Most of us have at some point been presented with a task that seemed impossible to us. Perhaps it might be sorting out family difficulties: one child is ill, another breaks a leg, the spouse gets stuck in snowstorm, and to cap it all a long-lost Australian aunt turns up on the doorstep unannounced. You get the picture. At this time of year, perhaps the impossible task is a new course of studies; perhaps a new job, or a crisis at work. Perhaps it is all these things together. Some situations seem so complicated that we don’t know where to begin and we feel completely overwhelmed attempting to keep so many balls in the air. Probably all of us have had this experience to a greater or lesser extent.
But this same experience is one that the human family has as a whole, not just as individuals. The human race seems to have too many problem balls in the air: poverty, famine, wars, global warming. Each of these problems is nigh on intractable, since human selfishness, belligerence and environmental myopia often seem insuperable. Put all these problems together, as is the case in the real world, and if we’re honest we realise that the human race doesn’t have a clue where to start in addressing its problems. We would love a solution to the world’s ills, but we can’t see it, and what efforts we try to make sometimes feel like bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. It can feel at times as if the world is doomed and us with it.
As if such depressing thoughts weren’t bad enough, Jesus’ words at the beginning of today’s gospel ought to depress us even more. “No one is good,” he says: “no one is good but God alone.” All our efforts to do good are going to be in vain, because frankly we’re not much good at being good. Even if we manage to avoid murdering, committing adultery, stealing, lying, defrauding or—God forbid—being rude to our parents, we’re still not good enough. It is impossible for us to enter God’s kingdom, impossible to inherit eternal life, impossible to be happy… by our own efforts.
There is, of course, a “but”: and it is the “but” on which our faith is based. At the beginning of today’s gospel the rich man addresses Jesus as, “Good Teacher”; and I always imagine Jesus replying with something of a glint in his eye and a grin on his face, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The grin and the glint are there because Jesus is the only human being ever to be truly worthy of the divine title, “Good Teacher”: for, unbeknown to the rich man, Christ is God. Christ knew that, and we know it in faith. In Christ the helplessness of mankind is united with the power of God.
The central part of today’s gospel is not, though, what Christ said, but what Christ did to this rich man. We read, “Jesus looking upon him and loved him”. Looking at him, Jesus creates a relationship of love between himself and this devout rich man. Love is the link between the omnipotent God who can do everything, and impotent mankind, which can do nothing.
So that is the first “but”: we are helpless but for the love of God. We are helpless but for the fact that Christ loved us and loves us and calls us into his kingdom.
But there is a second “but”: Christ loves us, but the call to God’s kingdom requires a reply. The total love given us by Christ requires total response.
A total response to Christ’s love is not just a matter of keeping commandments, although obviously it includes that: we mustn’t kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, defraud, or be dishonour our parents.
A total response to Christ’s love doesn’t just mean giving a few pennies or pounds, or even millions of pounds, should we have that wealth at our disposal. A total response to Christ’s love mean a total giving of all that we are and all that we have to Christ. It means following Christ, and keeping nothing back.
Why? Why does our faith demand so much? Because Christ in loving us gave his all, even to the point of dying on the cross; and if we are to follow him into his kingdom, we must do nothing less.