How Do We Get There?

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

Psalm 119: 145-176 (Morning)
Psalm 128, 129, 130 (Evening)
Obadiah 15-21
1 Pet. 2: 1-10
Matt. 19: 23-30

How Do We Get There?

On the afternoon of October 31 at the History Faculty building at Oxford, there was a re-enactment of the moment five hundred years earlier to the day when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg. (In fact, the Luther stand-in glued the document to the door, the wimp, and besides, many claim Luther simply mailed the theses to his archbishop—no nail, no glue, no door.) There were others at tables selling indulgences. I had hoped to buy a few, just to hedge my bets, but they were sold out by the time I got there. Bummer.

Luther’s great point in the theses was that we are saved—we get to heaven, or to salvation, or to true spiritual health, or to eternal life, however we define it—not by our works, and certainly not by paying the church for indulgences, but by honest repentance and divine grace.

The question comes up again in today’s gospel. A man has assured Jesus that he keeps all the commandments but still worries about receiving eternal life. Ok, Jesus tells him, give away all your money to the poor and follow me. The man takes off. Then Jesus tells his disciples that it will be easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye—a modern equivalent might be to fit a BMW in your ear—than for a rich man to enter heaven, then he adds that those who leave parents, children, spouses, and siblings for his sake will achieve eternal life.

On its face, that seems to me both a little harsh and an ideal set up for every cult leader who tells vulnerable persons to abandon their families and hand over their savings. Sometimes I think that at moments like this Jesus was just cranky. Maybe his back hurts (all that walking), and then some guy—one more guy!—asks him how to be saved. Maybe he notices the man has an expensive robe and sandals. Simple, he answers: give up everything you have.

But I think the real key is partly in the verses right before those in our reading, when he tells the man simply to keep the commandments, ending with the one he has stressed above all, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Then, speaking to the disciples, he says that man alone cannot possibly save himself, but “with God all things are possible.” I hear an echo of Luther there: not works but grace. Cultivate an honest spiritual life and trust in God. The rest follows, including giving to the poor.

Written by Elliott West

Elliott teaches history at the University of Arkansas and has been a member of St. Paul’s for more than twenty-five years.

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