This morning we gather as a religious community. Yes, we are a group of religious people! The word religion comes from the Latin that means ‘to show respect for what is sacred’. There is no culture
recorded in human history which has not practiced some form of religion. A study of comparative religion reveals that all religions have some commonalities. They are all organized around a system of
beliefs and practices. And these beliefs and practices lead to an otherworldly and spiritual experience. All religions have this in common.
But as they say: the devil is in the detail! In ancient Mesopotamia religious beliefs held that human beings were co-workers with the gods, humans labored with gods to hold back the forces of
chaos. There of course was no guarantee that the forces of chaos might end up stronger. Chaos had a chance of being victorious – if humans don’t cooperate and labor with their gods. In return the gods
repaid humans for their service by taking care of their daily needs in life (such as supplying them with beer, the drink of the gods). In return the gods would maintain the world in which humans lived.
Early Chinese and Indian religions shared the view that if a person acts rightly in the performance of your religious duties, then he or she is rewarded by moving closer to the supreme being
and eventually becoming one with god.
In ancient Rome, the worship of the gods was intimately tied to affairs of the state and the position of Caesar. The stability of the society was thought to rest on how well the people revered the
gods and participated in the rituals which honored them. If people did not revere the gods enough or they did not participate in the rituals, the society will suffer consequences. By the way this was one reason why the early Christians were hated so much back then – they refused to revere the Roman gods and they refused to participate in their rituals. Romans back then were terrified because they were afraid that the gods would punish them and their society if they, the Christians refused to participate in the rituals. So, in ancient Rome, just like in other ancient societies, religious actions had implications.
And when we think about the importance of religious rituals and practices back then, it does make a lot of sense why people put in such an effort to please the gods. Why?
Because in essence religion back then functioned exactly the way the world functioned then and still functions now: You work hard, you pull your weight, you cooperate with your superiors, and you
sacrifice a bit. And when you do these things you are rewarded. There is no such a thing as a free lunch.
There is an exact correlate between good effort and reward and for that matter between lack of effort (or doing something wrong) and punishment. This view actually found its way into Judaism.
This is why Job’s friends were so confident that they figured out why Job was suffering: Job did no pull his weight, his effort was not good enough. He sinned and therefore God is punishing him. Even
Job’s wife joined them saying: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die”.
And this view that God punishes people if they don’t perform their religious duties even found its way into the NT. Let me give you an example: In John’s Gospel Jesus comes across a blind man from birth. The first thing his disciples ask? “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” They were of course thinking about the proverb in Ezekiel 18: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Jesus’ short answer debunks their view: “neither this man nor his parents sinned!”
And here we are, after all these years of human kind’s religious activities, religious people to this day still intuitively think that one has to earn your right standing with God. It requires religious efforts to be a good person so that God accepts you! And if you don’t do enough, God will punish you! According to the Pew Research Center 81 % of US adults say that attend religious services
to become closer to God and 68% say they attend services to make them better persons. The underlying view is that my actions, and my efforts have an impact on my relationship with God.
The unspoken view of course is that if I don’t put in a big enough effort, I will fail and I will be punished and will be denied entry into God’s Kingdom. I believe that this is how most people read and interpret the story about the rich young man. This very religious young man asks a profound question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rabbi Jesus give him a sound answer: “Follow the divine law, that is the Ten Commandments”. “That I do”, the man responds!
A wonderful answer and I suspect that he was waiting for his reward. For sure the Rabbi would complement him! For sure he would hear that he has done well! His effort was praiseworthy! The rich man, in all likelihood a Pharisee for he believed in eternal life, that is the resurrection. As a Pharisee his question reveals a particular view: To receive eternal life one has to do something. And he covers all basis: He calls Jesus good teacher even though the OT is clear that only God deserves to be called good. He tells Jesus about his good accomplishments, “I have kept all these since my youth.” How surprising and shocking must the words of Jesus have been: “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.” On the surface it seems as if selling his possessions and giving the money to the poor is nothing more than another accomplishment, something else that he could do to enter he Kingdom of God. Yes, very challenging, a bit – or a lot – harder than the other things he had done since his youth. But still, with a lot of effort, possible!
For most people the meaning of this text is obvious. This is how many theologians and preachers interpret this text: Money and possessions bring dangerous temptations. It is a challenge for
wealthy people to enter God’s Kingdom. However, they argue, with enough effort, keeping the law and giving at least some of what you have to the poor, entering the Kingdom of God is achievable. They see the rich man’s failure to give up some or all of his wealth as the reason why he is disqualified. Today, they say it would mean, that for wealthy people to enter the Kingdom of God, they have to do what Jesus tells the rich man: Go sell all – or at least give away some of what you own and give the money to the poor- in return you will have a treasure in heaven – and then you can follow Jesus.
For those who interprets the text this way, the disqualifying problem was that the young man was not willing to put in the required effort.
In order to show that entering the kingdom was possible albeit hard, scholars had to find a way to deal with the metaphor of the camel and the needle. One suggested the word for camel should be changed to cable. With enough effort you may just get the cable through the eye of a needle. Hard but not impossible. Another scholar argued that the Eye of the Needle was a gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. A camel could only pass through this small gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. In other words, the camel could pass through but only with the effort of stooping. You see how easy it is to do what all religions have done for centuries? Human beings have to please God to be accepted by God! It takes an effort yes, but it is possible to be rewarded by the deity.
Not so in Christianity! Jesus in fact is saying something completely different: It is for people, rich and poor, impossible to enter the Kingdom of God! In his conversation with his disciples Jesus explains to them the essence of Christian faith: “Who then can be saved?” Asked the disciples. Jesus looks at them and said: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible!” The only possibility for human beings to enter the Kingdom of God comes from God. God alone makes it possible
for human beings to be saved, to be set right with God. All things are possible for God!
This theology in essence is the theology of the Apostle Paul. We are set right with God because of God’s love of us. We do not contribute to anything! God in Christ does everything for us! This is grace.
Our response is simply one of faith and gratitude! This is what makes the Gospel unique and truly Good News! The problem however is that we tend to fall back on the age old view: We have to do something to deserve salvation. We need to put in an effort to earn God’s love. And often we communicate to others that they too need to do something, accomplish something before God would give them eternal life. So we tell others: you have to change first, you to give up things first, you have to change you ways, or your lifestyle or who you are first. And if you don’t, we argue, then God will not allow you to enter the Kingdom of God and therefore we will deny you a welcome in church. People who have this view that there are all kinds of preconditions before they are welcomed in by God, are religious people. Their view in this regard however is not Christian.
This paragraph in Mark’s gospel makes it very clear that our efforts, our good works, even our religious actions cannot earn us God’s Kingdom! Why? For it is impossible for human beings to earn God’s Kingdom! For mortals it is impossible but not for God – for God all things are possible! God in Christ gifts us God’s kingdom! Everything that follows is a response of deep gratitude! Amen!