As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the
commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'"
He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"
"What must I do
to inherit eternal life?"
This is one of "those" questions. Southern evangelical churches unabashedly ask "Have
you been Saved?" "Have you seen to the future of your immortal soul?" A teenage friend of mine is being frankly pestered by an adult acquaintance who is trying to engage her in Christianity, beginning with "God's Simple Plan for Salvation" This "Simple Plan" begins with the premise that if one does not believe exactly the way that the author of the plan does, you will go to hell. Evidently not going to hell is the reason to embrace Christianity.
Others take a very different tack to the same question. Walk down the "religion" aisle in the Borders at McCarthy Ranch it is a great and dangerous bookstore, by the way. The section is full of books on spirituality and spiritual life. Books about angels, and angel guides. Some of the best sellers over the past few years have been the new genre of religious fantasy: the Left Behind series of End of the World novels. Other fast sellers deal with end of time theology, theory, speculation, near death experience. We are interested in what we can look forward to or not.
And this young man perhaps was no different. Judaism didn't have a consistent theology
of afterlife. The Pharisees over the several hundred years before Jesus had developed a belief of physical resurrection "in an age to come", and the survival or our immortal souls. The Sadducees did not. For them, death was death.
Asking Jesus about "eternal Life" could have potentially opened a huge discussion on what,
exactly that meant. The Anchor Bible Dictionary goes on for pages just briefly describing how issues of afterlife, age to come, salvation, Kingdom of God were differently understood and used in our Gospels and Epistles don't even think about the different issues the Hebrew Scriptures introduce. Eternal life referred to the "age to come", when God will sit in judgment, each one will be held accountable and those who enter the kingdom will live eternally in peace, celebration and love. (I Cor 15, Rev. 4:1-11, 20:11-21:27)
Also in play in the Gospels and later theology is the idea that the Kingdom of God is not a future place, but a realization for the current world the basis for our living in the current life as we glimpse the Kingdom when we are in tune with God, when we live the Kingdom when we are in harmony in the body of Christ.
So, what is it that this young man is looking for? The short answer: something he is
missing. If he really thought he was doing everything right, he wouldn't need to ask. If he thought he was doing everything right, he certainly wouldn't have asked Jesus, an itinerant teacher on the outs.
Perhaps he had begun to articulate an emptiness and brokenness of his time and life.
Perhaps he knew at some place in his being that doing the rules wasn't enough.
So he asks: "What must I do?"
Jesus reminds him he that he knows the commandments. Jesus paraphrases a few of the
commandments. Mark, who is ever spare in his words, takes the opportunity to say that Jesus
loved this man, and said that he is still lacking one thing.
Jesus says to him, "Go and sell what you own and give it to the poor. Then follow me."
But man can't do it. He turns away gloomy and downcast. This is the only instance in
scripture where someone rejects Jesus' specific invitation to discipleship.
What is it that the young man lacked?
What is it that the young man's wealth had in common with what the young man lacked?
Although Jesus goes on to comment to the disciples that it will be hard for those with
wealth to enter the Kingdom of heaven easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
Jesus isn't slamming the wealthy just for being wealthy. Jesus lived, as we might say, depending on the kindness of others. Scripture doesn't condemn the rich for being rich. Scripture warns that wealth can become and idol, can make one wise in their own eyes, that the love of money is the root of evil. Scripture reminds us that that how we get wealth and what we do with it are often problematic. The problem wasn't simply wealth.
Chaim Potok's book The Chosen is the story of two Jewish boys in Crown
Heights, New York in the days before during World War II. Reuven is a Modern
Orthodox Jew with an intellectual, Zionist father; Danny is the brilliant son and rightful
heir of a Hasidic rebbe. Danny's wealth, so to speak, was his mind. And that wealth kept him from a rich relationship with his father, or an understanding of a spiritual relationship with God. When, as a child, he realized how bright he was, he was ruthless with his intelligence. To be the next rebbe of his Father's congregation, compassion and
understanding was key. So, his father made a hard decision. Danny was raised in
silence. Except for a few minutes a day when his father drilled him on Talmudic studies,
his father raised him in silence. Over the course of The Chosen, Danny and Ruven, who
begin as bitter enemies on opposite sides of many issues (including baseball) became fast
friends, and through the relationship, Danny learns to understand much of what has been
kept from him, and why. So much so, that as he takes his religion to heart, he also studies
psychology to work with other disturbed children.
It was Danny's intellect that was his stumbling block to relationship and compassion.
The rich young man allowed his wealth to stand between himself and a full relationship with God. Educational degrees or civic awards, our sports trophies or good looks, our compassion for animals or our brilliant outstanding children are all well and good. But they will not earn us a place in heaven. They will not save us at the judgment.
Jesus invited this young man to enter into the full spectrum of love and justice that is part and parcel with a relationship with the living God.
His invitation to the rich young man to sell his possessions and give them to the poor was
not an invitation to buy his way into heaven. We don't earn eternal life. It is a gift.
And, the invitation is to life as if the future were now.
Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.
Remove the stumbling block, follow the Lord. Know that this is not something we can do
for ourselves. This is something we are part of because Jesus walks alongside of us. God's grace is always available to us before we can articulate it, before we know it, as we begin to know it, as we begin to receive it, as we bask in it, as we mature in it, as we begin to understand the responsibilities of following Jesus.
We don't earn eternal life. It is a gift.
Clear away the stumbling blocks and follow. Live in the love and justice, follow me.
Was our rich young man looking for an easy accolade? I don't know. At that moment, he
didn't accept that invitation. But, you and I know that invitation never stops. God never only offers us the inheritance of eternal life once. I like to think that like so many folks that I know this rich young man stopped, counted the cost and found God. This rich young man received the answer to his prayers because it cost too much NOT to do so.
That is what we must do to inherit eternal life.
This is our response, our proportionate response which can make no sense in comparison to what God has done for us:
Simply receive what God has done for us in Jesus. And then live like it.
Thanks to Mark Bollwinkle's sermon of October 15, 2000 for some of the idea flow in this message.