Asking the Right Question
Text: Mark 10:17-27
I have so much left to learn. I have, though, learned one lesson in this life that serves me well whenever I pay attention. The lesson is this: life is so much richer when we learn to ask the right questions. Sometimes people ask the right questions in the Gospel of Mark, but not often. In last week’s text, a group of religious legal eagles ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They do not ask the question hoping to learn something new. They already know the answer, the traditional answer. They want Jesus to confirm what they already know or what they think they know. Better yet, they want to trip up the teacher.
Today’s text tells the story about a man, any man, every man, any person of any gender, every person of every gender, who runs up to Jesus, kneels out of respect and also asks Jesus a question: “Good Teacher, Good Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I don’t know about you, but I always hated it when teachers answered my question with a question. Here Jesus does just that. He asks the kneeling one, “Why do you call me good?” He reminds the kneeler that God alone is good and then gives him a rather boring summary of an answer: “Follow the commandments that Moses gave us.” Without bragging, but also without so much as a pause, the kneeler says, “I have followed every last one of them since my youth.” [paraphrase]
Unlike the testing and testy Pharisees and Jesus’ own dense and clueless disciples, there is much to like about this man on his knees. He treats Jesus with genuine respect and he goes on to say more about faithfully following the commandments of Moses than I can. But, most of all, he asks Jesus a question in search of an honest answer. There are not too many appealing, intriguing characters who meet up with Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, but this kneeler is one.
I appreciate the Jesus we encounter here almost more than anywhere else in Mark’s Gospel. He does not listen to the kneeler’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” and say, “Poor fool, you are asking the wrong question.” Jesus listens to this everyman, everywoman, and loves him, loves her, loves them with absolutely no hesitation. He loves this kneeler enough to speak the hard truth to him, because Jesus knows that you and I never discover right answers from asking the wrong questions.
Fred Craddock the late Professor of Preaching at the Emory Candler School of Theology was once visiting the home of his niece. There he encountered an old greyhound, just like the ones who raced around tracks chasing mechanical rabbits. Apparently, Craddock’s niece had taken the dog in to prevent it from being destroyed after its racing days were over. Anyway, Craddock strikes up a conversation with the dog – at least that’s how the story goes. “Are you still racing?” “No,” the greyhound replied. “Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?” “No, I still had some race in me.” “Well, what then? Were you not winning?” “I won over a million dollars for my owner.” “Well, did he treat you badly, then?” “Oh, no,” the dog said. “We were treated quite well while we were racing.” “Were you injured?” “No.” “Then why? Why aren’t you racing?” “I quit.” “You quit? Why would you quit?” “I just quit because after all that running and running and running, I found out that the rabbit I was chasing wasn’t even real.”
“Good Teacher/Good Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Inherit” – what an odd word to use in this question, as if “eternal life” is another asset to add to our portfolio, a religious treasure, in this case, to be stored in a safe place or invested for a heavenly return. Some then hear this story and the conversation with his disciples that follows as Jesus taking a cheap shot at the financially rich. They surmise that if you have wealth, then there is something spiritually wrong with you. They imply or downright state that Jesus really only has solidarity with the poor.
Take another long hard look at this story. At no point does Jesus look down with disdain on this kneeler with considerable assets. He does not shout at his disciples, saying, “Who let this rich kneeler get near me.” Just the opposite. Jesus loves him.
Jesus loves this kneeling man enough to tell him that the rabbit he is chasing isn’t real. Eternal life is not “inherited” or “earned” or “acquired.” It is not something that we chase after like wealth or position or prestige. It is an inexplicable gift from a confoundingly grace-filled God. Jesus plants another question in this man’s soul, “What does it mean that God has already given me eternal life and long before I came chasing after it?” Jesus invites the kneeler to get up, get rid of all that he has convinced himself that he is entitled to, has earned, or needs to acquire or “inherit,” and come follow him.
Jesus warns his disciples about the danger of riches and privilege not because riches and privilege are evil, but because of their deceptive power. They can easily deceive us into chasing them with singular attention as the greyhound chases the fake rabbit, believing that if we catch them then life will finally be all that we ever dreamed of, convinced then if we do not veer from the quest, we will thereby be entitled to “inherit” eternal life.
I wonder how this story might have ended had the respectful kneeler asked Jesus, “Teacher, Rabbi, what do I need to cast aside all in my life that keeps me planted in place, unable to let go, unwillingly to let go, and follow you?” How hard it is to see the right question to ask when we have so much and need so little. Jesus loves this man enough to say to pay him singular attention and to tell him God’s grace is front-loaded with limitless love, not a commodity to acquire, but a gift to receive like a poor beggar with palms wide open.
Supposedly, the story of Jesus and the respectful kneeler ends in this way: “When the man heard the words of Jesus, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (10:22). I would like to believe that his story does not finally end that way at all. I would like to believe that after some time, the words of Jesus and invitation of Jesus sank in. After some time, the man let go of many possessions that owned him and then let go of desiring that which has already been given, and he learned to ask the right question and follow Jesus.
I would like to believe that our stories end in the same way. But, how can you and I possibly hope for such an ending? Maybe we can by listening with our ears and our souls to the last words in this story, perhaps the wisest words ever spoken by Jesus: “With God, all things are possible” – even learning to ask the right question.