There is an interesting story in the Gospel of Mark that describes an encounter between Jesus and an anxious man. The man runs up to Jesus, kneels, and asks the question foremost on his heart: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What follows is a review by Jesus of the central ethical commandments for God’s people. The anxious man claims to have diligently followed these commandments for years.
Now, in some ways, that’s a fairly universal story describing the experience of faithful people who seek confirmation for themselves and their lives. Maybe we haven’t exactly run to Jesus with our questions about our adequacy, but we’ve probably all thought about it. Am I giving enough? Am I kind enough? Am I compassionate enough, obedient enough, hopeful enough, faithful enough? What more must I do to please God? Have I done enough yet?
What’s intriguing about this encounter between the anxious man and Jesus is that when the man claims he’s been good at keeping the law and following the rules, Jesus ups the challenge. He then urges the man to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow him.
That seems to make matters worse and heighten the man’s anxiety, for we are told on hearing Jesus’ answer that the man went away shocked and grieving. Who could possibly fulfill Jesus’ expectation to give everything away and simply follow him, without a nest egg on the side or a little something tucked away for emergencies? Jesus’ expectation for this man’s giving is not that it should change quantitatively, by just giving a little more here or there. No, his expectation is that the man’s giving must change qualitatively. No longer should what he gives of his possessions and himself be measured, monitored or proportionalized. Instead his giving should be sweeping, grand and utterly self-neglectful.
The anxious man went away sad. He didn’t think he could do it. And Jesus’ disciples get a little worried, too. Who can be saved, they wonder, if this level of self-giving is required to please God?
Then Jesus offers an answer that we wish the anxious man had stuck around to hear. Jesus replies that for mortals some things are impossible. But for God, all things are possible. And apparently that’s the point.
This little story is about the inability to earn God’s favor. Rev. Max Lucado sums it up nicely when he says God doesn’t save us because of what we have done. Only a puny God could be bought. Only an egotistical God would be impressed by our praise. Only a temperamental God would be satisfied by our sacrifices. No, a great God such as ours does for His children what they can’t do for themselves. God gives salvation. We can’t earn it, buy it or achieve it. God just gives out of love.
And the good we do, the gifts we give, the acts of compassion we offer? They’re not part of a bargain with God for future reward. They’re simply an outpouring of joyful gratitude, from souls no longer anxious or afraid. And that must be very pleasing to God!