At first glance, today’s biblical readings seem to tackle the problem of economic inequality. Particularly in the gospel Jesus appears to make an example of a young wealthy man, revealing his hypocrisy when he refuses Jesus’ call to give away his wealth and become his follower. We ought to expect that such open humiliation should have made the people round Jesus ecstatic – nothing makes us feel as good as witnessing the public condemnation of those considered ‘evil’. Last week we could see it on our TV screens when some self-righteous ‘fighters of freedom’ pelted members of the Conservative party with eggs and insults for holding differing political views. Schadenfreude – the joy of someone’s misfortune – is more widespread than sometimes we are ready to admit!
In the gospel, however, the followers of Jesus react in rather a surprising way when Jesus announces ‘how hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.’ St Mark reports that they were astounded by these words. Their facial expressions must have been very clear, because Jesus confirms his view by saying that ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ The result of this reiteration was that the disciples ‘were more astonished than ever.’ Perhaps they weren’t in love with the notion of being obscenely and boastfully rich, but the idea of stripping themselves of their possessions in order to inherit eternal life didn’t appeal to them.
The main problem with this passage of the gospel is that is often misread and misunderstood. It says little if anything about material or financial wealth. Let’s look at it more closely. The young man asks Jesus a question: ‘Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ In response, Jesus states that ‘no one is good but God alone.’ This is the first clue. Then Jesus lists the Commandments; all bar one of them are phrased in a negative way, prohibiting the doing of evil. When the young man claims he’s been observing those Commandments throughout his life, he earns some recognition from Jesus who ‘looked steadily at him and loved him.’ The question is whether avoiding the doing of evil makes us good. So Jesus tells him to do more than that, to do something positively good. In this particular case he touches upon the most sensitive area in the young man’s life – his sense of independence built on his personal wealth. His inability to make that step reveals to him that he’s not as good as he thought. The discussion that follows his departure leads Jesus’ disciples to ask this question: ‘who can be saved?’ Jesus’ answer is definitive: ‘For men it is impossible, but not for God: because everything is possible for God.’ In other words: salvation, eternal life, is not something that we can earn or deserve in one way or another; it’s the free gift of God’s unconditional love, shown in and made accessible to everyone by the sacrifice of Jesus.
That message turns the common sense approach to salvation upside down. Our sense of natural justice and our everyday experience imperceptibly lead us to the assumption that eternal salvation has to be earned by avoiding evil and doing good deeds. In fact, no matter how strongly or vocally we protest our innocence, nobody is as perfectly good as to deserve to enter the kingdom of God. Consequently we are all condemned if we want to rely on our own apparent goodness. The gates of the kingdom of God have been thrown open to you and me solely by the death and resurrection of Christ; we can enter there because of his perfect sacrifice, not because of our own goodness. The story of the repentant thief, crucified beside Jesus, illustrates that emphatically; there was no opportunity and no time for him to do any good deeds. The only chance he had was to waive his independence and to entrust completely himself to Jesus’ mercy. So what about good deeds? Should we abandon them as they seemingly don’t matter? The story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector spotted by Jesus in a tree in Jericho gives us some clues. Despite the condemnation of Zacchaeus by many of his self-righteous fellow citizens, Jesus pays him a visit; as a direct response to that, Zacchaeus gives away half his possessions to the poor and promises to repay four times over the amount owed to those he might have cheated. His experience of undeserved salvation sets him free to such an extent that he’s willing to alter the priorities in his life. His good deeds are the expression of his freedom, not the means to earn a place in the kingdom of God – because it’s already reserved for him. And it is for you and me too.