There is a Burmese Buddhist saying, “Only someone with a stiff colon can keep the commandments.” It means, for a person to keep the commandments, he must be wealthy or at least have enough to live by. A stiff colon, or a stuffed colon, here is a metaphor for a full stomach—someone who has enough to eat, someone who is not hungry or poor. If you are poor, you might end up having to cheat or steal to make ends meet. Then, you cannot keep the commandment of “thou shall not steal,” “thou shall not lie (or bear false witness), or “thou shall not covet.”
The assumption is that a person must first have a means to make a living in order to take care of the spiritual matters. Do you agree with this Burmese saying? Abraham Maslow seems to agree. He says that a person’s spiritual need is usually the last to be taken care of after the physiological needs and psychological needs.
Some people cannot attend church or weekday Bible Study because they say they have to work to make a living. Some people cannot come to church on Sunday morning because they say they have to sleep after a week of hard work. There was a guy who couldn’t wake up to make it to church on Sunday, but when his work required him to be there at 5 AM on a Sunday morning, he always made it. It seems that church and spirituality is secondary to his stomach.
However, we know Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.” So, Jesus’ teaching is the opposite: if you take care of your spiritual needs the rest will be taken care of automatically. All Christians know about this teaching, but few dare to practice it.
Let’s say you have a stiff colon. I am sure you do, unless you are fasting! You have more than enough to eat and a good shelter to live in. I would say, most of us living in Bergen County, New Jersey is in this category. According to the statistics, you are at the top 2% of the world just by being a Bergen County resident. I know you still have many problems to deal with, but the rest of the world would love to have your problems.
Jesus said in
Mark 8:36 NRSV
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
He is of course talking about the eternal life because life without eternal life is not a life at all. Life on this side of eternity is short. Very short! A hundred year on earth is like a blink of eyes. Everything you strive for cannot be taken with you when you die. Have you ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul?
There’s a man who has achieved success. He is young, he is rich, and he has power. He is ready to rise up to the next level of success. He wants to inherit the eternal life. He is smart enough not to be satisfied with his worldly success, but now he wants heavenly success. He comes to ask Jesus what he needs to do to gain eternal life.
Mark 10:19–20 NRSV
You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”
This guy is impressive, he is not only successful in power, prestige, and possessions, but also in performance. He has kept all these laws since his youth. Quite an impressive performance! Many of you would love to achieve what he has achieved.
However, he has everything except one thing—eternal life. Why eternal life? Because without eternal life, our time on earth is meaningless no matter how much you possess and how well you perform.
There is another man like this—King Solomon, one of the wisest men in human history. He had achieved everything a man could achieve. He had wisdom, he had prestige, he had power, he had performance. At the peak of his achievement he wrote a book called Ecclesiastes, and he began by saying:
Ecclesiastes 1:1–2 NRSV
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Without the eternal life, all is vanity.
Moses said in Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Those who know how to count the time gain wisdom, and those who have gained wisdom know that life is meaningless without the eternal life. (By the way, the Bible uses “eternal life,” “kingdom of heaven,” “kingdom of God,” and “salvation,” interchangeably to mean basically the same thing.)
The Bible then says,
Mark 10:21 NRSV
Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “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.”
Jesus loved him because he is humble. In the context of this story, Jesus was teaching the disciples to be humble like a child. This young man has everything, but he is humble.
Jesus loved him because he was not complacent. Someone with everything can become complacent. You know Jesus hates complacency. He told a story of a rich fool who enlarged his barn to store his plentiful harvest and prepare to goof off for the rest of his life. That rich man was a fool because he was complacent, but not this one.
In fact, Jesus loved this rich young ruler so much that he wanted him to be one of his disciples. He could have become the thirteenth disciple. So, Jesus said, “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.”
There are five short verbs here—go, sell, give, come, follow. It can be summed up as “service.” If you put this story in the context, Jesus was teaching the disciples about servanthood. A few verses before this, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk 9:35). So, it’s about service.
This rich young ruler has achieved greatness. He wants to be even greater. Based on the context, Jesus expects him to be the greatest by being the servant of all. Jesus is saying, “I love you, you are humble and smart. I want a disciple like this. Go, sell, give, come and follow me. Let’s serve together.”
Jesus is saying, “Measure your success with service!” Don’t measure your success with performance. He performed well with his keeping of the commandments. But, the eternal life is not measured by one’s performance but service.
Unfortunately, the Bible says,
Mark 10:22 NRSV
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
He was shocked because he didn’t expect this kind of an answer coming from Jesus. He was shocked because he thought Jesus would ask him to achieve the highest rather than going to the lowest. He was among the top 1% of the world, and he thought Jesus would take him to the top 0.1%, instead, Jesus wanted him to join the bottom 0.1% of the world.
“He was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He was shocked because he was possessed by his possessions and consumed by his consumables!
After he left, Jesus told the disciple one of his most famous quote,
Mark 10:25 NRSV
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Why? It’s because your possessions can possess you and restrict you to go to the ultimate success with service.
The theological lesson of this story is, first of all, we are never good enough to inherit the eternal life. That’s why at the beginning Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone.”
Mark 10:17–18 NRSV
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
Maybe Jesus noticed that this young man believed that people can be good enough to enter the kingdom of God. Unless he recognized Jesus’ divinity, his calling Jesus of “Good teacher” revealed his theological fallacy.
No one is good enough to enter the kingdom of God. Not even a rich and smart man who has the time and talent to achieve anything. It’s through God grace that we receive eternal life.
However, the disciples were confused. If someone with a stiff colon like him cannot enter the kingdom of God, then who could? That was the question of the disciples.
There comes the second theological lesson. Jesus said,
Mark 10:27 NRSV
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
That means to attain eternal life, one must let go and let God. Let go of your performance and let God’s grace work in you. God’s grace can be experienced in gracious deeds of service. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Mat. 5:7). Mercy and grace are similar in essence. When you are gracious you experience grace, and when you are merciful, you experience mercy. You serve people by your grace and mercy, and experience God’s grace and mercy working in you.
Jesus close this teaching with the theme of these chapters, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” In the context, the last represents the one who is the servant of all. He or she is the greatest of all.
Jesus wants you to measure your success with your service.
Let us serve and be fruitful! Amen.