Formations 03.18.2018: An Inheritance of Eternal Life

Matthew 19:16-30

Heinrich Hoffman’s “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler”

I’ve been thinking a lot about inheritance lately, particularly the people who remain to sort through what’s left behind. And it seems that while this work permits us to remember joy and laughter and tenderness, it requires us to acknowledge that some things, including life and its relationships, get broken.

Jesus talks often about inheritance and treasures. In this passage, he tells a young man that he “will have treasure in heaven” if he sells what he owns and gives the proceeds to the poor (v. 21). He promises his disciples that those who leave their homes and families for his name’s sake “will inherit eternal life” (v. 29).

The young man had come to Jesus to ask, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life? “ (v. 16). And Jesus replied, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (v. 17). Have and enter—these verbs mark the difference between the two men. The young man encounters life, centers himself in it, and aims to possess it and all things in it. On the other hand, Jesus sees that life can only be entered into. We participate in life. We don’t own it.

Lent challenges that desire to grasp life. Ashes from last year’s palm branches remind us that “moth and rust consume…, thieves break in and steal” (6:19). Despite our care, attention, and effort, we cannot possess eternally. The creation and decay of our bodies and our possessions depend on factors beyond our control, so Jesus challenges the young man’s goal of having. Jesus tells him to observe the rhythms of the commandments, to take his place in the movements bringing the kingdom to hand (vv. 17-21).

This new perception would require him to see, not only the freedom of God who builds up and tears down, or the freedom of people who are born and work and die, but the freedom of things, which are created and then consumed.

Mary Chapin Carpenter sings about one such possession, a shirt that “is old and faded, all the color washed away.” From beginning to end, she tells the stories of the life that faded it. The shirt saw high school dances and the births and deaths of kittens. It was misplaced and found in a bus station near Buffalo and it was worn for Sunday chores. When she confesses she should replace it, she admits that she’s not about to try, because that journey of decay and resurrection transfigured the shirt. It “shine[d] like the memories inside those silver buttons.” And I wonder if Jesus seeks for us this type of vision. Is it possible that inventorying the possessions we or our loved ones have acquired, either to keep or give away, allows us to see their decay and the life that remains more clearly?

Whether shirts faded by Sunday chores, side tables burned by lighters, tea mugs with broken handles, or headboards stained by hair, these treasures challenge us to see life at hand in even fragile moments. And they call us to participate in the life that moves through them.

Discussion

• What objects and intentions in your life function to create a sense of stability?
• What experiences and possessions have forced you to see God’s movement in your life and in the world?
• What might come, both personally and communally, from acknowledging the limits of human control?
• What practices might help us to embrace and accept the freedom of God, of people, and of things?

Reference Shelf

Inheritance

In the OT, from the first, the land of CANAAN was promised as an inheritance by God to Abraham and his seed (Gen 12:7). This land was a gift of God to Israel, even though its possession required effort.

When the Israelites went into exile they were disinherited from the land. This disinheritance meant more than just the loss of a little strip of territory. In a deeper sense it meant the loss of spiritual blessings as a consequence of national sin.

The idea of a restored inheritance, taught by the prophets, suggested the glorious anticipation of the messianic age. In that period the people, not by works which they had done, but by God’s grace, would recover that which they had lost. The COVENANT which they had broken would be renewed.

In fact, the idea of inheritance underwent a process of both narrowing and expansion. On the one hand, instead of the whole people, only a REMNANT is to inherit the promises. On the other hand, the inheritance expands to include not only Canaan but the nations (Isa 54:3; Ps 2:8; Dan 7:14).

John P. Newport, “Inheritance in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 406.

Grace

Verse 23 is important and must be translated carefully: “I tell you the truth that the rich with great difficulty will enter the Dominion of Heaven.” Jesus does not say it is impossible. Verse 24 gives us Jesus’ famous aphorism that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Dominion of God. This saying has some precedents in early Judaism in which we find phrases about an elephant going through the eye of a needle. This aphorism is not to be rationalized by some reference to a nonexistent needle gate in the city of Jerusalem.

Some later scribes actually altered kamilos to kamelos, the latter meaning “rope” in hopes of making a deliberately hyperbolic remark seem less outlandish. But the precise point is to stress the great difficulty involved by means of the dramatic hyperbole so typical of Wisdom literature. Jesus is contrasting the largest animal and the smallest hole that an early Jew in Israel would likely think of (cf. b. Ketub. 67a). The point is that salvation is not obtainable through even strenuous human effort, trying to squeeze into God’s Dominion. The disciples for once, though they are astonished, understand this implication of Jesus rather clearly and so ask who then can be saved. This verse suggests the disciples had the same vision of salvation through human obedience or effort as the young man did. Jesus then indicates that salvation, while it is impossible for humans by means of human effort, is possible through a gift from God. With God, all things are possible.

It is important to bear in mind that according to traditional Jewish wisdom, wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, as even a brief reading of Proverbs will confirm. Jesus however is not offering up traditional Jewish wisdom for the most part. He is offering counter-order wisdom, and in this case that means wealth is seen as a huge hindrance to entering the Dominion of God and so having eternal life. Jesus is in fact more critical of wealth and the wealthy than almost any other subject because of the negative spiritual effect wealth can have. Whether it is his critique of mammon, this aphorism, his maxim about those who store up treasures on earth, or the parable of the man who stored things away in barns, there is much in the teaching of Jesus and in this Gospel that warns of the problems of riches for fallen human beings.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 370–71.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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