I read through a familiar passage today and found some details that I didn’t remember. It was a very interesting exercise, and I’ve typed up some rambling thoughts based on it.
It’s a story told in three gospels – I focused on Mark 10:17-25. It’s a familiar story, so I’ll recap the highlights:
One day while in Judea, a man approached Jesus and asked him the question: “What must I do to get eternal life?” Besides following the commandments, which he said he did, Jesus told him that he must also give away his possessions and follow him. This was too much for the fellow to handle, because he was very wealthy, so he left very discouraged.
Ok, nothing new here – until I actually read it. You see, I usually identify “bible stories” that I already “know” and sometimes tend to skim over them. Turns out that I often don’t really know them so well as I thought.
In this dialog, I see six types of people. Or rather, the rich man’s line of thought highlights six places that we could find ourselves.
The first group isn’t even mentioned, but it’s probably the largest. They would be people that don’t even ask the question. People that fall into this category are lost and don’t care. They are perfectly satisfied with the status quo, so why would they go looking for a Messiah?
The second group is people who ask the wrong question. This was my biggest revelation in my latest reading: This dope didn’t ask how to get to heaven, or even how to avoid hell. He asked how to have eternal life! And based on the entire context, I don’t think he meant eternal life like we mean it. He wasn’t looking forward to spending eternity in heaven, or even to seeing God. He wanted to stay here forever. I think he was looking down the road and realizing that he was mortal. He wouldn’t enjoy all his money and belongings when he was old – or dead! This Jesus guy had been walking around making some pretty amazing things happen. I think this guy saw his ticket to everlasting happiness. He went to the right person, but asked the wrong question.
The third group is comprised of people who feel that they measure up, so they don’t even bother continuing the conversation. In the story, Jesus starts by saying that you must obey all the commandments. “Well, shoot – I’ve done that!”, the guy says. “I’ve never killed anyone, or any of the other biggies. I’ve been good since I was a kid!” Many people get this far and punch out. After all, why do I need a God if I’m already saving myself? Following the law is not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The law was supposed to point out our weaknesses and point us to God. If the guy in the story hadn’t stuck around, he wouldn’t have heard the important part of the story.
The fourth group of people stick around until the part they don’t like, then check out. Imagine if someone went to the doctor, sat in the waiting room, filled out the insurance forms, got weighed by the nurse, poked and probed by the doctor, and then – just as the doctor starts to reveal a diagnosis they’re not happy with – storms out of the building. What is the point? If you’ve gotten this far, you might as well listen to the answer. But we don’t! By sticking it out this long, we’ve admitted we have a problem, we’ve conceded that Jesus is the source of the answer, but we don’t want to hear what he has to say. This reminds me of the story of Naaman. (2 Kings 5) He wanted to be healed, but was unwilling to follow the steps that would bring him healing! The rich guy in this story listened intently and was very engaged in the discussion until Jesus said to give away his possessions. I don’t think he heard another thing after that.
A person in the fifth group hears the whole answer, but is unwilling to submit their whole self. The man in our story stopped when he heard he would have to lose something. Some of us make it past that point, but are stopped by Jesus last phrase in the story: “Come, follow me”. We know we need God, we know that the law isn’t enough to save us, and we’re even comfortable with giving up our earthly belongings. We feel like we obey the commandments. We don’t feel like we’re holding onto any idols. Yet there’s one thing we still haven’t surrendered. Ourselves.
The sixth type of person is very rare. It is understandable why Jesus said “the gate is small and the way is narrow”. It doesn’t need to be that big. There just aren’t a lot of people that persist long enough to get on the path! What does “Come, follow me” mean? It means associating yourself with Jesus publicly. It means that people can see who you are following. It means that you have set aside your agenda for his. You are going to go different places and do different things than if you had charted your own course.
Ok, so those are the six groups we all can find ourselves in. Here are some thoughts and questions to help you figure out where you’re really at.
Jesus required that the rich man give away all his money to get into God’s kingdom. I don’t think money was the issue though. The issue was priorities. Money is fine, and so are the belongings they buy. But do they belong to you, or do you belong to them? Anything you have a tight grip on is an idol. The things that occupy your time, your mind, and your budget are your idols. Our time and resources are the currency we use to rank our idols in order of their importance to us. Our response to our idols is called worship. Everybody worships. But what is it that you worship? This young man worshiped his belongings. Others worship their job, their car, their boyfriend, or their status. What do you have that you are unwilling to loosen your grip on?
Jesus made it pretty clear that the man had to follow him, but I think he checked out after he heard what he would lose. I think many of us check out when we hear we have to give something up as well. We want the benefits of Christianity that we’ve seen in others, but we don’t want to give anything up. Like the rich man, we want the benefits God has, but we want to pursue life on our own terms. He didn’t get that the whole point of it all is relationship with God! Are you pursuing a relationship with God, or merely trying to “live a good life” so that he will leave you alone while you do as you please?
I don’t think the rich guy wanted to go to heaven. I don’t think that he even cared about Jesus. He was using Jesus. He saw Jesus as a means to an end. He treated Jesus as if he were a genie, and figured Jesus could help him keep his stuff – forever! This sounds silly, but we do the same thing. We pray for God to help us pass a test we didn’t study for, and to give us things we don’t deserve or need. We ask him to get us out of consequences we fully deserve, but could have avoided if we had followed him in the first place. We’re all guilty of it. How are you using God?
I think it is interesting how Jesus answered this man. He knew his intentions at every turn. When asked what was required of him, Jesus replied by saying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Notice, he does not say the man will necessarily be able to go to heaven to collect these treasures he has stored up! He immediately followed this by saying “Come, follow me”. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this, but I think it is interesting. I wonder if he isn’t saying that it is possible to store up treasures in heaven that you will never see if you do not follow him. After all, generosity is a good thing that God blesses, but if there is no following Christ, we will fall far short of heaven.