Mark 10.17-31 & Hebrews 4.12-16
Now, when I sat down sometime in the spring to plan our ATOM services for the coming year, I didn't realise that I would end up preaching on this passage of the Rich Young Ruler twice within a month. So my apologies to those of you who have already heard me on this, I'm not, in fact, going to be saying quite the same thing today, but we do have to lay some ground-work that will be familiar to those who came to the last ATOM service and I apologise to those people in advance. I suggest you plan your Sunday lunch now and I'll wake you up at the relevant moment.
Now, to understand this quite difficult teaching, we need to join the dots on some of the concepts we've learned from previous sermons. So the first thing we needs to note is that when the Rich Young Ruler asks "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" [Mark 10:17], he isn't asking a question about whether he will go to heaven when he dies. Heaven, as you may remember, is short-hand for the Kingdom of Heaven and the Bible uses it to refer, not to a place we go when we die, but rather to what will happen to this world once God's kingdom is established here on earth - as we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "on earth, as it is in heaven."
And the concept of eternal life is the sort of life we live in the Kingdom of Heaven. The literal translation from the original Greek is "life of the age" (ζωην αιωνιον for the Greek scholars among us). You see the Jews divided the whole of human time into two ages - the current age and the age to come. The age to come is the Kingdom of Heaven, which will be established when God is king in Israel once more and the current age will pass away when the Kingdom of Heaven is established, so it is often also referred to as the Age which is Passing Away.
So, the Rich Young Ruler is anxious about whether he will be accepted as a citizen of the age to come, the Kingdom of Heaven. Is he going to be one of those who is accepted by the new king, Israel's God, when his kingdom is established?
Now, the second bit of joining up we need to do concerns the fact that the man is rich. To be classified as rich in ancient Israel you need to own two things: livestock and land. So this man, as a ruler, was a landowner. And to own land in Israel wasn't just about owning good farming land. It was about owning part of the Promised Land. For the Jews who had this expectation of the Age to Come, Israel was where it was at. And if you remember, in Jewish thinking of the time, heaven was just something that was going to happen to Israel when God returned to her as her king. So to be a landowner in Israel was to be first in the queue when it came to the Kingdom of Heaven. This was the equivalent of the beach towel on the deck chair - bagging your spot in the Kingdom of Heaven for when God turned up.
And the last ingredient from our previous learning that we need to throw into the equation is the Law. The Law of Moses was what marked one out as belonging to God's chosen people - it was our part of the great Covenant: we keep the law, and the LORD will be our God, honouring his promise of descendants and the Promised Land. The life of the age, eternal life, was something that was going to come to God's chosen people when God established his kingdom in Israel. But already it was recognised that simply being a genetic descendent of Abraham was not enough. God's true chosen people were the ones who kept the law.
And here is the source of the Rich Young Ruler's anxiety. What does it mean to keep the law? [And it's also the point at which those who came to ATOM can wake up and join in the anxiety]. The Law of Moses, like all laws, is open to interpretation - hurray, otherwise lawyers like me who be out of work. Which is the correct interpretation? The simple parts of the Ten Commandments are fairly easy. The Rich Young Ruler is pretty confident that he has never murdered or committed adultery, stolen, given false testimony or defrauded. And his father and mother are satisfactorily honoured.
But that's only 5 of the Ten Commandments - we're only half way there. The other five - having no other God, loving our neighbour, having no idols, keeping Sabbath & avoiding coveting all seem to be summed up in Jesus' command to sell all his possessions and give to the poor.
What a harsh interpretation. How right the author of Hebrews is when he describes the Word of God as "sharper than any double-edged sword" [Hebrews 4:12]. The young man has just been impaled upon it, so he goes away, we are told, very unhappy (possibly because he's now going to have to consult another lawyer!)
Even more remarkably, once he's walked away, Jesus twists the knife by adding:
"How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." [Mark 10:24-25]
Suddenly, those who were at the front of the queue, with their beach towels on the deckchair waiting for the Kingdom of God to roll up are at the back of the queue. If the rich can't get in, who can? A point not lost on the disciples, who immediately ask: "who then can be saved?" [Mark 10:26] and Jesus answers:
"With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." [Mark 10:27]
So the rich aren't just at the back of the queue, they're outside the gate. [And incidentally, if you've heard that old chestnut about the eye of the needle being a gate in Jerusalem that was just a bit of a squeeze for camels, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but there was no such gate. That's just a myth. The point of the camel/eye-of-the-needle saying is that it is impossible for man - though not so with God.]
Now, having successfully blown apart some of the myths around this story and got to the heart of what was happening then, what does it mean for us?
Well, firstly the obvious. We cannot serve God and mammon (actually, that's a quote from elsewhere, but it's clearly implied here too). There is something about the attitude of worldly acquisition that disqualifies us as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. The citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven must live with an attitude of complete selfless generosity so far as the things of this world are concerned; must live with eyes fixed, not on the age that is passing away, but on the age to come.
Secondly, another bit of joining the dots. Who, out of all of humanity, lived a life of complete self-giving generosity? Jesus. As Jesus said, it's actually impossible for us to achieve our citizenship in heaven because we can't (or won't) live that generously. But he has. With God it is possible. And that's what matters. Our citizenship is not something we can earn, or deserve by anything we do. It is a gift from the one who shows us what generosity really means, the one who truly interprets the Law of Moses and lives it faithfully. Citizenship of heaven comes to us only as Jesus' gift. The life of the age to come, eternal life, is his life and unless we have his life in us, we're not living in the age to come.
Thirdly, the unexpected - life of the age to come is therefore something we can live now, even though the age that is passing away is still here. The Kingdom of Heaven hasn't been fully established. Jesus came too early. It has, however, been inaugurated. We can live it here and now by accepting Jesus' gift and by crowning him king of our lives. And if we do that, we need not have the anxiety that the Rich Young Ruler had. If we live as citizens of King Jesus, we know that the answer to the question "what must I do to inherit eternal life" is pointless. Jesus has already done what we need to inherit eternal life. All we need to do is live it - not after we're dead, but now (and forever). So, as the author of Hebrews urges us,
"Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and grace." [Hebrews 4:16]
Finally, the un-noticed. Treasure. The Rich Young Ruler must have been a shrewd investor or he wouldn't be rich, but he somehow failed to notice that he was being offered treasure in this deal. Instead of walking away sad, he should have been crying out "Treasure, me hearties!" Everything that we have comes from Jesus. And those of us who have received most generously from him should have all the more reason to trust his generosity.
Yes, following Jesus means continual generosity, continual giving up, but it means more generosity from him. In fact the rate of return promised is fabulous - a hundred-fold. It's not that Jesus wants us to go without. He wants us to be citizens of heaven. He wants us to share in everything he has. And I think this gets to the heart of why an acquisitive mindset is hostile to the Kingdom of Heaven - because the mindset that acquires for private use also, by definition, closes itself to a share in what is not privately and personally owned. Whereas the mindset that sees all things as belonging to God and for sharing, receives the treasure of the whole of creation.
Now, none of this is easy. It requires us to relinquish much that our hearts want to hold on to. Jesus understands that. As the author of Hebrews says, Jesus is not "unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet he did not sin." [Hebrews 4:15] He knows what it's like. But he's done it for us. All we need to do is to join in - and we will have eternal life. More than that, we will have treasure (me hearties!).
Now, I'm going to finish with a story - apologies to those who have heard it before - about a princess who lived in a beautiful castle. One night she had a dream in which her fairy godmother told her that the next day, she would meet a man who would give her the greatest treasure on earth.
The following day, she awoke very excited, but as the day went on, she gradually forgot about her dream. And in the afternoon, she went into the forest, as she always did, to dip her feet into the cool stream. And as she was sitting there, along came a little monk. Suddenly her dream came back to her and she spoke to the monk: "excuse me, I hope you don't think me foolish, but are you the man I was told about? The one who was going to give me the greatest treasure on earth?"
The man looked at her a moment and then said "I wonder if you perhaps mean this:" and he reached inside his cloak and pulled out the largest, most beautiful diamond she had ever seen. "Here," he said, "take it."
The princess was overjoyed. She thanked the monk and ran back towards the castle. So the monk sat down and bathed his feet in the river. And a few minutes later, he heard footsteps behind him and looked up to see the diamond flying through the air in an arc and land 'plop' in the middle of the water. And when he turned around, the princess was back again.
"If you please, sir, now may I ask you for the real treasure? The treasure that made it so easy for you to give away that stone?"
Preached: St Lawrence, Crosby Ravensworth (joint Eucharist), 14 October