Hearing Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I was struck by the hard simplicity of the demand of the gospel. It was the story of the rich young man (Luke 18:18-27) who had kept all the commandments from his youth (at least he claimed he did and Jesus didn’t contradict his claim): “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked. Jesus’ response was simple. “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 22).
The context makes it clear that Jesus isn’t setting up an absolute rule about how one goes about inheriting eternal life. Just a few verses later, in a story that is thematically interlaced with this one, Zacchaeus who was also rich, received Jesus joyfully and told him that he would give away half his riches and repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded. Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus was, “Today salvation has come to this house …”
What must I do to be saved? What must I do to inherit eternal life? They are equivalent questions, but it’s never quite the same answer. There is no one way to inherit eternal life. There is a central issue: we must commit ourselves unreservedly to Jesus Christ, but how that gets worked out is different for each of us because each of us has different sticking points. For the Philippian jailer the response was, Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you and your household will be saved. For the rich young ruler, selling all that he had was the requirement; clearly even holding a little bit back would have been enough to stand in the way of committing unreservedly to Jesus Christ. Jesus discerned that Zacchaeus didn’t have that problem; giving half to the poor was the necessary sign that he was committed unreservedly to Christ’s kingdom.
But in spite of the variety of means that Jesus used in calling people to work out their salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), the simple fact – the very hard simple fact – is that Jesus says to each and every one of us, “Come, follow me.” And the implications of that invitation/command are difficult indeed.
In case we missed that point, the crowd underlines it when they murmured in response to Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26).
In the next verse Jesus answers: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
I think that too often we (and especially those of us who grew up with the easy grace of certain forms of Protestantism) jump from the initial invitation to “the promises of God that find their Yes in him” (2 Cor 1:20) without considering the space between, that is, the path from Jesus’ command to follow to that final Yes of fulfillment. Following Jesus is simple, but it is hard. Whenever we take up our cross and follow it ought to set us back and cause us to murmur with the crowd, “Who then can be saved?” If it’s easy instead of hard, probably we’ve missed the point. And as we face the hard simplicity of the call, if we don’t ask the question, “Who then can be saved?” we’ll never hear the answer: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Those are the promises that find their Yes in Christ.