More than one person has explained the gospel to me like this:
If you want to gain eternal life and avoid eternal torment, you must obey all of the commandments in the Torah. There are a lot of them. Rabbis have counted them. And while there is some disagreement, the standard model of things-you-must-do-to-gain-eternal-life-and-avoid-eternal-punishment includes following 613 commandments straight from the mouth of God.
And no one could possibly keep all of them. You certainly couldn’t. You don’t even try. You eat bacon cheeseburgers. You think lustful thoughts. You don’t keep the sabbath. All of us have broken the rules. All of us have fallen short. So all of us deserve eternal punishment. It’s just too hard to obey our way into eternal life.
So… y’know… you need Jesus. You need to say the prayer and invite him into your heart and the commandments will fade away. And then you can get on with your life confident in your salvation.
Well… kind of. You see, the people who have explained the gospel to me like that have always had a list of commandments. There was always one more thing. There were always the things that I would of course do if I really knew Jesus. There were always the things that I would never do if I was really saved.
And let’s be honest. If I wasn’t going to follow the first set of commandments, I wasn’t going to follow the second one either.
In this morning’s reading, a man runs up to Jesus and falls on his knees and asks the question: “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life? What do I have to do to gain a place in the world to come? What do I need to do to get into heaven?”
That is a powerful question. It inspires people to study lists of commandments, whether they’re the ones in the Bible or the ones in popular imagination. It gets us to arrange our entire lives around doing the things we supposed to do and avoiding the things we’re supposed to avoid.
What do I have to do to get. right. with. God?
And Jesus tells him, “Follow the commandments. Here’s a list.”
And the man breathes a sigh of relief and says, “Done. I have followed all of these since I was a kid.”
And I can understand that. I’ve never said quite that thing, but I mostly do what I’m supposed to do… and I mostly avoid what I’m supposed to avoid… and I apologize when I mess up.
I go to work and I pay my taxes and I only speed a little bit. I visit the sick and I give some money to charity and I get appropriately angry about the right things. I’m not a great person, but I might be a good person; and if I’m not a good person, then I’m at least a medium person. So… eternal life, please.
But then, Jesus… well, the scripture says that Jesus looks at the man and loves him… and Jesus says, “Oh, ah, there’s one other thing. Sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”
And the man hangs his head, and his eyes well up with tears, and he walks away. Because he has a lot of stuff… and following Jesus… is going to change that.
Jesus talks about money a lot. And what he ways about money strikes at our souls; what he says about money strikes at our way of life. Because he says this: you can put your faith in wealth—in your large automobile and your beautiful house, in your savings account and your 401k, in the money in the mattress and the gold in the vault—or you can put your faith in God. You can’t do both.
Every dollar we have—every dollar we want—is a siren calling us away from God… from eternal life… from the world to come… from heaven.
In fact, it is easier to push a camel (which is a fairly large animal) through the eye of a needle (which is a fairly small space) than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
And there is no getting away from that. I know. The church has spent two thousand years trying. We have searched for ways to let kings and potentates carry their wealth into the kingdom. We have scoured the earth for ways to let billionaires and millionaires, and thousandaires and hundredaires, carry their money into the world to come.
We have told stories about a gate into Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle where, if the camel wasn’t carrying too much… and walked through just so… well… maybe a rich man could have treasure on earth and treasure in heaven.
We have worked so hard to create a place where we could live in comfort—where we could go to work and pay our taxes and speed just a little, where we could visit the sick and give some money to charity and get appropriately angry about the right things—and that would be enough. And we could be confident in our salvation.
And I’m not letting myself off the hook here. I have found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile and in a beautiful house… and I have stuff and a comfortable bank account… and sometimes I look around and wonder if all of the things that I have aren’t all chains holding me down under an ocean that separates me from God.
After the man leaves and after Jesus tells the disciples about money and camels and needles’ eyes, Peter… seems proud.
“Look,” he says, “we have left everything behind to follow you: businesses and families, livelihoods and lives.”
And Jesus says this mysterious thing. He tells them, “You have left everything behind: houses and families and fields, for my sake and for the sake of gospel. And you will receive more of all of those things. And you will receive eternal life. But many who are first will be last. And the last will be first.”
And there’s a weird little problem here. Because it sounds like, if I give up everything to follow Jesus, I’m just going to end up with more stuff; if I unload my camel, God will be right there putting things on it; if I get rid of my camel, another one will follow me home. And if that’s how it’s gonna go, then… who can be saved?
What can I do to inherit eternal life? What can I do to gain a place in the world to come? What can I do to get into heaven? Is there a commandment I can follow? Is there a prayer I can say? Is there a way I can get rid of all of this stuff? Is there anything I can do?
And Jesus says, “Is there something you can do? No. It is impossible for you.”
And as I hang my head, and my eyes well up with tears, and I turn to walk away, he says, “But not for God. For God, all things are possible.”
It is easy to make our religion into a list of things that we have to do. And it is easy to make our lives into a list of things that we have to pursue. But what if…
What if I explained the gospel to you like this:
If you want to gain eternal life and avoid eternal torment, then there is nothing that you can do. There are no commandments you can obey, there is no prayer that you can say, there is no invitation that you can offer, there is nothing that you can give away that will make God love you.
God has always loved you, God will always love you. You are loved and you are worthy of love. And no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, God has prepared a place for you.
And that is good news.
But… there is just one other thing.
We cannot carry anything into the place that God has prepared: not our businesses or our families, not our livelihoods or our lives, not our large automobiles or our beautiful houses, not the camel who followed us home. Not even our commandments and our prayers.
Those are all things that God has entrusted to our care, that we might use them to love our neighbors and strangers and even our enemies; and, through that love, that we might glorify God.
And through their grace, God empowers us to care for those things, to hold them lightly, and even to give them away to those who need them… that everyone might have enough and more than enough, and that none of us should be too heavily burdened.
And that is good news, too. Thanks be to God.