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.’(NRSV)
Our reading begins, promisingly, with a man kneeling before Jesus. It is a desperation revealed only as we realise how unaccustomed this man is to bowing. Has he been nervously searching for a more dignified and private audience with Jesus? Has he left his concern to the last moment and only now, as he sees Jesus preparing to leave, found the courage to cast himself and his question before Jesus?
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ We are left to ponder motive: Does he know a guilt he cannot shake? Does he doubt his worthiness before God? Is there reason to believe death is close? At the very least this man recognises a link between Jesus and ‘eternal life’.
Jesus lists aspects of Moses law but there is no confession. Before the Jewish code this man claims innocence. He has always known and obeyed.
And then we read that Jesus ‘…looking at him, loved him…’. It is an insightful, personal, assessment of Jesus’ heart. Our narrator wants the reader to be sure that Jesus speaks out of love.
And this needs to be emphasised for what Jesus is about to say could easily be construed otherwise: ‘Go…sell…give…follow’. This prescription is so unexpected we are told the man went into shock…and left in grief. Love does not always offer the easy road.
Jesus’ disciples heard these words just as harshly. They were ‘perplexed’ and ‘greatly astounded’. Their question, ‘Then who can be saved?’, highlights their belief that riches were only advantageous in the spiritual life. After all the rich have all the opportunities: leisure, education, power. If anyone has the time and knowledge to access and obey Moses’ law it is those for whom the day-to-day is accounted for.
But Jesus does not see things this way. For him this man is bound, not free. So much so that Jesus describes the parting of man and money in terms of the challenges associated with threading a camel through the eye of a needle. To be sure, this is a linguistic exercise in hyperbole, contrast and, quite likely, humour. But then Jesus confirms their dire interpretation: for mortals such parting is ‘impossible’.
But not for God. Indeed, as Peter considers Jesus’ words he realises that the impossible – and more – has happened. What this man with all his apparent advantages could not (as yet) do, they have done. They have left everything.
And Jesus knows it. He can list the sacrifices they have made. A generous reward is coming their way: a hundredfold – accompanied by both persecution and the elusive hope of the kneeling rich man. Theirs will be ‘eternal life’.
It does not come easily, however. Perhaps Jesus’ reiteration of the reordered kingdom introduces a needed sobriety: The disciples only look like the first.
We are left wondering in what way they will be last.