Jesus was a quirky fellow. I mean look at his attitude toward this rich guy who asks a simple question. This is my version but follow the link for the “official” text (if you need that sort of thing).
Hey, Jesus – what do I need to do to get eternal life?
“Keep the commandments,” says The Boss.
“Which ones”, queries our Rich Dude.
At which point El Jefe rattles off some of the Big Ten (interestingly he doesn’t include Honor God, Keep Holy the Sabbath, or No Coveting).
“I’ve kept all of those,” sayeth Rich Dude.
Then comes the zinger.
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Whoa! Can of worms! Immediately several questions come to mind:
1. So keeping the commandments is not enough any more?
2. If everyone sells all their possessions and gives to the poor, isn’t that going to completely mess up any form of stable society?
3. I work for a living. If I give away my clothes, I’m not going to keep my job very long. Who’s going to provide for the poor once I’m one of them?
4. Who’s going to feed my kids?
5. Jesus is a commie?
And those are just the important ones. How am I going to get to work – walk? It’s 11 miles! What about my iPhone? Do I have to give up my iPhone? What about the TV – how am I going to watch Sherlock (if it ever comes back)?
Jesus’ answer to his apostles when they pressed him is that with man these things are not possible, but with God all things are possible.
Let’s pretend, just for a second, that there is no God. Bear with me, it turns out what Jesus is saying is actually really cool even in the absence of God. Let’s pretend that his final statement of:
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
is really a metaphor for something else.
Think of it this way. Jesus was plugged in to an understanding of reality that most of us just can’t get. It’s not because we don’t try or because we lack faith (don’t get me started on that rat hole), but it’s because we lack a fundamental understanding. It’s sort of like in high school I was able to get calculus immediately why some others didn’t get it at all. Ever.
So I’m left with the feeling that Jesus got something that I don’t have the capacity to get. Ever. And in order to explain it to us idiots here on the ground, he had to frame it in simple stories that have incredibly complex meaning. I’m okay with that.
So maybe I need to think about it this way:
I’m attached to my worldly possessions. I’m attached to my wife and kids. I’m attached to my cars and my TV and my massage chair and my deck. I will not gladly surrender my iPhone.
Selfish. Vain. Needy.
But isn’t it selfish to (as he suggests) abandon my family? It’s pretty explicit that if you leave them, you will receive a hundred times as much? Sounds like a sweet deal!
Yeah, a sweet deal for you… but not your family. Not your parents or your kids. Maybe your spouse won’t miss you if you’ve been a jackass. But it’s a sweet deal only for you. Doesn’t that sound selfish?
Oh, that tricky Jesus. See how he makes you think? And if you weren’t quick enough to figure it out, he stands you up with the uppercut:
“But many who are fist will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, he admonishes you to think again. Think! Don’t just pat yourself on the head for having figured it all out. Don’t just throw your hands up and yell, “I beLIEVE, O Lord!” and assume that’s good enough. He wants you to think!
Don’t leave your job, your family, your life and wear sackcloth and eat ash. Live your life, love your family, your neighbors, and yes, your enemies. Love and then love some more. Give what you can, but don’t make the mistake of martyring yourself just so you can check that box. Think about who suffers when you do that.
Maybe, just maybe, Jesus is telling us to live in moderation. Maybe he’s advising us to keep things in perspective. Maybe he’s plugged in to that Universal Truth that guided these other dudes:
“Selfishness is the father of all evil”
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”
– Dalai Lama
“Non nobis solum nati sumus.
(We are not born for ourselves alone.)”
– Marcus Tullius Cicero
“Gentleness, self-sacrifice and generosity are the exclusive possession of no one race or religion.”
Jesus had it right (as usual), but we often get it wrong. Buddha got it, too. So did the DL, and at least one Roman. Think! Sometimes sacrifice means compromise. Sometimes it means not leaving your family and your job. And even if you take God completely out of the picture, it still makes sense.
So listen up, non-Christians. Even if Jesus was not the son of God, what he says still makes sense.
And listen up, Christians. Even though Jesus says give it all away, maybe he’s testing you to see if you’re really thinking about what selflessness is.
It means love.
It’s simple, but it ain’t easy.