Peter Rollins, my favorite heretic, in his book “The Fidelity of Betrayal,” shares the following story:
There is an old anecdote that speaks of a couple planning to decorate their living room with attractive but expensive wallpaper. It so happens that one of their friends had recently decorated one of their rooms with a similar material, a room that was of similar size to their own. So the couple decided to visit her house and ask how many rolls she had purchased. The woman replied that she had bought eight rolls of wallpaper. Satisfied with this answer, the couple purchased eight rolls themselves. However, by the time they were halfway through the fourth roll they had completed the room. Annoyed at the wasted money, they complained to their friend, saying, “We bought eight rolls of paper as you said, but we only needed four.” “I know exactly how you feel,” said their friend. “I had the same problem.”
I am using this story to make a completely different point than Mr. Rollins was making. Everyone seems to be obsessed in the church with what exactly we must do to be saved, what relation our virtue and works have to our salvation. We want to know the exact conditions of entry to heaven. Scripture records an encounter with such a person:
“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No-one is good– except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.'” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”” Luke 18:18-27, NIV.
I would suggest that he asked the wrong question! First, he viewed Jesus primarily as a teacher. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was, by a miraculous revelation they answered correctly, that He was the Christ, the Son of God. This ruler assumed incorrectly that Jesus was a teacher, but He was really a savior. This is why He says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” What He meant was, you speak to me as a teacher, but your idol of me, a teacher whose cleverness can lead you to eternal life, is off the mark. You seek from my lips a law you can adhere to that will grant you eternal life, but no such word can be spoken. Only God is good, not laws and principles.
Then, since the ruler asked what he must DO, Jesus recounted the Mosaic law, the ultimate list of do’s and dont’s. The ruler claims to have done all of these things from his youth, and I think we should take him at his word. He is a clean-living guy. Then Jesus hits him with the real issue.
He asks him, in effect, to find his hidden treasure, to find his joy, and from joy to sell all to buy that treasure. He asks him to change his desire from security to love. He asks him to be this guy:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” Matthew 13:44, NIV.
This is all great, and completely undoable. The weight of the requirement is too great! He asks us to give up our wealth in return for nothing! It is impossible! He could see only the selling of all, but none of the treasure hidden. Only a fool would do this, and the empty nature of what he was seeking now came home in a practical way. None of us could stand in the ruler’s place and do this. He had asked the wrong question.
We must not come asking what we must do, first. This is the tail wagging the dog. The law is like this. It asks to to give up everything without first defining the treasure. It says only “sell all,” it can only describe to us what we must do, but not the spirit and life behind why we might want to do it. It seeks approval, earned wages, and not love. The people actually following Jesus knew that a different dynamic was at work. They left their affairs for a whole different reason. They perceived the treasure hidden in Him – that He loved them:
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:10, NIV.
If we do not first see that it is He who loves us, how can we be enraptured with Him? If we do not first see the value of the treasure that He offers, how can we sell all with joy, how can we give up our baubles for nothing? If we see Jesus only as a teacher, another giver of principles and laws, we only see that He asks far too much and gives back nothing but condemnation and hardship. If we see Him as our lover, our savior, our long awaited Messiah, who calls us to joy and adventure, we gladly throw off all else and jump in with Him who truly loves us.