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; Honour 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.’
Discipleship is difficult … but the good news is that it’s not just down to us!
At first it seems that Jesus is dealing here with an ingratiating and perhaps malign sycophant. So Jesus pricks his puffed up bubble and reminds him that religion has a hard practical side. It is not about giving flattering praise but doing God’s will.
In the exchange that follows events take a different turn. Jesus senses the man’s sincerity – he has tried to keep the Law all his life and has come to realise that this is not enough. Now Jesus warms to him and answers his original question with the seriousness it deserves. He invites the man to follow him. But the path of discipleship is costly and, in the man’s case, in order to lay up treasure in heaven he must sell all his possessions. It proves too daunting a sacrifice.
This sends tremors of dismay within the on-looking disciples. The discipleship gauntlet set down is forbidding. It is not about wealth as such but rather “complete inner detachment from worldly things … to put one’s trust in God and rely on him as the sole source of security and well-being” (Nineham).
Gulp! … with the bar set so high how can anyone be saved?
Then, we hear the great news! “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” This verse heralds what became the core of Paul’s teaching. If we are to be saved it is not by our own efforts alone but through the grace and unlimited power of God.
So, at the heart of this reading are two truths about discipleship, which are in creative tension with each other. On the one hand, it involves constantly renewed, striving dedication. On the other hand, such efforts will not themselves be sufficient as the kingdom is a gift of grace from God … for whom all things are possible.
Lord, I strive to put you at the centre of my life, to rely on you as my bedrock my foundation and security. But, I know I am weak; I let other worldly treasures divert me from the path of discipleship. By the light of the cross, show me again the way, so that through your grace I may arrive safely home. Amen.
Professor Graham Handscomb, Convenor of the URC Stepwise Task and Finish Group and a member of Christ Church URC, Chelmsford.