‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark 10:17)

It seems to be a sincere question, genuinely asked, with real passion and longing. But, the conversation does not go well. Jesus responds by listing six commandments, all of which, apparently the man who posed the question, has kept since he was a youth.

So, Jesus pushes harder. He pokes the man where he knows the rich man is most vulnerable:

‘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.’ (Mark 10:21)

How will the man respond to this stern challenge?

Mark says,

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving… (Mark 10:22)

Then Mark adds his own little editorial aside, saying that the man

went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

It appears, on the surface that the man’s possessions are the problem. But there is a problem that precedes the man’s attachment to his possessions. It appears in the way he poses his question:

‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark 10:17)

The real problem here is the “do” issue.

The problem is not so much that the man is overly attached to his possessions, but that he believes discerning the presence of the “eternal” is a matter of doing the right thing. For this man “eternal life” is a human project. It is an enterprise human beings can undertake successfully if they follow the program. If he can only get it right, as he has done all his life, he knows he will make the grade; he can be good enough. But Jesus states that,

No one is good but God alone. (Mark 10:18)

The whole point of this passage, the whole point of the Gospel, is that we cannot be good enough. We cannot make the grade. We cannot do this thing called life.

The story of this rich man is urging us on to the end of Mark chapter ten, where Jesus is confronted by Bartimaeus sitting utterly helpless by the roadside begging. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming by, he shouts out,

‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ (Mark 10:47)

This is the place to which we need to get, the place where we acknowledge that we are helpless. Everything depends upon the mercy. True life is not something we can do. The vision is impossibly high. Jesus summed up the goal of life, saying simply,

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

It is an impossible standard. If perceiving the kingdom is a matter of measuring up, of being good enough and always doing the right thing, we are all doomed. We are powerless to make the grade.

This of course is precisely the point of the bizarre image Jesus uses in Mark 10:25,

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a rhaphis than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Anyone who has ever tried to thread a rhaphis knows how difficult it is to get a thread through the eye of a needle and utterly impossible it would be to get a camel to pass through such a tiny aperture. The point here is not that if only the camel was unburdened of all he was carrying, he could stoop down and make it through a small opening. The point Jesus is making with this image is that there is nothing the camel can do to get through the eye of the needle.

But, when his disciples express their dismay that those who are wealthy, who surely must be deserving, might have a hard time passing through into the kingdom, Jesus reminds them,

For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’ (Mark 10:27)

The story of the man who had many possessions could have ended differently.

Hearing Jesus’ challenge to sell what he owns and give the money to the poor, the man with many possessions could have fallen at Jesus’ feet and pleaded, like Bartimaeus, “Lord have mercy.” He could have said, “I am sorry; I can’t. I would love to but I cannot walk away from all my material possessions.” He could have confessed his failure, acknowledged his weakness and begged to be forgiven.

The call of life is always to throw ourselves on the mercy of love. We cannot do the Christian life. We cannot be good enough or behave well enough. We will always “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This may be the real problem with any kind of “wealth”. Those who possess great riches of any kind, tend to believe in their riches, rather than their need for mercy. Just as the rich man was “shocked” at the point of his possessions, life will “shock” us precisely where we think we are rich and self-reliant. The illusion of self-reliance is the graveyard of faith.

The one thing there is no room for in Christian faith is arrogance. Christianity is not a self-help project in which we exert our effort to become better people. It is a mercy project in which we acknowledge how powerless we are to be the people we were created to be and trust in the power of love regardless of our failures.

It is not an accident that the story of the rich man who walks away from Jesus is immediately preceded by Jesus’ encounter with small, powerless children, of whom he says,

‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’ (Mark 10:14)

This is the program – be children. Return to your original condition as powerless children who have accomplished nothing in life and experience every moment their need for help.

We need help. We need to cry for mercy time after time after time, not because we are bad, but because we are helpless. We are helpless to be fully human. We are helpless to live the vision of goodness, truth, beauty and selfless love that is our true and deepest nature.

The mercy is always there. It would have been there for the rich man had he only been able to open his heart a little more deeply and fall before Jesus acknowledging how powerless he knew himself to be and pleading for mercy.

It is the quintessential Christian prayer, passed down through generations, repeated over and over in communal liturgy and in personal devotion:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me.

This is all we can do. But it is always adequate. The cry for mercy is always enough.