‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ What answer did the man described in the Gospel this morning expect? We sense his enthusiasm to meet Jesus. He runs. He kneels before him and asks ‘”what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’.
Here was a man who lived what looked like a good life. And yet Jesus says he lacks one thing and challenges him to sell what he has ‘and give the money to the poor’ and then to ‘follow’ him.
Perhaps the man hoped the answer would be more positive, keep doing what you are doing but no, he got an uncomfortable answer.
And here we draw together this Gospel and our first reading from the letter to the Hebrews which talks of the word of God as ‘living and active’ as something that is ‘piercing’ that ‘judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’
It’s a strange reading in a way written as if the word of scripture had a single voice. But the scriptures don’t work like that. The written words were inspired over centuries by different people at a different time within a different context and yet there is still truth in these words.
For scripture taken seriously does have this remarkable capacity to both challenge and inspire. Which brings us back to this Gospel and the man who asks what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life.’
Over the days I’ve thought about this reading and this sermon. I’ve thought how often my sermons are concerned not so much with the big issues of the day but about us as our individuals and the journey we are all on.
I’ve wondered whether that’s right. But then I’ve reflected on how the Jesus we find in the Gospels was hardly ever concerned with big issues and institutions. In fact, he seems to show great indifference towards them.
His was a ministry largely to the people and individuals before him. Inviting whomever it was to see their life differently. Calling them to fullness of life, and a life lived in love and service.
The encounter before us is one example. As a man who on the surface at least seemed to lead the good life but on meeting Jesus is challenged by the answer to his question ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The answer though it grieved the man was born of love for Jesus ‘looking at him, loved him’. And through this divine gaze he saw him as he was. Saw through the façade to see what really drives and motivates him. And tells him to ‘sell what you own’ and more than that ‘give the treasure to the poor.’
We don’t know what happened then, whether he sold what he had and gave it away. I’d like to think though that this encounter with Jesus changed his life. And gradually as he let go of that which he clung to as grief was turned to joy.
But we don’t know and one of the joys of scripture is not the answers but the questions that linger. So, we are left reflecting on this passage. On words that to return to the first reading for a moment are ‘living and active’ as we through our imagination bring our stories into the scene before us.
And the imagery of this morning’s Gospel is particularly vivid. For, even though we might be frail we can still imagine running to meet Jesus, kneeling before him, pleased to see him.
Maybe we’d even come with the same question ‘”What must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ And we can imagine Jesus looking at us, into us almost, smiling and then.
Well, the answer I guess will be different for all of us. But it will I think be that which holds us back from following him as well as we might.
For the man in the Gospel, though he lived what looked like a good life, he was held captive by what he wanted and needed to possess. Hence the hyperbole that follows about the rich and the eye of a needle.
But what about us? What if you place yourself in that scene, what might Jesus say to you today?
Would it be to go and be reconciled to someone you have hurt?
Would it be to let go of some past pain?
Would it be to give away that which you cling to?
I don’t know. But it’s worth remembering that change doesn’t always come easy, indeed it can be a lifetimes work. And it can bring us grief too, yet whatever is before remember Jesus smiling, not waving a finger in judgement but smiling.
Helping us to see things differently. Inviting us to take a risk. For a life of faith is a risky business built on paradoxes. Dying and rising for example or giving away to receive.
And this risky faith found its ultimate expression on the cross where Jesus gave himself for us all. Yet from that place of death came life beyond our imaging, an eternal life. Which brings us back to the question with which we began ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Jesus time and again in the Gospels is unafraid of asking and giving uncomfortable question and answers. Yet he does so not to diminish life but to draw those who heard it then, and us now into a deeper life with him.
So that the words on the pages of the Gospels are not dry and dull texts recounting a moment in history but truly ‘living and active’. Words which, all these years on if we pay attention to them continue to inspire and encourage and challenge us all.
Let me just draw things together with some words of prayer
Lord Jesus Christ,
you look upon each one of us with love
help us in the words before us to hear your voice
that it might penetrate through the layers of self-protection we can build
and fashion and refashion us time and again to be the people you would have us be.