What Must I Do?
I cannot read minds. Knowing what I do about human nature, I’m kind of glad that I can’t. I can think of no more splendid misery than the ability to actually know what other people are thinking.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
October 11, 2021
Still, there are a few occasions on which the ability to read minds would come in handy. There are a couple of bosses I can think of where that ability would have come in handy. One boss would assign me tasks and would not give me the information I needed to complete them. It always resulted in embarrassing trips into his office to ask how exactly I did the thing he’d asked me to do.
Another boss—okay, this was my grandfather—would tell me what to do but in ways that required knowing what he was thinking, rather than what he was saying. Such as the time he told me to bring the “truck”—by which he meant his Subaru hatchback—“around”—by which he meant to the front of the house. I never liked asking him to repeat himself and so invariably did the thing he’d asked me to do wrong and had to be corrected with the information I could have used in the first place.
It would be really helpful to be able to read minds when it’s a simple question of just knowing what it is that I should do.
II. THE TEXT
And so, it’s hardly surprising that someone should run up to Jesus and say, “What should I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus’ response is enigmatic at first. “Why do you call me ‘good’?” he answers. “No one is good except for one: God.” But then he goes on to give the man the basic course in Jewish morality: “You know the commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t testify falsely, don’t commit fraud, honor your father and mother.”
The man answers that he’s done all of those since he was young. It’s not that he’s bragging, necessarily—he was certainly aware before talking to Jesus that he’d been a morally upright person. But in spite of all that, he had clearly perceived the need to do something more. So, when he responds, “I’ve already been doing that, the implication is that he is expecting that there is more to do.”
Jesus does not disappoint: “You’re missing one thing: go, sell whatever you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me.”
We are told that these words made the man gloomy and that he went away upset, “because he had a lot of possessions.”
III. THE HIGHER LEVEL
Now, Jesus here does something he often does—defines a higher level of observance than what the law requires needed to be one of his disciples. For example, it’s not enough not to murder someone if you still have hate in your heart for someone. It’s not enough not to commit adultery if you’re still objectifying women. It’s not enough to follow the legal requirements for divorce if you’re leaving your wife without a support network by virtue of your divorcing her. It doesn’t matter if your hands are clean if your heart is defiled by lies, slander, and hatred.
And so, here Jesus responds to the question of what should I do by saying, “Sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and then follow me.” That’s a lot more than simply avoiding murdering someone or refraining from stealing. Because this asks us to do something, whereas most conventional morality asks us to do not.
Many of the Ten Commandments are all listed in the negative: here are things you must not do. And many people continue to have a negative view of morality: don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t have pre-marital sex, don’t engage in same-sex relationships, don’t, don’t, don’t… And here Jesus comes and says, it’s not just the don’ts, here is what you must do.
A. A Tall Order
Now, let’s be honest and admit that this is a tall order what Jesus has asked of this man. He’s told him to give everything up.
This is a really hard teaching. It’s so hard, in fact, that people have one of two reactions to it: they hear it and immediately sell everything they have and become monks, the way that St. Anthony and St. Francis did, or do what the rest of us do: ignore it and interpret it out of existence.
Clergy have over the centuries found ways that Jesus’ teaching is aspirational or metaphorical. He isn’t really saying to do this extreme thing. So, as long as you up your charitable giving by a respectable percentage, you’re okay. No, in the history of the church, St. Anthony and St. Francis are in the definite minority.
B. The Disciples’ reaction
Even the disciples don’t know what to do with this teaching. When Jesus follows up his instruction to the rich man by saying, “It’s so hard for people with riches to enter God’s kingdom” this astonishes his disciples.
Now, much of that astonishment comes from the fact that in the ancient world, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. According to the conventional wisdom, this man was already in a good spot because he would not be wealthy otherwise. When Jesus said that It’s so hard for people with riches to enter God’s kingdom…” this upends their traditional understanding.
When he continues by saying that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, they are “knocked senseless” by this teaching. So flabbergasted are they by this upside-down understanding of the world that they begin to wonder “Who can be saved?”
Here, too, we are inclined to interpret Jesus’ teachings out of existence. Some interpreters will point out that the ‘Eye of the Needle’ was the name of a narrow gate in Jerusalem through which it was difficult to pass with a beast like a camel. Others have argued that “camel” here refers to “camel rope”—a particularly thick strand of rope. But the best argument against these softening interpretations is the fact that the disciples clearly interpret him as having spoken of something impossible.
IV. THE CONUNDRUM
So, here, then is the conundrum. We desperately want to know what to do. We want to be told a specific list of tasks that we can perform so that we’ll know that we’re square with God. Just give me the checklist, Jesus, so that I can get on with my day. And then, when Jesus obliges, he gives us something impossible to do. Or at least, highly unlikely.
The disciples despair at this: “Then who can be saved?” And here’s where Jesus says something upon which the entire narrative turns: “It’s impossible for human beings, but not for God. For God, everything is possible.”
“It’s impossible for human beings…” See, the part that we miss so often when it comes to asking “What should I do…?” is that it makes the question of salvation all about us. What are we supposed to do? Or not do? Or believe or think or confess? Tell us!
But what Jesus reminds his disciples is that ultimately, these questions are in God’s hands, not ours. Jesus has established a very high bar for what discipleship should look like: self-sacrificing, relinquishing power, wealth and status, serving others in humility, loving enemies, praying for those who persecute you. That’s what it takes to be a disciple and it’s not easy.
But that’s the path that Christ himself has taken and the one he calls those who would follow him to walk.
But that’s not the same as entering God’s kingdom. The disciple is called to live out what the kingdom is like in the here and now, but how does one actually enter God’s kingdom—that’s up to God. And with God, all things are possible.
This is the whole point of grace—the unmerited favor of God. It’s not about us. It’s about what God does.
We’re always going to want to be told a simple list of simple boxes that we can check off. We’ll always be disappointed to discover that some of the items on the list are impossible. We’ll struggle to feel like we’re doing enough.
But that’s nothing new. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley all struggled to feel like they were doing enough. It was only once they realized the impossibility of doing enough that they remembered that it was on account of God’s grace, not their own abilities, that they were reconciled to God.
It’s not an easy lesson to learn. There is something in us that just wants to be in control. That wants to make this about us. That wants to reduce mystery to checkboxes and application forms. There is something that resists letting go.
But what Jesus reminds us is that there are some things that are beyond our abilities. There are some things that for us are impossible. Fortunately, it’s not about what we’re capable of, but what God is capable of.
Now, this is not a license to inaction. This isn’t permission to sit this one out and just wait for God to do something. Because what Jesus talks about more than how to attain salvation is how to be one of his disciples. That is the part that’s up to us. For when we live lives of discipleship, we testify to the saving grace of God.
We can comfortably rely on that grace and that empowers us to live lives that transform the world. When we follow in the path of discipleship, our work becomes the witness not the requirement. It becomes the fruit of salvation not the necessary step for it. And it becomes the visible sign of God’s love and grace in the midst of a broken and hurting world.
Mark 10:17–31 • As he was getting back on the road, one person ran out, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jeshua said to him, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good except for one: God. You know the commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t testify falsely, don’t commit fraud, honor your father and mother.” The man answered, “Teacher, I’ve done all of those since I was young.” Jeshua looked at him deeply, loved him, and said, “You’re missing one thing: go, sell whatever you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me.” But these words made the man gloomy, and he went away upset because he had a lot of possessions.
Jeshua looked around and said to his disciples, “It’s so hard for people with riches to enter God’s kingdom.” His disciples were astonished by what he said. So Jeshua said to them again, “Children, it’s hard to enter God’s kingdom. A camel getting through the eye of a needle is an easier thing than a rich person entering God’s kingdom.” They were completely knocked senseless by this and began to say to each other, “Then, who can be saved?” Jeshua looked deeply at them and said, “It’s impossible for human beings, but not for God. For God, everything is possible.”
The Rock began to speak to him, “Look, we’ve left everything to follow you.” Jeshua replied, “Trust me when I say to you that there’s no one who has left a house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or fields for my sake and for the good news’s sake, who won’t get a hundred times that in this moment—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the coming age will get eternal life. But many who are first will be last and last, first.”