Any time we read the Bible some interpretation is involved. We bring to what we read, whether reading by ourselves or in a group setting, our own thoughts and experiences and expectations and imaginations, as we go about trying to draw meaning from what we are reading.
One reason we have to interpret is because, in many parts of the Bible, we are reading speeches or conversations, and while we have copies of the words or conversations, we don’t have access to the speakers’ tones of voice, or attitudes and feelings, or how they said those words.
In the conversation we just heard, for example, between Jesus and a wealthy man, with what attitude does the man approach Jesus? Is he trying to trap Jesus into saying something unacceptable or unpopular, as we see some Jewish religious authorities doing elsewhere in the gospels? “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Is he cocky, a know-it-all, showing off? “Why. . . I have kept all the commandments since my youth.” Is he just trying to win a bet with his friend watching from the sidelines? “I’ll bet he says this; what have you got?” Is he sincere? Manipulative? Bossy? Smug?
We have to interpret, from the text, what we think his attitude is—and what Jesus’ attitude is in response, as he finally informs him he must also give away all that he has. So today, we try to interpret what was going on here, and what this exchange is meant to show us.
First, some things that our interpretation will not turn out to be—and I think these may come as a relief to you:
- While the story mentions money, this is not a stewardship, an increase-your-pledge-or-your-giving-to-the-church sermon. That would be a questionable interpretation, since Jesus says give the money to the poor, not the church.
- Second, the point is not specifically anti-rich people; we are not
targeting the vast numbers of you who are extraordinarily wealthy today. We will find here a message for everyone, not just the rich. Besides, Jesus didn’t seem to be against rich people; note his friendship with the wealthy Joseph
- Third, this is also not a statement that all possessions are bad. How could the rich man sell them, except to somebody else? If possessions were bad, he’d be told to destroy them, not inflict them on another.
All those are what our interpretation is not. For our interpretation of what Jesus’ attitude and intention were, let’s return to the text:
We start with the rich man’s attitude, as he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. And the phrase “eternal life” here, by the way, is interchangeable with “being saved,” as verse 26 says, or “the kingdom of God.” What must I do to be saved, to gain eternal life, to get to heaven? A question on many peoples’ minds, not just this man.
We see from Jesus’ reaction to his question that it is not one asked as part of a scheme or a boast or to win a best, but out of sincerity. Jesus loves him for it, we are told, when he reports that he has kept the commandments; this is a man sincerely trying to do what is right. It’s an honest effort, and Jesus loves him for that.
But within his love for the man’s honest effort, Jesus also sees a major misunderstanding. “That’s good! You’re very close!” he might have said. “There is just one thing—one thing you don’t have quite right.”
Martin Copenhaver, a United Church of Christ pastor, points out what it is: “Notice how the man poses his questions: He uses the word “inherit,” which reflects an understanding that eternal life is a gift that he is powerless to give himself. But then, in his confusion, he asks what else he must do to gain this inheritance, as if eternal life were an accomplishment. He sounds like the child who asks, ‘Mommy, what must I do to earn a Christmas present?’ or, ‘What must I do to deserve a sunny day?’
Perhaps eternal life can be earned. Perhaps that is why Jesus responded to the man’s query by telling him to follow God’s commandments. I believe, however, that Jesus’ intent was the opposite: Jesus wanted the man to understand that what he seeks only God can give. The law is rigorous, and we persistently fail to live up to its demands. (As one man said after hearing a sermon on the Ten Commandments, “Well, at least I haven’t made any graven images lately.”). So, by referring people to the law, which we all break, Jesus underscores that we cannot earn eternal life: we inherit it.” End of quote.
We can only receive it, as God’s gift.
The one thing the man does not understand, within his honest otherwise-solid effort, is that you don’t do something to get eternal life. You don’t get it, as the old commercial said, “the old-fashioned way; you don’t EARN it.”
The context of the passage helps to demonstrate that this is Jesus’ point. Immediately before this conversation, we have heard him say “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Children know how to receive, to be dependent; they don’t say things like “I don’t accept charity; I earn everything I get.” You must be like that to enter the kingdom, Jesus has just said. And then by contrast, immediately, comes the man saying “What must I do to earn it?” On the one hand the child, able to receive a gift, coming in; on the other the adult, thinking only of earning it, turning
And then immediately after the conversation, Jesus reinforces it with his disciples: “Then who can be saved?” they want to know. By human effort it is impossible, he tells them; it is done only by God. You don’t do anything to earn eternal life; you receive it, as a gift, from God.
With Jesus’ point being, then, that you can’t earn it, he gives to the rich man a very personal example. Copenhaver, again: “When the man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him that he should keep the commandments. When the man replied that he had always done so, Jesus added another requirement: Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. At that, the man ‘went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’
“But what if the man had been able to reply, ‘I just did that. I sold everything and gave every last drachma to the poor. Is there anything else I must do?’ How would Jesus have responded to that? Here is one possibility: ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! But this man has done it! Move over, Peter, this man has earned a place with us.’ If this story were merely a cautionary tale about the ways in which wealth can impede our relationship with God, then this would be a fitting response.
“But there is another possibility. Perhaps Jesus would have replied, ‘You have sold everything and given the money to the poor? Really? Well, you are almost there. Just one more thing: Go and stop the wind. Get yourself brown eyes instead of blue. Bring peace to all the earth. Then we’ll talk about what else you can do to inherit eternal life.’
“It seems to me that this second response fits the intent of Mark’s story more closely. Although this story does little to comfort the comfortable, it is about more than the hazards of wealth. Rather, it affirms the vanity of thinking that eternal life is something we can earn.
“It is because the man had fulfilled the law that Jesus had to up the ante. In this case, he required the man to give away all of his money. Other people might be asked to do something entirely different in order to learn to rely on God’s grace. A professor of theology might be asked to throw away her books and give up her tenured post at a prestigious university. A man who consistently does good works might be required to take a year off and sit in the sun.
“The prescriptions may vary because there are many ways in which we can come to depend upon our own worthiness or accomplishments.” End of quote.
Whatever it is each of us can’t bear to do, that’s what Jesus might tell us we have to do—to make the point that eternal life can’t be earned; it is not something we accomplish, but a matter of God’s grace.
So “what we can do”—the most important behavior—with regard to eternal life is not keeping the law, as the man who has kept the law has just learned. Those who had been listening to Jesus already knew that; he had said it before, as we heard in the Sermon on the Mount a couple weeks ago. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “not one letter of the law will pass away. Unless you keep the law even better than the scribes and Pharisees, who do it very well, unless you are perfect, you will never get into heaven that way.
“You think you can earn you way in by not murdering? Try never being angry with a brother or sister; then we’ll talk. You think you’re in because you’ve haven’t committed adultery? Once you’ve mastered not even looking at a man or woman with lust, come back. You think you’ve attained your reward by loving your neighbor? Start by learning to love your enemy as well. You have to be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect, if you think keeping the law will get you eternal life.” So “what we can do”—the most important behavior—isn’t keeping the law.
The most important behavior—“what we can do”—isn’t attaining wealth, either, to the surprise of the disciples. At this time, as in others since, wealth was seen as a reward from God; if you were wealthy, it was concluded that you had God’s favor. Jesus, by insisting in this case on the disposal of it, shows that “the most important behavior” isn’t attaining wealth.
And the most important behavior—“what we can do”—isn’t the disposal of wealth either, we see, when we realize that it is just an example here, just an illustration of the fact that we can’t earn God’s grace. The most important behavior, with respect to eternal life, isn’t giving away one’s wealth.
The most important behavior, in fact, isn’t anything we do. The most important behavior with respect to eternal life is God’s behavior: God bestows it upon us as a free gift, because God loves us. We can’t do anything to earn it.
Yet in how many ways do we continue to try? What things are we so proud of, like the man with his keeping of the law, that we think they must have guaranteed us a place in heaven? Is it coming to church every Sunday? Are we so proud of our attendance record that we say “I must have clinched eternal life now”? Is it staying away from alcohol or nicotine or illegal drugs? Do we try to prove to ourselves that that has earned us God’s favor? How about being nice, being a good person? “I haven’t done anything that’s especially bad; I now get rewarded by going to heaven.” Is it keeping up with daily devotions? Never losing one’s temper? Leading a campaign against child pornography or domestic violence or some other bad behavior—does our zeal prove we deserve heaven?
The fact is: none of that stuff earns our way into heaven. They may be good things, but the most important behavior with regard to heaven is still God’s behavior, God’s gift, God’s grace.
And if God doesn’t use those criteria to decide who’s in and who’s out, what business do we have judging others by them, saying “I know she’s not really much of a Christian because she doesn’t: attend church every Sunday, keep up with her devotions, always keep her temper, join my campaign,” and so on. If those behaviors aren’t God’s standards for including people, we don’t have any right to make them ours.
None of our behaviors, no matter how much we like to think so, or how good we are at them, is the key to being accepted by God. So none of those behaviors should be our key to accepting each other either; we need to welcome one another as a member of God’s family by God’s gift.
Because the most important behavior regarding eternal life is nothing that we do, but God’s behavior, that God loves us.
Let’s pray: God thank you for your “amazing grace,” your gift of new life and eternal life to all who will receive it. Now help us to lead lives pleasing to you in grateful response to your gift; and to encourage one another in accepting the gift and responding well. Amen.