Our passage for the first Sunday in Lent is set in motion by an urgent question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
What is eternal life? What, in particular, did Jews mean when using such a phrase, given the scant evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures for any developed notion of an afterlife? The phrase only appears in the New Testament. What’s more, in the three Synoptic gospels, the phrase is not introduced by Jesus, but by someone asking him a question. The Greek work translated “eternal” is aoinion, a word Strong’s tells us means ‘without beginning’ or ‘without end.’ Or, both.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The scene (which is treated in the Working Preacher commentary by Raquel S. Lettsome, here) continues with Jesus rejecting the adjective “good” for himself (but pointing back to God, who alone is “good”) and then delving into a dialogue with the questioning man. Jesus reels off most of the second half of the Decalogue, with one unique addition that Lettsome points out, “You shall not defraud.” (She connects this to coveting, and notes that it is a uniquely Markan innovation.) The questioning man affirms that he obeys all these, and always has.
‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’
What is it about that statement that makes the heart clench (especially given what follows)? Maybe because it suggests that Jesus sees (and loves us for) our attempts at goodness, whether or not those attempts come to complete fruition? Notice, too, that all these commandments are related to our treatment of one another, and not as directly to our love and reverence for God. Does this suggest, perhaps, that we love God by loving one another.
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
‘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.”‘
Jesus makes an extreme request, one we may not have anticipated. Yet, it is a request that others have already answered– the twelve, the other disciples who are now following Jesus. While we should resist the temptation to downplay this (as in, oh he couldn’t possibly mean that literally…), it is also important to place it alongside the commandments Jesus has just reiterated. Faithfulness means living in loving connection to others, in justice and righteousness. The call to abandon personal wealth in favor of the poor simply extends and expands that way of justice and righteousness, maximizing the benefits to others (individuals and society as a whole). Selfless living is the logical consequence of internalizing the commandments. Selfless living is living at its deepest, living in utter trust and dependence on God.
This is what I take the phrase, “eternal/ everlasting life,” to mean: life at its deepest. Life that is not restricted by our notions of the usual boundaries. Life as an experience which allows for an expansion of consciousness, here and now, and is not simply (or only) envisioned as a “heavenly reward.”
The questioning man, the man who wants very much an experience of life at its deepest and most connected to God, nevertheless goes away stunned and grieving, because “he had many possessions.” Jesus takes the opportunity to warn of the impediment wealth can be to those who wish to enter the kingdom of God (Jesus’ own more familiar language, over and against “everlasting/ eternal life”). He repeats the statement, because the first time he says it, his followers are puzzled. For them as for us, it is entirely counterintuitive. Then, as now, wealth is seen as every problem’s solution, and the disciples cannot fathom why that should not be so.
Even the rich, though, can be recipients of God’s grace. Those who cannot buy their way into everlasting life nevertheless can hope for it, as God’s free gift, alongside those who cannot buy even their bread. The great reversals apply here as elsewhere in this gospel: The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
This week “Humans of New York” can be found photographing and interviewing prisoners. One man, speaking of another who was mentoring him through the experience, said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to win by losing.’ In the eyes of society, we’ve lost already. Everyone in here is a loser. We can either be angry about it, or we can keep trying to grow.”(Link to the photo and full quote can be found here.) Jesus has been calling those to himself whom his society considered “losers,” those at or near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The great reversals of his kingdom (kin-dom) promise to make ‘winners’ out of ‘losers,’ not in the sense that they will be wealthy (by any commonly held understanding of that word); but in that a life which is lived with open hands and an open heart provides a wealth that is neither time-bound nor at risk of ever being spent, lost, or gambled away.
- This is a great Sunday for an introductory sermon about Lent. The three great (traditional/ ancient) disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, each in its way a nudge towards emptying ourselves in order that God might do something new in us.
- The first Sunday in Lent might also be a great day for a sermon on eternal life. John 17:3 provides some back-up for the notion that we are not merely talking “pie in the sky in the by-and-by”, as does NT language about “abundant life.” What does eternal/ everlasting life mean to you? How does Jesus invite us to live eternally in the here-and-now?
- What does that phrase mean to you, to “win by losing”? How might it describe the way of Jesus?
- (Edited to add:) What do we imagine might be the “one thing” keeping us from living the God-life/ eternal life/ kingdom living?
- (Edited to add:) It’s Valentine’s Day! On the feast of the Saint of Love, a focus on the loving impetus behind the commandments Jesus rattles off might be appropriate… or, again, on the way love is made manifest in the traditional Lenten disciplines.
I look forward to continuing the conversation with you, in the comments. Blessings upon the study and the preaching of God’s word to us this week!
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