What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?

Scripture can be found here...

As Jesus 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?”

It was already over. He was already in. He was already in love.

You know how it happens. The faint stirrings, the questioning of ourselves… is this real life, is this just fantasy?

And so you go… right to the source of all your yearnings, and you ask that question: What must I do?

Let’s talk about that phrase, “eternal life.” What does it mean to you? In the Greek, the word translated “eternal” is aionian, which you can almost hear, means, “of the aeons…” something that has no beginning, or no ending, or both. I think it’s fair to say that many of us grew up understanding eternal life to be a promise—as in, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We grew up believing that this was our specific Christian calling: to believe in Jesus, in order to gain eternal life. And by eternal life, we were taught, life with God, in heaven, forever, after we died. This is a concept of eternal life, for many Christians, that is very much part of who we believe ourselves to be. It's about God’s love, and our loving God back, and a specific reward.

Would it surprise you to know that Jesus never brings up the idea of eternal life himself? In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is mostly interested in telling the Good News, and that is all about changing our way of thinking so that we can recognize and participate in the coming of God’s kingdom… which some like to call, God’s kin-dom, as in, the realm of God’s kin. And, of course, healing people, and feeding them. But in terms of his message—he never mentions an idea of “eternal life” himself. Someone else brings him a question, and he responds.

This isn’t completely surprising, if we remember that we can’t really find a fully formed notion of heaven anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures—not as it evolves in Christian thinking. According to Judaism 101 (a really terrific and helpful website), “Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence. However, because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion.” For example: the Hebrew scriptures describe a number of people—including Abraham, Ishmael, Jacob, ad Moses—as being “gathered to their people” at the time of death, a reunion with loved ones. However, Judaism also leaves room for other understandings, none really fully spelled out in scripture.[i]

But a man urgently asks Jesus a question, and Jesus answers. And his answer is very much in keeping with the “here-and-now.” Jesus rattles off the second half of the Ten Commandments, more or less. “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud” (which is Mark’s hunch for what’s going to happen if you covet); “…Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). Jesus tells the man what to do in the here and now to inherit something they agree is called “eternal” life. In other words, Jesus tells him “Love your neighbor.”

The man replies, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” And Jesus looked at him, and loved him.

Love is a many-splendored thing. All the commandments point to ways we can love one another—first, by doing no harm to one another, and then, by going even further. That is the heart of the invitation Jesus issues next.

Jesus looked at him, and loved him and said, “One more thing, then; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Let us not mince words: Jesus makes an extreme request. And yet, let us not forget, it is a request that others have already answered—the twelve, the other disciples, those who have given their lives over to following Jesus. And while we really should resist the temptation to downplay this (as in, oh he couldn’t possibly mean that literally…), it is also important to place this request alongside the commandments Jesus has just rattled off. Faithfulness means loving.  It means living in loving connection to others, in justice and righteousness. How else can we love God, except by loving the people God has put in our path? (see 1 John 4:20). The call to abandon personal wealth in favor of the poor simply extends and expands that way of justice and righteousness, really, to its logical end. Selfless living is the goal of internalizing the commandments, that this kind and level of love will lift us up where we belong. Selfless living is living at its deepest, living in utter trust and dependence on God.

This is what I believe is the larger meaning of that phrase, “eternal life”: life at its deepest. Life that is not restricted by our notions of the usual boundaries. Life that has no beginning, and no end. What Jesus calls elsewhere, abundant life.

And what that means is, eternal life is now. We don’t have to wait for it. It is available to us, this God-life, here, where we are. It is a deeper, fuller, immersed way of living in God’s love. The question for us is: do we need to give away all our money to the poor in order to achieve it?

The questioning man, the man who is clearly longing for life at its deepest and most connected to God, goes away stunned and grieving, because “he had many possessions.” Jesus takes the opportunity to warn of the impediment wealth can be to those who wish to enter the kingdom of God. And then, he repeats himself, because the first time he says it, his followers are puzzled. For them as for us, it is entirely counterintuitive. Then, as now, wealth is seen as every problem’s solution, and the disciples cannot fathom why that should not be so.

Throughout Christian history, different people and groups have taken those words of Jesus literally —when he says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… and then come, follow me.” They have taken those words literally and committed their lives to living that way. People left society and went to live in caves. People left their families and went to live in monasteries. People left their wealth and lived in intentional communities, people like Dorothy Day, whose movement advocated for the poor and nonviolent pacifism.

Of all the words of Jesus’ that make us squirm, I think we have to wrestle with what he says about wealth, perhaps, most of all. Here’s the real question: is money a hedge—is it a wall between ourselves and deep immersion in the God-life, whether anxiety about it or attachment to it? Does anxiety about money or attachment to it dictate our spiritual lives? Does this whole line of inquiry make us profoundly uncomfortable?

To judge by what both popular culture and the legislatures of certain states tell us, you’d think Jesus talked about nothing but sex. But the truth is, Jesus talked more about money than about any other single thing. Jesus talked about money more than about heaven and hell combined. He talked more about money than anything else except the kingdom of God. Fully one quarter of all Jesus’ parables—one in four—talk about money.[ii]

Not at all by coincidence, the season of Lent offers us an opportunity to engage in the challenge offered by Jesus where money is concerned. We have three ancient/ traditional Lenten practices, designed to open up a space in ourselves for God to do God’s work. They are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For each of these, I’ll share, first, the most traditional understanding of the practice, followed by some other ideas of what that might look like.

Prayer: The practice of speaking to God, and listening to God. The practice of setting aside some time each day to bring ourselves to an awareness of God’s presence, for the purpose of attaining yet greater awareness of God’s presence. The practice of resting in God’s love.

Fasting: The practice of reducing our intake of food or eliminating certain foods from our diets. The practice of reducing our consumption of anything from food to alcohol to the internet to anger, for the purpose of opening in ourselves a space and a hunger for God. The practice of saying no to something or things, so that we can say yes to God.

Almsgiving: The practice of aiding the poor and destitute with our money. The practice of gratitude for what we have been given, expressed as care for those in need. The spiritual practice of letting go of what we believe to be ours, in the conviction that it is actually God’s.

That’s the leap, right there. Do we believe, truly, that everything we are, and everything we have, is God’s? Do we believe that giving, even, in God’s name, for God’s purposes, is something we are truly called to do? This is one of the most profoundly challenging areas of spiritual growth any of us will ever engage in, because it cuts to the heart of a culture that is telling us exactly the opposite—that the accrual of wealth is our goal, that the one who dies with the most toys wins, and that we are all on our own, full stop. It’s this belief that keeps us from treating with compassion those against whom the system is hopelessly stacked. It’s this belief that keeps us from living out Jesus’ persistent call to love one another as we love ourselves, and as God has loved us. Ironically, it’s this belief that keeps us from life at its deepest, life that is not restricted by our notions of the usual boundaries, life that Jesus calls, abundant.

Jesus tells the man who is burning with a question of how to live out this love that is bubbling up inside him, that he needs to let go of his attachment to his wealth in order to live more deeply, more fully. The man goes away, shocked and grieving… it is as if he has experienced the sudden, inexplicable end of a love affair. He is not, in this moment, able to imagine parting with his “many possessions.” He is not, at this time, able to give all for love.

And yet. And yet. God’s grace rules. God’s grace breaks through, for us and for everyone else. God’s grace, perhaps, even softens and opens the heart of the rich man who went away grieving. There is an ancient legend that the man featured in this story, the one who went away, is none other than John Mark, companion of Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys. Which means, he is identical with Mark, the writer of this gospel. Maybe. It’s a legend. And so many legends have, at their core, a profound truth.

God’s grace rules. God’s grace is what we rely upon when trying to discern and decide what is a hedge between us and the God-life.  God’s grace is what convinces us that a life which is lived with open hands and an open heart provides a wealth that is neither time-bound nor at risk of ever being spent, lost, or gambled away. God’s grace is where each of us gets to rest, in the end, filled with peace, and an endless love that, most assuredly, is here to stay.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife, Judaism 101: Answering Jewish Frequently Asked Questions for more than a decade! http://www.jewfaq.org/olamhaba.htm 


[ii] “Money Matters,” by Kelley Benton, at Sermon Central, http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/money-matters-kelly-benton-sermon-on-obedience-155200.asp.