Riches and religion are on the Gospel table with morning with this question from a rich young man: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a reasonably religious question. Religion is about doing good to earn God’s favor. Jesus is a good teacher, the source authority (it would seem) for doing good. What good thing must one do to get in good with God to inherit eternal life?
There are two red flags on this question from the outset. First, what’s this business about “good.” “No one is good except God alone,” Jesus says. So, unless you believe me to be God, you wouldn’t address me as good, though it tells you where the religious thinking of the young man is. He thinks in terms of good and bad. Jesus is clearly in the category of “good” and the young man fancies himself to be in the same category. He doesn’t murder, steal, commit adultery, lie, bear false witness, and dishonor father and mother. He is a model citizen, who has kept the law (or so he believes) since his youth. He clearly has a sense of who is good and who is not good.
And he wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. That’s the second red flag in his question. How exactly does one inherit anything? You really don’t do anything at all. Someone else has to die, and when he dies, you have to be in his good graces. That’s how you inherit. It’s not by doing but by grace, being in the favor of the one who died and left you the inheritance.
Now Jesus could have just said that and be done with it, but the master Teacher knows that the lessons learned most deeply are the ones learned by experience. And so Jesus lets the pious young man experience a bit of his religion first hand. The same religion he’s likely been pawning off on his own friends and family, now comes home to roost.
“You know the commandments,” Jesus said. And just in case he’d forgotten his catechism, Jesus gives him a little review. “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” Basic second table of the law stuff. But this young man has been raised religiously to think he can keep this commandments. Just as the apostle Paul could claim to be “blameless” under the Law as a Pharisee. “Teacher, all these I have kept since my youth.” And he meant it. He was sincere. He believed he kept the commandments.
esus doesn’t debate him. He could have. He could have delivered a mini version of the sermon on the mount and said, “Ah, you may have kept them in deed, but have you kept them also in thought and word? Have you lusted in your heart? Have you had angry words with your brother?” But Jesus doesn’t do that.
He looks on this young man, pickled in his own commandment-keeping, and He loves him. That’s a little detail that only Mark gives us. It makes me wonder whether the young man might not be Mark himself. Who knows? Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter. “One thing you lack: Go, sell your stuff, give to the poor, and follow me.” That hit home. The text says that his face fell. He was disheartened (and who wouldn’t be), and he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Remember, Jesus spoke these words in love. If he discouraged him, it was to necessarily pain to make a loving point. Something was missing in this young man’s life that caused him to ask the question of Jesus in the first place. He was rich at a very young age. He had everything he could ever want; he could do whatever he wanted. And he was religious; he kept the commandments to the letter. And yet, rich and religious weren’t enough to address that nagging doubt in the back of his mind that something was lacking in his life.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus‘ answer: Follow me.
You almost miss it, don’t you? The young man did. All he heard was that stuff about selling everything and giving the money to the poor – another commandment, and one he couldn’t keep. But he missed the answer to his question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? “Follow me.” Follow Jesus. Those were the words spoken to the fishermen and the tax collector Matthew. “Follow me.” More than an invitation, these are enabling and enlivening words, enabling the hearer to do what they say. Here was the answer the young man was searching for. He lacked one thing. In all his riches and all his religion and all his commandment-keeping, he lacked one thing. And that one thing was not poverty; it was Jesus.
Jesus. He lacked Jesus and faith in Jesus. And Jesus was offering Himself with the words “follow me.” And whatever got in the way of following Jesus had to go. This young man needed not only to lose his attachment to his riches, but also his religion of good people and bad people and commandment-keeping. It’s as St. Paul said in Philippians after reviewing his religious past as a Pharisee:
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
It’s not simply a matter of riches, though riches can be an impediment. Jesus goes on to say that it’s easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is effectively impossible. He says that to His disciples who have literally given up everything to follow Jesus. Peter even reminds Jesus of that fact, just in case He’s forgotten it. “See, we’ve left everything and followed you.” The disciples may not have been rich, but they had the same religion as that young man. “Look at what we’ve given up to follow you, Jesus.” Look at what we’ve done.
Jesus is in the business of clearing out whatever gets in the way of your following Him through death to eternal life. I wonder. What would Jesus say to me? What’s getting in the way of my following Him? My ego? My pride? My stuff? My sin! What would He say to you? Looking on you in love, wanting you to be His own, embracing you in His death and life, what do you suppose He would say to you? What is it that gets in the way of your hearing the Word, of your receiving forgiveness, of your following Jesus as He leads you through this life, through your death, and on to your resurrection to eternal life? What is the junk that is getting between you and Jesus? It could be anything, really. Our hearts are capable of turning any good gift into an idol. Whatever it is, it sure isn’t worth hanging on to, is it?
I like to think that the rich young man went home to all his possessions, all his stuff, and somehow it just didn’t look so good anymore. Perhaps he looked around at all his possessions and thought to himself, “This stuff isn’t worth it. You can’t take it with you; it brings no lasting satisfaction; it gets in the way.” Perhaps he went on a spree and packed all his stuff into a cart and dumped it at the local Goodwill and went running back down the road after Jesus. Or maybe it happened years later, when this young man heard the news of Jesus’ dying and rising and recalled this conversation and heard the call “Follow me” in the waters of Baptism and this time lost it all for the sake of gaining Christ.
We don’t know the full story of that young man. He’s a walk-through example on Jesus’ road to the cross where He dies for the sin of that young man whom He looked on with love. There Jesus gives what this young man lacked – a death and a resurrection that brings the inheritance of eternal life.
You’ve been called as Jesus’ disciples. The words “follow me” were spoken to you in Baptism with the water and the Word by the Spirit of God. And every day, Jesus repeats those words to you through your Baptism. “Follow me.” To follow Jesus does not mean to keep His rules, to follow His example, to do what Jesus would do. To follow Jesus means to die and rise with Jesus, to lose your life in order to gain it, to become last in order to be first.
You have the inheritance of eternal life. It is yours by grace (a gift) through faith (not your doing) for Jesus’ sake. You don’t do anything to inherit eternal life; you receive it as the free gift that it is. And anything that gets in the way of your receiving it – whether riches or religion – simply has to go. God will see to it that it does, because what He wants to give you is life.
In the name of Jesus, Amen