© 2021 Evan D. Garner
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the man who knelt before Jesus. “You lack one thing,” Jesus said lovingly in reply. Just one thing. And so do you. And so do I. We all do. We all lack just one thing. If Jesus told you what that one thing is, where would you find the strength and courage to pursue it?
What is that one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom—preventing you from entering fully into God’s reign? Over the last several weeks, Jesus has pointed out a number of possibilities. Are we willing to take up our cross and follow him even if it costs us our life? Are we willing to be last of all and servant of all even if it means giving up our status in society? Are we willing to cut off our hand or our foot or pluck out our eye if they are causing us to sin? Are we willing to cling to God’s kingdom in the way that the story of creation asks us to cling to marriage—wholeheartedly and without compromise? And today, in his encounter with the rich man, Jesus asks us, are we willing to sell everything we have and give it away to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven?
Some of the things—the vices, the sins—that Jesus points out as barriers to God’s promise of eternal life require a bit of cultural translation. Wrestling concepts of divorce and marriage, personhood and gender, away from their ancient contexts and bringing them forward into contemporary life in order to make sense of Jesus’ words is hard but important work. But, when it comes to wealth—riches, possessions—we don’t need any help understanding what Jesus meant. In fact, our experience of wealth—both collectively and individually—is so enormous that, if anything, Jesus’s words aren’t sharp enough.
The man who knelt before Jesus is described by Mark as having many possessions, but what does that mean? Is that rich like Jeff Bezos or rich like you and me? The words translated for us as “many possessions” can imply that the man owned a lot of property or land, but it can also simply mean “a lot of stuff.” Know anybody who has too much stuff? We get a sense of how broad Jesus’s target audience is when, after the man had gone away, he explained to his disciples that the call to radical dispossession applied not only to that particular man but to all who have wealth and to anyone who is rich. But those words that are translated as “wealth” and “rich” don’t imply the piles of money into which Scrooge McDuck might dive headfirst but merely the stuff we use and having enough of it to meet our needs. The biblical model for being rich is one of being fully resourced—of having everything we need.
It is to those of us who have our needs met that Jesus says, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” So radical, so painful, so challenging are those words that even before the disciples can object and ask Jesus to clarify what he means, Jesus tells them that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for people who have all their needs met to enter the kingdom of God. This might be hyperbole, and, as R. T. France puts it, “The nature and degree of renunciation of wealth which the gospel requires may be something which will be worked out differently in different times and circumstances, but, if we lose sight of the principle that affluence is a barrier to the kingdom of God, we are parting company with Jesus at a point which seems to have been fundamental to his teaching as all three synoptic writers understood it.”
As someone who meets both the biblical and contemporary worldwide definitions for what it means to be rich, I know that my possessions get in the way of my place in God’s great and glorious reign. That’s because I cannot own anything without feeling in some measure the pull away from complete devotion and dependence on God and toward confidence in my own self and wealth. In that way, the problem of riches parallels the problem of idolatry. The biblical prohibition against graven images is absolute. The ancients understood that any painting or statue or image that depicts God will inevitably become itself an object of worship, replacing the unseen deity with the image right in front of us. In very much the same way, whenever I have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and money in my bank account, I will always begin to believe that those things are my own doing—the sustenance and safety net of my own creation—instead of the gifts from God that they always are.
All of our possessions—no matter how magnificent or modest—are obstacles to our entrance into the kingdom of God. Anyone who owns anything is in trouble. If you don’t go to bed hungry tonight, sleeping out under the stars, you have the kind of wealth that prevents you from being a full participant in God’s reign. “Then who can be saved?” we rightly ask along with Peter and the other disciples. Our hope is found in Jesus’ reply: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Our hope—our only hope—is clinging to the mercies of the God who loves us more than we can imagine. That is our hope no matter how rich or poor we are. But it’s a lot easier to cling to God and God’s goodness when your fists aren’t full of dollar bills and your arms aren’t wrapped around your retirement fund and your focus isn’t on making sure that you have enough money to take care of yourself. How will we ever learn to depend on God when we have so much other stuff to depend on?
This is a spiritual problem with practical implications. Although we cannot sell enough of what we own to buy ourselves a place in heaven, we can adopt financial practices that teach us how to put our trust in God instead of in our wealth. If our possessions are what lure us away from trusting in God completely, we need to find ways to let go of them. If God’s grace and mercy are what bring us into eternal life, we need to pursue whatever habits have the power to multiply those precious things in our lives. We need more of God and less of us, and getting that balance right begins with giving away more and keeping less for ourselves.
When the man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminded him of the commandments. When the man responded that he had kept all these since his youth, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Literally, he “agape-ed” him. “You only lack one thing,” Jesus said. Only one thing stands between you and the kingdom of God. Only one thing is getting in the way of your complete and total participation in God’s rule in your life. And that thing is you.
We get in the way. All we need is to trust in God, but our instinctive need to trust in ourselves—our wealth, our status, our ego, our wisdom, our happiness—prevents us from giving our lives over to the reign of God. How does that change? Where do we find the strength and courage to let go of our attachment to this life and cling instead to the mercies of God? That strength comes from not from us but from God. In Jesus Christ, God has loved us so fully, so completely, so perfectly that we have been set free from the need for self-sufficiency. Because God’s love for us has no limits, we can afford to depend on God alone.
Being loved like that gives us the courage to give more of ourselves away, and the more of ourselves we give away the more we come to know and depend on God’s love. It is a virtuous cycle, and, by loving us from the beginning, God has taken the first step. How will you respond to that love? By holding on to what you have or by trusting God and letting it go?