Our gospel lesson for this morning, Mark 10:17-22, begins: “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”
To understand Jesus’ answer to the man’s question, we need to unpack two things he says in asking it.
The first is this: The man assumes that if he’s going to inherit eternal life, he will have to do something. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. The man is trapped in the idea that if he’s to get anything good from God, he must earn it.
It’s not hard to understand where he would get such an idea. It seems like the whole world tells us that we have to earn, or claw, or steal, the things that are valuable.
People even apply this to their thinking about God. One modern commentator says that in first century Judea, where Jesus lived, religious groups from the Pharisees to the Essenes, sects of Judaism, would have told the man to follow their stringent rules and he could earn his way into God’s kingdom. In fact, in order to make a point, the first part of Jesus’ answer to this man will sound very much like the traditional religious answer, do more.
But you and I know that this is not the way for dying sinners like you and me to inherit eternal life. You can’t earn an inheritance. An inheritance is a gift that you may renounce, but you can never earn. This is no less true of the inheritance of eternal life that God wants to give to us. Ephesians 2:8-9, reminds us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Here’s the second thing to unpack from the man’s question, the phrase eternal life.
In the Greek and Roman worlds of the first century, that phrase would have carried the idea of some milky, spiritual world that the disembodied souls of good people supposedly enter into when they die. This would have been completely foreign to the man who asks the question, to Judaism, to Jesus’ disciples, and to Jesus Himself.
From the perspective of Biblical faith, it’s impossible to separate a soul from a body. We are bodies, containing our minds, souls, and spirits all wrapped up in one, indivisible package.
That’s why the human fall into sin was so horrible. Sin brings death to the whole human self. That’s why we desperately need to be saved from ourselves!
In the Bible, eternal life refers to the coming age, the age that will come after God has judged all people, an age not in some wifty spirit world, but in a renewed creation like this one--filled with atoms and molecules, rock and granite, canyons and water, lions and tigers, and strawberry shortcake.
The Bible teaches that Jesus rose, the first-born from the dead, still identifiable by the scars on His hands and feet and side.
We confess each Sunday what the Bible teaches, “the resurrection of the body.” This is the life--the resurrected life--that the man is asking Jesus about when He says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus challenges the man right away. Verse 18: “‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good—except God alone.’”
“Say what you mean and mean what you say,” Jesus is telling the man. “If you think I’m good, then I must be more that just a teacher. Don’t patronize me with honorary titles you don’t mean.”
A merely human teacher is incapable of being good. In numerous places, the Bible says of the human race, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God...there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20)
Jesus is good because He’s truly God as well as truly human. Jesus wants the inquiring man to understand this.
Jesus proceeds with His answer. Verse 19: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
Notice both the commandments Jesus mentions and the ones He leaves out.
- He mentions the Fifth Commandment, the Sixth, the Seventh, the Eighth, then adds His own commandment about fraud, and goes back to the Fourth Commandment.
- But Jesus leaves out the First (“You shall have no other gods.”; the Second (“You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain”); the Third (“You shall remember the Sabbath”); and the Ninth and Tenth Commandments, which deal with coveting.
It’s these exclusions that are the key to understanding this whole passage because Jesus understands precisely what is lacking in this man’s life.
Verse 20: “Teacher, he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”
Did you know that Adolf Hitler, one of the most brutal dictators in the history of the world, responsible for the deaths of millions because of his sick racism, was always polite in social settings, never cursed, and drank no alcohol?
You can be outwardly virtuous, yet still filled with the fire of hell. The questioning man was excited to tell Jesus, “I’ve been doing all those good things since I was a boy.” But Jesus saw that there was something this rich man lacked. He was a nice man who worshiped money and possessions more than he worshiped God. They were his gods of choice. They were the means he used to measure the blessedness of his life. Jesus loved the man and wanted to set him free.
In short, the man lacked God, the God revealed in Christ. He didn’t trust in God. He trusted in His money. He had everything but God.
And so, Jesus gave the man His prescription, “Sell everything you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Me, trust in Me. Trust in Me and not in your money.”
This prescription isn’t precisely the same for everyone. Abraham was a rich man; God didn’t tell Abraham to get rid of his wealth. Wealth wasn’t something Abraham was tempted to worship. But there is no shortage of candidates for the gods of our lives besides money--success, power, conviviality, happiness, influence, popularity, food, alcohol and other drugs, good times, our families, our work. Any god we follow other than the One we meet in Jesus Christ will always demand more of us, wringing life itself from us. When anything other than the God we know in Jesus is someone’s god, they end up dead, far from God. Death, not eternal life is their inheritance.
But when we follow Jesus, we have the inheritance we cannot earn, eternal life that begins not in the sweet by-and-by, but right now as we follow Him.
Jesus tells those who lay aside their idol gods and their sins that the kingdom of God is among them now, even before we are raised from the dead (Luke 17:21).
This crucified and risen Jesus can promise us, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Our gospel lesson is capped by one of the saddest passages in all the Bible: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
I think that Jesus was even sadder than the man, who couldn’t bring himself to let go of the idol that would lead him to death so that he could grasp the outstretched hand of the good God Who offers us life.
Jesus wants to give us our inheritance, eternal life. This doesn’t happen when we make Jesus our top priority, as though Jesus is meant to be an item on our daily planner. It happens when Jesus becomes our life, when we accept what He has taught us to be the bottom line truth of human existence: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). May Jesus be our life today and always. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]