonder the disciples threw up their hands in frustrated despair and asked, “Then my Lord, who can be saved?”

Exactly. I don’t intend to soften Jesus’ words about the difficulty of the rich man entering the kingdom of God. In fact, I think the whole point of it is the impossibility of it, and the accompanying miracle of God calling us into God’s family. So often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes the impossible possible. He feeds a crowd with a few loaves of bread and some fish. He restores sick and dead children to life. A destitute widow deposits her last coin. And in perhaps the most unlikely miracle of all, God takes the crucifixion of God’s Son and turns it into the event that brings life to the whole world. We are reminded again in the first few words of this gospel lesson that Jesus is on a journey; he is heading to Jerusalem; his face is turned resolutely to the mission before him. There in the holy city,  by his death and resurrection, God would bring life to you, to me, to the whole world, indeed to all creation.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing, except to open our hands and hearts to receive the transformed life that God offers to us, a life grounded in the love and grace of God, a life grounded in our own baptism into the death and resurrection of the Crucified One.

What that looks like is that we don’t have to hold onto our possessions with white-knuckled anxiety. We don’t have to live in fear. We don’t have to cling to things because we know that our life does not consist in things. Elsewhere, Jesus says not to worry because God cares even for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and everything else will come along.

A number of years ago, the congregation where I was a pastor was doing some work in Haiti. We partnered with an organization and some local Haitians to help build and improve an orphanage and school in one of the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. While in Haiti, we lived and worked with people who had very, very little. No running water, the simplest of homes, clothes that were hand me downs from the US, and no assurance that there would be food on the table tomorrow. Yet, I observed that these were people of deep faith. They relied and trusted on God to care for them today and tomorrow. I must confess that my abundant possessions get in the way of that kind of trust. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and everything else will come along.That’s the kind of life I yearn for.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Thanks be to God that this morning, yet again, the Lord Jesus invites us into a new life where we center our lives completely apart from all the things we are tempted to build them around: wealth, career, family, pleasure, prestige, and the rest of the long list. Instead, he offers us real life, to center our lives in the goodness and grace of God, to be transformed once again so that both our lives and our possessions become seeds for the kingdom.

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