Wednesday, September 10, 2008

To inherit eternal life...


There are quite a few things that Jesus has said that are so disturbing in their righteousness that they raise immediate questions in our minds and when we can’t find answers, we reject his sayings as impractical.
18 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?
19 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.
20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.
21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.
22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. (Luke 18:18-22)
What are the questions that come automatically to your mind? Are they anything like the following? :

If I sell everything I have, how can I provide for myself and my family?
Does Christ mean EVERYTHING?
If I sell everything I have, and if I and my family manage to survive, what if there is some kind of medical emergency or a natural disaster or something?
If everyone were to do this, who would have anything left to help anyone?

Something that seemed to stick out to me this time I read these verses was that after Christ told the man to sell all and distribute to the poor, He then invited him to “come, follow me”. To me this suggests that the Lord was issuing a calling and that He was inviting the man to divest himself of the cares of the world and the stuff that brought those cares so that he had more freedom to serve with Christ.

This reminds me a lot of how apostles are called. I read about Spencer W. Kimball’s call to be an apostle and how he had to sell his thriving business and his dream house and move his family and so on.

The apostles in Christ’s day were quick to note that they had accepted the call.
28 Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee.
29 And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake,
30 Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting. (Luke 18:28-30)
This is the promise that the other man could have received too, had he been willing to do what Christ asked and accept the call.

But back to the rich man who couldn’t let it go..
23 And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.
24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!
25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? (Luke 18:23-26)
Something has always bothered me about that question there: “Who then can be saved?” It seems like it is the most incongruous thing to ask, especially for people that are supposed to understand how to obtain salvation! It is as if they think that rich people are those who are most worthy of entering the kingdom of God and if there is no hope for rich people then no one else has a chance! Or is it that they are asking those questions that I was asking before, asking about their temporal salvation? Are they asking how they would provide for their families or be saved in a disaster or famine or if the main breadwinner dies?

Christ’s answer to this question is:
And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. (Luke 18:27)
If the people were asking how they would survive an emergency or disaster or famine or whatever if they have given all their surplus and don’t have riches accumulated to ride it out, Christ’s saying makes sense as a reminder that while men face constraints, God does not. We may feel that not having extra money means that we can’t acquire the things we need in a sudden emergency, but God has control over the earth and He can manage world resources better than anyone, so He has the power to bring what we need into our lives when we need it. He can work on people’s hearts to entice them to have charity and to be generous. Ultimately it’s about trusting God and not bank accounts.

When I read that bit about it being easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, I think of how a camel has so much mass and a needle eye is so small. A thoughtful camel might say to itself, “To get through that tiny opening I’d have to chop off every part of me that makes me what I am! I’d no longer be a camel!” I suspect that this is the same kind of reasoning that keeps any of us from giving more, whatever our status. “I can’t give more, I can’t give this; I’d be giving up what makes me what I am!” We say our stuff and our money makes us what we are, because we have this idea we’ve gotten from years of indoctrination by individualist advertisements that our identity is somehow tied to the stuff we own. We make our stuff into symbols of ourselves, so we think that giving away our stuff or divesting it is synonymous with rejecting our own identity. Is it really true that we are less of a person when we have less stuff?

A story that gives me hope comes in the next chapter.
2 And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
3 And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature.
4 And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house.
6 And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
7 And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner.
8 And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.
9 And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. (Luke 19:2-10)
Here is that idea of salvation associated with giving generously. I think it is because the giving requires loving God and man, which love is charity, the greatest quality of all, without which all our good works are nothing.

So, let’s compare the nameless rich man (who shall be referred to as “nameless”) with Zacchaeus.

Both Nameless and Zacchaeus were seeking Jesus. Nameless asked Jesus a question directly, and Zacchaeus just wanted to see who Jesus was and climbed a tree just to have the chance to see him. (Question – Was this an unusual thing for a rich man to climb a tree back then? I suspect it was. If it was unusual, it might indicate humility.)

Nameless was told to sell all, but Zacchaeus gave half of his goods and promised to make restitution fourfold for any injustice he may have done. Jesus approved of Zacchaeus's half-offering. Does the amount matter?

Nameless was told what he needed to do still, whereas Zacchaeus seems to have acted on a sudden generous impulse. (Maybe this teaches us we should act more on our generous impulses.)

(Image credit – www.penitents.org/fvocation.htm)