What Must I Do?

Mark 10:17-22 / Proper 23B / 14 October 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

The man who came to Jesus was the trifecta of happiness. He was rich. Luke tells us that he was powerful, a ruler. Matthew tells us that he was young. Young, rich, and powerful. That’s what we want. That’s what our society tells us will make us happy. Wealth, health, and power. His wealth and position were likely inherited. In Jesus’ day, you didn’t ordinarily acquire wealth and power at a young age unless you inherited it. And so his question to Jesus makes sense: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He has everything you could want in this life – health, money, power. But there is an emptiness, a nagging lack, something he doesn’t have. It’s something money can’t buy and power can’t grab. It’s something elusive in this life, something that everyone sooner or later must come to grips with. Mortality. Death. The fact that you can’t take it with you. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Ecclesiastes says God has put eternity into man’s mind. We have an inkling of something more. The transcendent. The eternal. We have this nagging notion that youth and wealth and power are not all there is. And that’s what brought this rich, young ruler to his knees before Jesus.

He’s sincere. Not like Pharisees who constantly test Jesus with their endless hypotheticals. Not like the synagogue lawyers and Torah experts who were looking for ways to trap Jesus in His words. This rich young ruler wants to know, he needs to know, how the inheritance of eternal life comes. He’s not sure that he has it. Power and riches he’s quite sure of, but eternal life eludes him. How does he get in on it?

He has notion. Do good. Do good and you will have eternal life. It’s there in the way he approaches Jesus. “Good teacher,” he says, not trying to flatter Jesus but recognizing that Jesus is one who does good. Yet Jesus throw the honor back. “No one is good save God alone.” There is no man who does unadulterated good. No one. Man is sinful, born corrupted by Sin, a condition he cannot shake and that makes every good sinful. Only God is good in himself. To call Jesus “good,” you must first call Him God.

He wants to do good, and so he consults the “good Teacher.” What must I do to inherit eternal life? Parse the question. How do you inherit anything? Do you do something? Well, sometimes you do. You butter up that rich uncle or wealthy aunt. You work to get in their good graces so that when they die your name is in the will. But how does on actually inherit? Another dies and leaves you the goods. You may deserve or not. It’s strictly the will of the one who dies. That’s likely how this young man became rich and powerful at such a young age. Someone died, presumably his father, and left him a fortune and a kingdom.

What must I do? Questions shape answers. Ask a Law question from Jesus, and you will get a Law answer. You can’t make a Gospel out of Law. And so Jesus tells this rich young man precisely what he must do. A quick tour of the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t defraud, honor father and mother. There is plenty to do in those.

Did his answer surprise you? “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Clearly, he hasn’t studied Luther’s small catechism. And he seems not to have heard Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If he’d had, he would know that murder, adultery, theft, false witness, fraud, and insubordination are in every heart. And we are guilty of all these things, even if we don’t act them out. Neglect of the poor and the neighbor in need is murder, as is prejudice, hatred, and simply wishing someone dead. Adultery is simply the fleeting lustful look at another who is not your wife. Maybe just on the computer screen or the TV. False witness need be nothing more than a juicy bit of gossip. Fraud a shady tax return. Honoring father and mother, well, that includes all other authorities too.

We might excuse this rich, young man. He was, after all, young. He hadn’t yet pondered the depths of his own sinfulness. He still thought in the ways of a child. Be good and you get a reward, be bad and you get punished. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work with God too? “All these I’ve kept since my youth.” Sure, he probably hadn’t murdered anyone. He was a man in power, after all. Adultery? He might not even have been married or met the right woman. Theft? He was rich. What did he need to steal?

Jesus doesn’t argue the point. In fact, He looks on him and Mark tells us that “he loved him.” That’s important to note because what Jesus says to him, He says in love. “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.” Jesus goes straight to the heart of this rich, young man whom he loves. He sees His heart the way only the Lord can see the heart, and He sees a heart consumed with wealth, held captive by the idolatry of greed. He may have kept all the commandments outwardly, and may have been what society calls a very good man, but his heart betrayed him.

We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Luther saw this so clearly in his catechism. All commandments begin in the heart. All sin is at its heart idolatry. And idolatry is diagnosed by what we fear the most, love the most, trust the most. Riches, power, beauty, health. When we have them, we’re at the top of the world. Things couldn’t be better. And when they’re taken away, it’s as though we’ve lost our god. And in a deep and profound way we have.

Anxiety is a good measure. Kenneth Korby, who preached here in this pulpit at my ordination 20 years ago, once wrote that anxiety is the liturgy we offer to our idols when they fail to deliver. We fear the loss of youth, we love our riches, we trust our power to control not only our lives but the lives of others too. And when those fail, we become anxious. Our false gods are failing us and they are consuming us.

Jesus loved this young man. He wanted to give him the one thing he lacked. What he lacked was not poverty or humility. What he lacked was Jesus. What got in the way was his wealth and his power. And so Jesus says to him, give it all away. True treasure is in heaven. Divest yourself of your riches. Give the money to the poor who need it more than you do. And here’s the word that brings eternal life: Come, follow me.

Those are the disciple-making words. Follow me. Those words are the answer to the young man’s question “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Follow me. Follow me through death and resurrection, trust in Me and what I am doing for you, join me in my death and I will give you eternal life.

The young man missed it, the answer he was looking for. Follow me. All he heard was sell your stuff, give to the poor. He didn’t hear the rest. His possessions, which were great, clogged his hearing. And there’s the great danger, and why it’s easier to tweeze a camel through the eye of a needle than to squeeze a rich man and his riches into the kingdom of God.

That young man went away sad and sorrowful. We don’t know what happened to him. Did he go home and do it? Did he look at all his stuff and say, “This isn’t worth it?” Did he eventually come and follow Jesus? We don’t know. I’m glad we don’t because it makes us take stock in the same way. You can’t serve God and Money. Only one can be your Lord, and Money makes a lousy god.

Of course, this bothered Jesus’ disciples. They were utterly amazed at what they’d just seen and heard. They asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” If this is what it takes to inherit eternal life, who can be saved? And Jesus says, “With man this is impossible. As impossible as a young rich ruler divesting himself of his wealth to run after a carpenter rabbi from Nazareth. As impossible as trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle. As impossible as a sinner being justified before God by his own commandment keeping.

With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Jesus is God in the flesh. He really is the Good Teacher because He is God who is Good. He was rich but for our sakes became poor. He gave up all that He had as the Son of the Father. He divested Himself of His honor, His glory, His power and He became a servant who suffered and in humility became obedient to His own Law and died in poverty on a cross so that by His poverty and death we might become rich, heirs of eternal life.

An heir is what you are in Baptism. How does one inherit eternal life? By becoming a child of God and being joined to Jesus in baptismal faith and dying and rising with Him. That’s how you inherit eternal life. And if anything gets in the way of that, get rid of it. It isn’t worth it. Not compared to treasures in heaven. Just ask that rich, young ruler.

In the name of Jesus,