Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
That’s the question from the man we think of as ‘the rich young ruler’. In Mark’s story of Jesus, he is a man with ‘many possessions’ who really wasn’t all that young. Matthew and Luke add the other details.
Did you know it’s not the only time Jesus was asked that very same question? Anyone know who else asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life?
It was an expert in the Jewish Law and he said almost the exact same words:
Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Anyone know where that was? It is in Luke’s Gospel (10.25-37). In Luke, Jesus answered the legal expert’s question with a parable, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
And that parable was about who acted as a neighbour to the man in trouble. Jesus began by saying to the lawyer,
What is written in the law? What do you read there?
The lawyer answered Jesus:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus’ answer is very interesting indeed:
You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.
You know, I used to think Jesus was being ironic. Who could love their neighbour enough to gain eternal life? I’m not so sure anymore. Now, I think loving our neighbour as ourselves is eternal life. The Good News is that Jesus has done that for us.
But just what does Jesus mean by ‘eternal life’?
When we talk about ‘eternal life’, aren’t we usually talking about what happens when we die? It’s about ‘going to heaven’, being in God’s presence for evermore. It’s about being free of pain and suffering, it’s about drinking from the waters of the Spring of Life.
Is that what Jesus meant?
Well yes…but much more besides. Yes…but life beyond death is just the final bit of eternal life. It’s not actually what it’s all about. Eternal life begins now. Jesus says it begins with loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
And Jesus puts most stress on how we love our neighbour. He stresses being a good neighbour in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And he reminds the ‘rich young ruler’ about the Ten Commandments.
Actually, he only reminds the rich man about some of them. We divide the Ten Commandments into two groups. The first group of four instructs us about loving God; the last six about loving our neighbour. And Jesus reminds the rich man about these six.
Love your neighbour, he says, and you will live. Now, this rich man aimed at goodness, and he could sincerely say to Jesus,
Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.
But there was something wrong. Something missing. Did the rich man need to pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’? Did he need to know the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’? No!—he needed to love his neighbour. He needed to let go of what was stopping him from loving his neighbour. The rich man needed to give away his wealth to the poor, and follow Jesus.
He needed to share with his neighbour, and let go of his riches. If he’d tried to follow Jesus while hanging on to his wealth, he’d only be distracted and worried about how the market was going.
Because of his wealth, the rich man could not love his neighbour as himself. He was trying to separate his money from his religious duty. Jesus told him he couldn’t do that.
For the rich man, gaining ‘eternal life’ meant following Jesus and letting go of whatever was stopping him from doing that.
That’s just what it means for us, too.
We often think of eternal life as what happens after the Judgement. Have you noticed that the parables about the Last Judgement, the images and pictures Jesus gives us are concerned with what we do? Do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned? The Judgement is about loving our neighbour as ourselves. That is what concerns God. And God means us to let go of whatever stops us from doing that.
And friends, it’s often about what we think we have. Our possessions, our status, our gifts can all keep us from following Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t tell everyone what he told the rich man. He doesn’t tell everyone to sell what they have and give it to the poor. But he does command us to use our possessions, our status, and our gifts for his sake.
Make no mistake, we shall be judged on how well we have managed to reach out to the poor and downtrodden people of this world, and this neighbourhood.
And you know, we will be found wanting. I know I shall, anyway. As Jesus says,
How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
In global terms, I have wealth. I am educated. I know that I will eat today and tomorrow. I have a roof over my head and a steady income. When I am left to myself, I rely on these things for life. What hope do I have then?
It’s not easy to hope in God when I have lots of ‘things’. What can I do? I can let go of what keeps me from following Jesus as the Spirit shows me whatever that is. In the end, I can only cling to the One who perfectly fulfilled the will of God to love his neighbour as himself for my sake. I can only keep faith in Jesus the faithful one. I can only direct my life to better serve my neighbour, and ask Jesus to forgive the rest. I have no other hope; I cling to this hope; I invite you to do so too.
Remember what Jesus says just before the rich man comes onto the scene?
Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
All we can do is hold out our empty hands to the Lord, and ask him to take them in his. All we can do is receive the kingdom of God in childlike trust, and walk with Jesus where he leads us. With empty hands is how we receive the life of Jesus.