The rich young ruler asked Jesus what he needed to do to earn eternal life. Jesus said that he must keep the commandments. He had done so his entire life, he told Jesus. The final requirement, Jesus said, was to “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21–2).
The man left in despair because he had to choose his wealth and power over Jesus.
What did Jesus demand?
Jesus passed Peter and Andrew fishing and told them to abandon their lives and follow him to become fishers of men. Jesus said to love your enemies and turn the other cheek. He said to not worry about impermanent treasure on earth “but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). He illustrated the importance of helping the needy by saying, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
This approach would be difficult to sustain for a lifetime. Paul showed a similar short-term focus when he said, “Were you a slave when you were called [to be a Christian]? Don’t let it trouble you. . . . Each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Corinthians 7:21–4).
We also find indifference to slavery elsewhere in the epistles.
Slaves, be obedient in everything to your earthly masters (Colossians 3:22)
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate but also to those who are harsh (1 Peter 2:18)
The end is nigh!
Anyone can stay on a diet if it only lasts a couple of weeks, and remaining a slave or always putting others’ needs ahead of yours might be tolerable if you only need to sustain it for a couple of years. Turning the other cheek isn’t too hard if the End is around the corner.
Jesus saw the End coming soon, and that is apparent when he speaks in apocalyptic terms. Note that “apocalyptic” can mean “having to do with the end times,” or it can refer to the specific movement called Apocalypticism. This was a movement popular in Judaism during the intertestamental period (that is, the period after the Old Testament and before the New). We see this in the New Testament when Jesus was asked (Matt. 24:3), “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Apocalypticism taught that we live in a bad Age, controlled by a bad supernatural being but that a new Age with a good ruler would take charge shortly.
Apocalyptic books told their readers that the end was near. Daniel was one such book, and it said that the final seven-year period before the apocalypse (171–164 BCE) was already half over (more).
Jesus also spoke about an imminent end. He said, “This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt. 24:34). A few verses earlier, Jesus identified “these things”: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, [and] the stars will fall from the sky.” Since that obviously didn’t happen, some apologists handwave away Jesus’s statement about the imminent end by saying that it referred to the destruction of the Temple or some other first-century calamity. No, we’re talking about a cosmic catastrophe that no one would miss.
What to do with Jesus’s life philosophy?
So how noble was Jesus? He apparently didn’t intend for his policies to be a lifelong philosophy if the end was just months or years away. And while Jesus said that those following him would suffer persecution in this life, he said in his analysis of the rich young ruler’s actions that those who left family and occupations for him would receive a hundred times as much in return in this life and they would receive eternal life.
Of course, I’d like to see in society more of the self-sacrifice and generosity that Jesus preached, but know that we’re applying it in a different way than Jesus anticipated.
Taking no thought for the morrow is no way to live. Nor is excessive generosity—Jesus said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matt. 5:40). Maybe that explains why he does a few healings but doesn’t bother to eliminate any disease. And why Paul tells slaves to just deal with it.
Jesus was speaking only to his peers. If we can mine useful wisdom from his story, that’s fine, but don’t pretend that Jesus addressed his message at us today.
It would disturb me if there was a wedding between
the religious fundamentalists and the political right.
The hard right has no interest in religion
except to manipulate it.
— Billy Graham, Parade Magazine, 1981
Image via Pilottage, CC license