Friday, July 10, 2020

Commandment-Keepers and Jesus-Followers

     As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

     “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

     “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

     Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

-Mark 10:17-22 (NIV)

“Good teacher,” I ask Jesus, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” I know some people can’t imagine a life that they want to extend out to eternity, but I can. I believe that God wants to share his life with me, and I’d like to be in on that kind of eternal life. 

     I figure Jesus would know.

     So I ask, and he tells me: “You know the commandments.” I do, I know them, and I’ve lived literally all of my life believing that keeping them was important. Some other ones too. I was baptized in a church that gets baptism “right.” I share in the Lord’s Supper every week. I sing without instruments, just like Paul and Silas in prison. I put some money in the offering plate. I read my Bible. I help people. 

     And so I tell him that: “I’ve kept those (more or less) since I was a kid.” So is that it? We’re done? Just keep doing what I’m doing, is that what you’re saying, Jesus?”

     He looks at me, and there’s love in his eyes, and I’m starting to think I’m his prize student. But then he holds up a finger, and the love in his eyes doesn’t go away, but it’s joined by something else. They’re the eyes of my teachers, telling me I could do better if I’d just apply myself. The eyes of my parents when they were a little disappointed in me. “One thing you lack,” he says, and my stomach drops because I know this is going to hurt.

     “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     I knew it would hurt.

     I’m convinced, church, that we need to have a conversation like that with Jesus pretty often. By our nature, we’re a people who do pretty well with commandments: “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” fits our collective personality. Commandments give us something to go on. They serve nicely as a scorecard. Commandments let me evaluate myself against you, against my own expectations, and even against what God wants. They can be useful sometimes. 

     But, hear me when I say this: If we never get beyond obeying commandments, we’re not following Jesus. 

    Look at what we’ve done with commandments. We’ve multiplied them. We’ve found commandments in the Bible for nearly every aspect of our lives, and when we couldn’t find them we pretty much created them from proof-text and syllogism. If eternal life can be had by keeping commandments, we all should be in fine shape. 

     But if we’re relying on knowing and keeping commandments, we’re always going to lack something. 

     Commandments, as important as they are, can be manipulated to fit our comfort zones. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, we know — but who are they? Literal neighbors? Fellow citizens of the same city or country? People of other faiths, or different tribes of the Christian faith? The church knows we should love our neighbors, yet sometimes we haven’t acted with love toward abuse victims, or undocumented immigrants, or black people, or gay people, or people who differ from us doctrinally or politically. We’ve usually found ways to defend our actions. After all, “We’ve kept these commands since childhood.” We couldn’t possibly be wrong: We’re the commandment-keepers.

     Sometimes we hear Jesus’ response to this man in Mark 10 as just another commandment to be kept, in which case we usually have to interpret it to death because how could the church afford to maintain the building and pay the ministers’ salaries if everyone gave away everything to help the poor? 

     This isn’t just another command to follow (or interpret around), though. Jesus is replacing this man’s vocabulary of commandment-keeping with the language of discipleship. What he’s saying to him — and to all of us — is what he says to everyone who comes asking him about eternal life: Give up everything to follow me.

     That isn’t a commandment to be followed as much as a life to be lived. We find such security in wealth, power, privilege, convenience, pleasure, comfort. The life he wants us to live, the one that will extend on out into eternal life, is one that finds security in him and nothing else. 

     Following Jesus, if I understand this exchange correctly, means giving something up. Many of us could stand to give up some possessions, for sure, so we could be more generous to those who are doing without. That’s hard, but maybe it’s even harder to give up our privilege — or sometimes even to admit to it. Maybe it’s harder to give up resentment, but it’s necessary before we can forgive. It’s hard to give up venting our anger so that we can turn the other cheek. It’s hard to give up the notion that winning an argument is more important than loving our neighbor. It’s hard to give up detachment from the pain of others so that we can follow Jesus in offering comfort and care. It’s hard to give up political parties. Nationalistic loyalties. Denominational identities.

     Commandments keep us content. They keep us lulled into believing that we’re doing everything related to eternal life. They keep us self-sufficient and sometimes even let us define what matters and what doesn’t, what’s kingdom work and what isn’t, so narrowly that no one in the world cares about any of it except for other Christians. They let us hold on to the things we trust while obeying the letter of the law.

     Maybe that’s why we prefer keeping commandments to following Jesus. Maybe, to the extent that the church’s response to our present crises is lacking, that’s why — because following Jesus in ministering to a broken, hurting, searching world requires us to give up more than we’re willing. 

     What Jesus wants is for us to give up everything — even our identities as commandment-keepers — to follow him in doing the work of God’s kingdom in our world. To use our privileged positions in society to speak and act on behalf of those who are discriminated against. To serve the sick and dying and poor and hungry. What we sign up for when we follow Jesus is nothing less than to live the kind of life now that he has gifted us through his own “giving up.” The life of the new age.

     The eternal kind.


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