From Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 18:25-30 (NRSV) – November 26, 2012)
Do you ever wish someone whom you respect and admire hadn’t said what they said, because what they said is so hard to explain to someone who doesn’t respect and admire them, and what they said just sounds wrong, even to you? Then you know how I feel about the last response of Jesus in this conversation with Peter!
Jesus has just answered the question of someone Luke calls “a certain ruler” (in Mark’s Gospel he is described as a “rich young man”) about how to inherit eternal life with the famous reply, “Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor.” The disciples (more people than the Twelve, I think) are as unhappy with this hyperbolic response as the original questioner, and Peter seems downright outraged. “What are you saying?” I can almost hear him shouting at Jesus. “We have given up everything for you!” Is Jesus simply placating him with the promise of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by? That’s what it sounds like. “Don’t worry! You’ll get it all back and get to live forever, too!”
Of course, I’m pretty certain that’s not what Jesus meant, but it’s so hard to explain that to someone who is skeptical of this whole God-Incarnate thing to begin with.
The reason I’m pretty certain that that’s not what Jesus meant is that here, unlike in the Markan version of this story, he doesn’t say, “You’ll get back a lot more of the things you gave up.” In Mark he does say pretty much that: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30) Gave something up? Get a hundred more back. That’s what Mark’s Jesus says. But in Luke’s version of the story all that Jesus promises is “very much more.” I think that here there is a qualitative rather than quantitative difference in the promised return. In Mark, Jesus promises his follower will get a lot of the same stuff but at a price, i.e., persecutions; here, something better is promised . . . maybe peace, contentment, love, blessing, the Presence of God, the gifts of Holy Spirit . . . one doesn’t know, but it will be “very much more” than what was sacrificed. Are Mark and Luke trying to say the same thing? Are the things they report Jesus promising as rewards to the faithful follower equivalent? I don’t know; I hope they are, but the texts don’t make it easy to tell. And neither text makes it easy to explain to the skeptical unbeliever.
And the icing on the cake in both versions is the promise of “eternal life” in “the age to come”! It looks like a promise of immortality in the future, but (again) I’m not so sure. Both of these are coded phrases. The second one is found in lots of rabbinic literature, some contemporary with Jesus, some from later periods. It doesn’t necessarily mean the future; it means the time when God’s rule directs human affairs. That can be at any time when a person or persons give up their falsely perceived autonomy and live in accordance with God’s will. “The age to come” can (and does) exist concurrently with “this age”. It’s like that both-and, here-and-not-here, within-you-but-also-only-nearby thing that Jesus announced, the Kingdom of God. “Eternal life” is also not a future thing. For Jesus “eternal life” doesn’t mean immortality; it means life in eternity, where eternity is God’s Presence. “Eternal life” means living in God’s Presence with full awareness.
So the promised reward (whether it includes a hundred houses or not) is a qualitatively different life. Whatever we are called to give up in order to live a faithful life, possibly the hyperbolic “everything” that Jesus and Peter mention in this text, the reward of such a life is “very much more.” Which brings me back to how to explain it to the unbeliever . . . and the truth is that I don’t think it can be explained. It can only be lived and when it is lived, it becomes very apparent to someone not living it. An old friend of mine used to say this was the very best form of evangelism, to live the Christian life so well that one fairly glows with peace, contentment, love, blessing, the Presence of God, and the gifts of Holy Spirit. Others will see that and think, “I want that.” Then we don’t have to explain it, just offer it. Give it all up; get back so very much more.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
Is go dtí tú mo mhuirnin slán