Believing: Achieving or Receiving?

I don’t remember a whole lot about being born, do you? I don’t think anything was posted on Facebook, at least. We have a few pictures, but cameras in the 70s weren’t the same as they are today. I do remember that I was born 3 weeks late, so I’ve never, ever been small for my age. Yet I must say, despite my overly-large head, I was pretty cute. And pretty helpless. Besides cuteness–and let’s face it: not all of us get this gift in equal measure–a baby’s defining characteristic is sheer helplessness. From my observations (and I was there when each of our 4 bundles-of-joy arrived) a baby’s resume is limited to: cuteness, eating (and associated bodily functions), and crying. Babies are not high-achievers, but needy receivers.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15). He said this kind of thing more than once, by the way, as similar sayings are recorded not once but twice in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (that’s 6 times, if you’re keeping score). Whenever something is repeated multiple times in the Bible, we’d better pay close attention.

Jesus’ teaching on receiving the kingdom like a child is immediately followed by a rich guy who apparently missed Jesus’ point entirely (see Mark 10:13-31). It is easy to be distracted by the man’s excitement, since he runs up to Jesus, kneels, and asks him about eternal life. A careful reader might notice this is the first person in the gospel of Mark to ask Jesus THE big question. But take a look at how he asks: “…what must I DO to inherit eternal life?” This man, although apparently eager to follow Jesus, starts off on the wrong foot. Jesus just said “receive… like a child” and the man asks “what must I do?”

Little children can only receive, yet this poor man can only wonder what he can achieve. That’s a little like me buying my kid an awesome bike for her birthday, and then she turns around and asks me how much she owes me for it. Gifts by their very nature cannot be earned or achieved, they can only be received, and so it is with God’s gift of Jesus and his kingdom: we can’t earn it, we can only receive it like a tiny child.

God knows that we try to achieve what we can only receive, and he loves us anyway. In the middle of Jesus interacting with the rich man it says Jesus looked intently at him and he loved him, and then he lowers the boom: “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21). With deep love, Jesus calls on the man to let go of the one thing that is holding him back: his money. His wealth taught him that he must achieve to get ahead and stay ahead, so that’s how he approached Jesus: what can I DO to earn my way into your kingdom? But that’s not the way of Jesus, who calls us to ask: how do I receive you and your kingdom?

Maybe for us the issue isn’t money (although we are living in the most affluent culture in human history, so it might be), but the question behind all the issues is the same: what do I need to let go, so I can receive God? Pride, self-reliance, independence, self-sufficiency, achievement–it has many names and faces: “I’m a pretty good person…I’m doing my best…I’ll make my own way…I don’t really need saving…I’m doing fine, thanks.” When we say these things–and we all do one way or another–Jesus looks at us intently and loves us. He calls us to let go of what keeps us from receiving him, and lovingly says: “Come, follow me.” Will you?

Bob Wiegers is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Bennington (601 Main Street), which gladly welcomes all to come hear the call of true spirituality: the call to follow Jesus.