Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’
The first thing we must understand is what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say “For mortals it is difficult.” He doesn’t say, “For mortals it is really, really hard.” He doesn’t even say, “For mortals it will require enormous displays of humility and devotion—piety and purpose.” No, when the disciples marvel and wonder and ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” he looks right at them and answers, “For mortals it is impossible.”
The second thing we must understand is what Jesus’ disciples are asking. Theirs is a reasonable question. Isn’t a wealthy person placed in a uniquely advantageous position for pursuing the spiritual life? Isn’t a rich man a man blessed with leisure for prayer and study, means for giving alms and aiding the poor, and power and status within his community to “do justice and love kindness”? If someone with all this going for him can’t get through the pearly gates, then who can?
The third thing we must understand is what Jesus is talking about. His statement is not about rich people getting into heaven. (Or rather, not getting into heaven.) The “Kingdom of God” of which Jesus speaks means as much in the here-and-now as it does in the hereafter. Jesus tells his disciples that wealth and all its trappings pose a spiritual hazard in this life, as well as in the life of the world to come. Wealth weds us to the status quo. Wealth aligns our interests and our hearts with a world that has grown old and corrupt and is passing away. Wealth can leave us longing for the fleeting dreams of the fleeing darkness, unwilling and afraid to turn our faces to the rising sun of God’s Kingdom on earth.
The fourth thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are for us too. Is your plan to buy your way into God’s good graces by means of your great wealth—to endow and finance and pledge and purchase your passage to eternal life? Jesus voids your exchange and pronounces that path “Impossible.” Is your plan to work your fingers to the bone—to pour out your heart and soul in acts of charity and mercy so that you might gain a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in this life? Jesus frustrates your designs and declares your efforts “Impossible.” Is your plan to throw yourself wholly and completely into the spiritual life—to bathe each moment in prayer and contemplation, to make the soundtrack of your life the great hymns of the faith and the rhythms of your heart the chanted mantras of the saints, all in the hope of finding God’s Kingdom within you? Jesus breaks into your piety and bluntly announces, “Impossible.”
But the last and greatest thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are Good News. “For mortals it is impossible.” We cannot break ourselves free from the powers that bind us: wealth, work, wine, women, whatever. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot buy or earn or pray our way into the Kingdom of God. “For mortals it is impossible…but for God all things are possible.” What we could never do, God has come to do. That is the meaning of the great events of Holy Week, soon to be upon us. That is the astonishing declaration written in the blood of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary. That is the earth-shaking announcement illumined by the inextinguishable brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. And as you contemplate with awe the mighty acts by which God won for us life and salvation, let these words be your heart’s song and your soul’s prayer:
“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”