“18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19″Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.'” 21″All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.”
[Luke 18:18-23 (NIV). Mark’s fuller version here]
Have you ever thought about what bible character you identify with most? It’s a useful exercise, to find a story where you feel the outlook or attitude of the protagonist mirrors yours, and see if you can learn from it… It’s not the most scholarly form of bible study, but it has its benefits. 🙂
When asked this question I have always had a few stock answers (Gideon, Jonah, Jeremiah), designed in some ways to get the questioner to leave me alone. But recently I’ve been dwelling on this question myself. The answer I’ve some up with hasn’t cheered me.
Soren Kierkegaard said many wonderful things, a few of them quite challenging. Here’s one for starters:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly.
“Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship.”
In recent years, as I’ve read the bible, I’ve been unable to gloss over the words of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve tried really hard, but it just doesn’t work. The enormity of even simple things, like turning the other cheek, going the extra mile hit me between the eyes. Never mind the hard stuff, like taking up your cross… [Matt 16:24-25]
The picture that has begun to open up before me as I’ve read and wondered, is one where faith in God is grounded in action, where it is not enough to profess a belief, if you don’t have the actions that match. Or, in the words of Batman:
“Its not who I am inside, it is what I do that defines me.”
The Christianity of my upbringing, the tradition that I have swam in and clung to, says that what matters is that most ephemeral of qualities: faith. The declaration of Christ as Saviour is the most important action; the only one that is truly necessary. After all, what is Grace, if not an unmerited favour for which no response could match?
But Faith without works is dead [James 2:17]
Jesus issues challenge after challenge in the gospels that seem to be rooted in action. He talks of judgement based on works, on helping the poor. He talks always in terms of Kingdom; a new way of doing.
And that leaves me battling with the response. Surely, if my faith is true and valid, it should be outwardly expressed, visible in action. It should cost.
I see it; I know it. It tears me up. Because I know what my life should look like, but I struggle to motivate myself to change. I have begun to realise that I identify most clearly with the Rich Young Ruler of Luke 18 and Mark 10.
Here is a man who comes to Jesus seeking something more than the everyday Jewish faith he has been living. Reading Marks more in-depth account, we see him run up to Jesus, fall at His feet and implore Him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
This isn’t an idle question from an interested bystander. It isn’t the trickery of the religious authorities we see elsewhere. It is the heartfelt yearnings of someone who has lived his life by the outward precepts of the Jewish scriptures and yet feels powerfully the need for something more.
The young man obviously feels that Jesus has something he needs. Perhaps he has heard about Him from others and travelled a distance to see Him. Perhaps he as been following, waiting, standing on the edges of the crowd until Jesus comes to leave. But whatever, he finally takes the plunge and runs to Jesus, hoping, begging for an answer to the yearnings that he feels inside.
Jesus challenges him, questions his devotion. Who does he think Jesus is? Has he sought to follow the revelation God has already brought to the Jews? Is he really ready to change…?
And seeing the confusion, the restlessness, the hope in the young mans eyes, Jesus loves him.
Jesus’ challenge to the young man is to abandon the ways of the world, and to find God in meeting the needs of others. It is to let go of material trappings, let go of security and embrace the way of Grace (and the life of the itinerant preacher before him).
The young man goes away crestfallen. It seems it is just too much to ask.
Most people read this passage as a warning against too great a love of money. Yes, but you miss the point. This passage is a companion to the one in John where Nicodemus asks the same question as the young man here [John 3:1-21].
Jesus’ answer is essentially the same; it is about abandoning what has gone before and starting again. It is about taking on a completely new set of values. It is about being born anew…
Yet in this passage, far more than in John, the cost of Jesus’ challenge is apparent. Nicodemus struggles with the existential concept of rebirth; the young man here struggles with the reality of what it would mean for him. Jesus clearly indicates that the price of ‘eternal life’ is high: abandoning your current way of life and starting completely afresh.
This isn’t a theoretical concept. It isn’t a simple matter of praying a prayer. It’s a real, life changing decision. “Decide here and now if you are ready to completely change your life as you know it. Are you ready to abandon your material security; your cosy self-righteousness? Are you prepared to live for the sake of others instead of yourself? Are you prepared to follow me, whatever the cost?”
Its no wonder the rich young man finds this too much. It wasn’t really what he was expecting. The cost is so high!
I’ve grown up with an understanding of Christianity that really hasn’t been that costly. It’s been about personal morality and outlook, rather than active sacrifice. Being good has always been more important than doing good. Yet that doesn’t seem to cut it for me any more.
The more I have understood of the gospels, the more I’ve realised that my own life fails to meet the challenge that Jesus issues. I look at myself and I see that young man, with his good intentions and earnest seeking, with his desire to change mitigated by the comfort provided by his wealth.
Years ago I would have said “money isn’t that important to me; I don’t care for riches… I’m not that person” and to a degree, I would have been right. I’ve never been motivated by achieving the highest paid job or the nicest clothes or whatever. But what I see looking at these passages now is a young man for whom honest, hungry desire for holiness and God hit hard against the sheer cost of discipleship. And I don’t blame him for walking away…
That’s me. I don’t know what I need to step across that invisible line, but I don’t have it yet. I’ll leave you with more from Kierkegaard:
“Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”