I can’t emphasize enough the importance of today’s gospel narrative. Through the centuries Jesus’ followers have developed all sorts of theories about his ministry, trying to figure out exactly what he did and why he did it. It is this oft-misquoted passage, Mark’s Jesus tells what he’s all about.
Because I was always taught Jesus came to get us into heaven, I was mildly disturbed when I started studying Scripture and discovered how rarely Jesus actually speaks about people getting through the pearly gates. Today’s reading tells us why.
The rich man’s question is as simple as Jesus’ answer. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, “What do I have to do to get into heaven?” As a good Jew, Jesus responds, “You know the commandments . . .
When the man assures Jesus that he’s “observed these from my youth,” the logical indication is that he’s on his way to heaven.
But then Jesus starts to talk about something the man lacks; not something that’ll stop him from getting into heaven. That’s already been taken care of by his keeping the commandments. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear Jesus is inviting him to go beyond just getting into heaven. He’s asking him to enter the “kingdom of God.”
We know from chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel that, before anything else, Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God as being so close one can reach out one’s hand and touch it. The kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) refers to God working effectively in our everyday lives.
The historical Jesus seems to have presumed that good people were already on their way to heaven. His goal was to help them experience God in every person and circumstance of their lives before they stepped into eternity. He believed it to be a waste of a lifetime simply to concentrate on what God will do for and with us beyond this life, and ignore how God’s already present and working in our life right here and now.
When Jesus says a rich person has the chance of a snowball in hell of “entering the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying the rich won’t get into heaven. He’s just stating his belief that, because of their wealth, most won’t take the time and expend the effort to concentrate on what’s necessary to surface God in their lives. Back in chapter 1, Jesus stressed that repentance is necessary for experiencing God’s kingdom. Repentance here connotes a 180-degree turn in one’s value system. Until one accomplishes that, one can’t even notice God in the way Jesus noticed God.
Jesus asks the rich man to imitate him, to focus on the poor instead of concentrating on wealth. Though this particular person can’t hack it, Jesus assures his amazed disciples that what seems impossible for humans is possible for God. God will help them achieve such a turnabout and give up their wealth. Just as the Wisdom author would sacrifice anything to acquire wisdom, so Jesus expects “other Christs” to sacrifice everything to experience God working in their lives.
Following the Hebrew writer’s insight, Jesus has no “sharper” word than his proclamation of God’s kingdom. Once we hear about it, it cuts both ways. We realize what we miss if we don’t surface God’s presence; on the other hand, we understand what we have to sacrifice to become part of it.
Kinda makes me long for the good old days, when all I had to worry about was getting into heaven.