The story where Jesus talked to the “businessman” (Lk 18:18ff) – who had asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life, and who then turned away sadly – don’t we usual think it’s all about dedication and that he did not want to let go of his fortune? And in sermons, is it not the most common application of this story, to ask what are our “idols” that we don’t want to let go of, and that keep us from following Jesus wholeheartedly?
When I read how Wayne Jacobsen interprets the story, I felt like banging my forehead and saying: “Of course! Why did I not think of it myself?” This makes much more sense than many other attempts of explanation.
Jesus was not interested in the businessman giving away all his property in order to prove his dedication, but Jesus rather wanted to give him an impossible condition. In the hope that he will finally realize that he can’t receive eternal life through “DOING.” – His questions was: “What must I DO?” When Jesus pointed to the law – “I have DONE all that.” Really? Is this possible? Nobody can fulfill the whole law and it’s purpose was exactly that – showing people that it can’t be done. Unfortunately, the businessman (and so many of us) are so busy with DOING the right thing, that we don’t notice, that Jesus was about something else. He wanted to shake him up and lead him to the realization that the eternal life can’t be bought (neither with money nor with DOING). Jesus wanted to free him from the bondage of performance. He just wanted his (and our) admission that we can’t make it. Regrettably, the businessman did not catch on to it and turned away saddened.
Shortly after that I heard a sermon about the Beatitudes (Mt 5). In this context the remark was made that “Jesus radicalized the law.” Again I had the same reaction <bang my forehead> “Of course! What else?” When Jesus said things like, for example, that we are subject to judgment even if we just get angry at a brother, we easily read these statements as requirements for salvation, we feel guilty and try to reinterpret or rationalize these sayings, because “really, nobody can measure up to this standard.” Right! We can’t. This was exactly the point Jesus tried to make. This is why he had to come to fulfill the law for us. What we are missing is often the honest admission: I can’t do it!
The man understood the lesson, but missed the point. Jesus wasn’t trying to be mean to him. He raised the bar beyond the man’s ability to get over it precisely because Jesus wanted him to stop trying. The gift he offered the man was to be free of the incredible burden of having to earn God’s love by his own efforts. He was caught in his own doing and Jesus was trying to free him.
He was hoping the young man would look him in the eye and say, ‘I can’t do that!’ To which Jesus might have answered ‘Good, then stop doing all the other silly things you’re trying to do to earn God’s favor. Stop striving, stop pretending, stop trying to earn that which you can never earn!’
We cannot earn God’s love and acceptance. He gives them to us in Jesus as a gift. One-hundred-ten-percent, as my grandfather would say. We only make our lives more difficult when we continue in this performance orientation. Even if it is “just” the thinking, that we have been saved by grace but now we need to prove that we were worth it.