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October 10, 2021
You have to admit it’s a funny question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The man seems sincere. He kneels before Jesus, calls him “Good Teacher.” He wants an answer to the question, and he trusts that Jesus will give him an answer.
But it’s still a strange question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” For starters, to “inherit” something, we usually don’t do much of anything except be born into a particular family. We inherit because we are someone’s child or grandchild, not because we’ve done anything special.
Beyond that, the man wants to do it on his own terms. What must I do, the man asks. Give me a seven-step plan, a checklist, an outline of what I need to accomplish.
The first part of what Jesus says probably sounds encouraging to this guy. Jesus starts listing off commandments, and you can just imagine the man checking them off in his head. I’ve done that…I’ve done that too…haven’t killed anyone…haven’t stolen anything…I respect Mom and Dad…
Then Jesus gets to the kicker. It’s not just a checklist of commandments. Jesus tells him there’s one more thing: “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
That’s more than the man could handle. He’s shocked. He walks away, grieving. As it turns out, he has a lot of possessions, and in that moment he can’t imagine giving them up.
It’s tempting to think that what Jesus says today about being rich doesn’t really apply to us. We’re not really rich. It’s those other guys who are rich. You know – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and other folks who can make a hobby of launching people into space. But if you have a safe place to sleep and food to eat, that makes you rich relative to much of the world. If you have just $4,210 to your name, you’re still richer than half of the world’s residents.[i]
Possessions often represent achievement to us. I have earned this house, this car, this television. I deserve this video game, these season tickets, this new furniture. I have worked hard for all of it.
Even if you say, “I don’t really care about possessions,” you have your own version of the man’s question. My version of it over the years has often been “What must I do to get a good grade?” There are others: “What must I do to get the promotion?”…”What must I do to look the way I want to look?”…”What must I do to insure my children’s future?” It’s the game we’re taught early on. Identify what you want and make a plan to get it. It’s all up to you and only you.
That’s one of the ways that possessions get in the way of following Jesus. Owning things has a way of convincing us that we don’t need Jesus at all. We can go it alone. We certainly don’t need each other. It’s all about self-reliance. I have what I need.
Later in the reading Peter is looking for some brownie points too. “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” That means we win, right, Jesus? Jesus responds that giving up one’s life and possessions to follow him results in receiving a hundredfold more. At first it sounds a little like pyramid scheme. You’ll have a bigger family, more places to call home, more fields, and eternal life. With a little persecution on the side. I imagine that what Jesus means is that when we follow him, we become part of a community, one in which we care for one another, share what we have with one another, rely on each other for support. A community in which we don’t have to be self-sufficient every minute of every day. A family in which we can learn to trust God and trust each other.
Did you notice what happened right before Jesus told the man to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor? Jesus, looking at him, loved him.
Jesus looks that man right in the face. Jesus loves him. Jesus loves the man so much that Jesus wants him to be free. Free of the hoop-jumping and the ladder-climbing. Free of the expectation that eternal life depends on his own accomplishments. Free of having to do it all himself.
Then who can be saved, ask the disciples. Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Jesus looks at us with that same kind of love. Let go, Jesus says to us. Let go of whatever you cling to for security. Let go of the idea that what you own defines your worth because your worth to God is immeasurable. Let go of the idea that you can save yourself. Let go of the idea that eternal life depends on you. Jesus says to us: “I have given my life for you so that you can be free of the ladder-climbing and the hoop-jumping.” Let go.
In his death and resurrection Jesus sets us free. We are free to turn our attention to those in need. We can give what we have to those who need help. We can receive what others share when it’s our turn to need some help. We can let go of keeping score and start living eternal life now.
We’re into fall now, the season that shows us what it means to let go, to trust that death eventually leads to new life. All around us the trees are letting go of their leaves. As I sat at my computer and worked on this sermon, I looked out the window and saw the leaves falling in a steady swirl of oranges and yellows.
One of my favorite poets, Lucille Clifton, has a poem called “The Lesson of the Falling Leaves.” She writes:
the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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