October 11, 2015

Pentecost – Proper 23

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90: 12-17; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

When the rich young man approached Jesus and asked Jesus what he needed to do to obtain eternal life, I don’t think he was asking Jesus how to get to heaven. That is the way I have understood the story for years, and that is probably the way you all have understood the story as well.  I was surprised to learn that the words “eternal life” in scripture do not necessarily mean “life after death” or even heaven, as some biblical scholars argue that the idea of heaven or even the concept of life after death was still early in its development during the time of Jesus. If those scholars are correct, then what does the phrase “eternal life” mean?

The phrase “eternal life” as it is used in the New Testament has less to do with the life after death, than it does with the quality of life that we live right now. In other words, perhaps the rich young man was asking Jesus not “what do I have to do to get into heaven” but rather “how can I live the kind of life that you and your disciples live? How do I get in on the joy and the love you guys obviously have so much of?”

The answer that Jesus offers the rich young man is simple – you give. You give to God in faith, trusting that whatever it is you give, God gives back, as God always does. That’s the way Jesus lived his life, and that is the way he encouraged others to live. And there must have been something about that life that the rich young man wanted, this person who had so many things, except what Jesus had.

Some think that what Jesus said to the young man was an impossible demand for any person to consider, young or old. Who can give away all their things and give their money to the poor?  I think it is safe to say that no one here this morning after hearing this Gospel is going to walk out the door, sell all their possessions, and give their money to the poor. If you all did,  we’d have to shut down St. Andrew’s Church because no one would be able to pledge money for our annual stewardship campaign (So perhaps this is not a very good reading for our stewardship season!).

I want to encourage you to think differently about this story. It’s helpful here to look at the language the New Testament was written in – Greek, because what Jesus says in the original Greek is different than what he says in our English version. In the English version, we have Jesus telling the young man to “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.” That’s different than the original Greek, in which Jesus says “sell what you own, and give to the poor.” Did you catch the difference?  In the original Greek Jesus doesn’t say “sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” He’s not absolute in saying give everything you own away. Instead, he simply says “give.”  

However you choose to interpret this story, the point is simple: when we give, we are being most like God, because giving is a blessing to us and to the person who receives. That’s what Jesus is saying – if you want eternal life, if you most want to be like God?  Give.

I recall an old story of a priest who called a member of his church who had not attended services in several months. The church member told the priest, “I haven’t been coming to church because when I do, all I hear is “give, give, give.” The priest was silent for a moment, and then responded, “Well, I cannot think of a better definition of Christianity than that.” And there isn’t one. As Christians we give, because God gives to us. And my gift to you is that this sermon is over! AMEN