I like stories like The Boy Who Cried Wolf or The Tortoise and the Hare, the ones where the smallest of children can grasp the moral of the tale. But a story that doesn’t resolve? Not so much. Especially if the story deals with a high-stakes issue, like –say—what do I need to do to make it to heaven when I die?
Which is why I really don’t like the following story:
A man came up to Jesus and asked him,
“Good teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to the man,
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, and that’s God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
The man replied,
“Don’t murder, Don’t commit adultery, Don’t steal, Don’t bear false witness, Honor your father and your mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man said to Jesus,
“I’ve kept all of these commandments since the time I was young, what am I still missing?”
So Jesus said to the man, “If you want to be perfect, go sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me.”
But when the young man heard what Jesus said, he went away sorrowful, because he had a lot of possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples,
“Listen up real good! It’s hard for a rich man to enter heaven’s kingdom. Let me say it again, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven’s kingdom.”
When Jesus’ disciples heard what he said, they were blown away!
“Who then can be saved?” they asked him.
But Jesus looked at them and said,
“With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Leave it to Jesus to confuse the heck out of me!
Some immediate questions come to mind:
Did Jesus really mean for everyone to sell all of their possessions, or did he mean it just for this one man? I sincerely hope that he meant it just this once; otherwise St. Francis and Mother Theresa are going to have a really long time to get to know each other in heaven, since they and maybe a few saintly others would be the only ones there!
And that whole camel through the eye of the needle thing: What is that about?
And, yes, the eye of the needle means exactly what you’re thinking. Not some gate in Jerusalem. Jesus said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle that you used to stitch that Noah’s Ark for your child’s bedroom—than for a rich guy to get to heaven.
Let. That. Sink. In.
Unless some freakishly unexplainable phenomenon occurs where camels all of the sudden start popping out of needles (imagine the Discovery Channel documentary on that one), I have to conclude that no rich person will be in heaven.
Except that’s not the end of the story…
Jesus’ disciples must have been as baffled as I am, because the story says they were “greatly astonished”, so much so that they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” That’s when Jesus said, “With men, this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.”
How’s that for a curveball?
On the one hand, Jesus says that it’s mind-bendingly difficult for rich people to get to heaven (and no, he’s not talking about some woo-woo experience of spiritual ecstasy on earth. He’s talking about actual heaven. Eternal life. Think of the rich man’s question). On the other hand, Jesus seems to be saying that as impossible as it is for rich people to get to heaven, even that’s not impossible with God.
Which brings me back to the beginning of the story.
Remember what the rich man called Jesus? The rich man called Jesus a “good teacher.” And Jesus replied by saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, but One: God!”
Some people use this verse to claim that Jesus denied his deity, but Jesus does no such thing here. Rather, Jesus is saying to the rich man, “Do you really understand the implications of what you’re saying by calling me good?” According to Jesus, no human being in the strictest sense can actually be called good. Only God is good. And no matter how much the rich man thought he had kept the commandments, he still fell short.
And so do I.
Like I said, this story doesn’t resolve for me.
If I’m going to take Jesus seriously, then I have to conclude that it’s very difficult for rich people to get to heaven. And as an American who lives a fairly comfortable lifestyle, I know he’s talking about me!
But then Jesus also says that with God all things are possible. That's where grace kicks in. So the one thing I can know for sure about this story is that when it comes to the question: Can a person be good without God? Jesus’ answer is unequivocal:
The answer is no.
(This story is found in Matthew 19:16-26)