As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is 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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
There is so much in this brief passage that it would not be hard to write an entire book of reflections on just what is in front of us. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that! ) The temptation, when this is the case, is to take the passage verse by verse and, indeed, with devotions like this to print just a few verses at a time so as to focus our attention on just one important thing rather than getting lost in the details.
While that makes good sense on one level, however, I don’t want to read and reflect on any of the particular portions of this fascinating story apart from the whole. So for the next several days, I’ll print the whole passage and we can work our way through it at our own pace. Yes, that means we’ll be reading the same passage several times over. If that gets tiresome, don’t feel guilty about skimming it or even skipping it altogether. At the same time, you might be surprised by how much more you discover each time you read the passage and how much richer, rather than tiring, the passage becomes to you. Your choice, but no guilt either way!
So let’s start first with the question of this young man: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That would seem to be the religious question, don’t you think? I suspect that, indeed, most of those who are religious and most of those who aren’t would agree on this one point. At the same time, they would assess the worth or validity of this question very differently.
For those who are devout, the question lends a certain clarity about the whole religious enterprise. Attaining eternal life or (for many) avoiding eternal damnation becomes the focal point of their being, the way they see their lives and view others. They relate to almost everything in their lives according to this criteria: does it lead to salvation or damnation? And they relate to almost everyone in their lives in the same way: have they been assured of their salvation?
Of course this is just what leads those who don’t believe even further from the faith: there is a blatant and almost grotesque reductionism of the faith down to just one question. Life becomes oversimplified, a means to an end that all but negates the worth and integrity of our present, earthly, and material lives in favor of a future, spiritual, and immaterial promise of heaven. Of what value are concerns about justice, equality, or care of the earth when the only thing that really matters is eternal life? Similarly, people are easily objectified in this religious framework. When your primary category is salvation, that is, you don’t really have to care about the particularities of the person in front of you: their distinct history and experience; their particular concerns, hopes, and dreams; their unique perspective and value. Rather, all of that gets flattened into a single question: are you saved? Other persons, from this reductionist approach to religion, are not really individual subjects to be known and loved for whom they are but instead are objects awaiting divine action either for or against them.
For this reason, one of the aspects of this story we’ll want to pay attention to is how Jesus responds to his very question. At the start of the story, it seems clearly to be the presenting question. But will it still be so at the end? Good question.
Prayer: Dear God, help us always to look upon the people in our lives not as means to an end but rather as gifts given from you to be valued and loved. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Post Image: The Ladder of Divine Ascent Icon showing monks ascending to heaven while demons attack them. 12th century, St. Catherine’s Monastery.