As [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man’s question for Jesus is easy to understand. But the man’s question is also illogical. It can’t be answered, because what the man asks about is an impossibility.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Substitute any item for “eternal life” in that question. What must I do to inherit my father’s house? What must I do to inherit my mother’s china? What must I do to inherit my grandfather’s estate? What must I do to inherit my business partner’s share of the company? How would you answer such questions? Be a good son or daughter. Be a generous and caring grandchild. Be a wise and trusted coworker and entrepreneur.
All of those would be good answers, even typical answers. Jesus gives such an answer to the man who asks the question to Him. Listen to what Jesus said in response to the question: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” Jesus basically says: Be good. That’s His answer to the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And yet, Jesus also said: “No one is good except God alone.” That should eliminate any idea of being good leading to eternal life.
Why should the idea of being good leading to eternal life be eliminated? First, because Jesus’ words are correct: “No one is good except God alone.” Despite the man’s bragging, he was not good. He told Jesus: “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” Perhaps he had kept the letter of the law, but didn’t keep the full intent of them. But secondly, even had he kept all those commands, it still doesn’t address the issue of original sin: that one is born without fear, love, and trust in God, and that such a lack is damnable. And even if that weren’t so, the issue of inheriting eternal life still arises.
The real issue with the man’s question—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—is that no one can do anything to inherit something. The man wants to know what action he must perform in order to inherit eternal life. Yet, the matter of inheritance is dependent upon someone else’s action. Go back to the questions asked earlier: What must I do to inherit my father’s house? What must I do to inherit my mother’s china? What must I do to inherit my grandfather’s estate? What must I do to inherit my business partner’s share of the company? There are no actions that you must do. For you to inherit your father’s house, your mother’s china, your grandfather’s estate, your business partner’s share of the company, the original owner has to give it to you. It’s a basic concept. You need to have a status conferred upon you: that your father, mother, grandfather, or business partner elected to place you in their will and list you as an heir.
Inheritance is a matter of dependence, not self-reliance. You must be given a status. You had to be chosen by the testator. The testator had to find you worthy of owning their property after their death. The testator had to ensure that your name was listed in the will. If the testator’s actions didn’t take place, it wouldn’t matter if you were a good son or daughter, a good grandchild, a good business partner. No matter how hard you tried, no matter your efforts, to inherit something, you had to be the recipient of another’s actions for your benefit.
That truth about inheritance is seen in how the dialogue between the man and Jesus progresses. After Jesus’ listing of the commandments and the man’s insistence that he had kept all of them from youth, Jesus acts for the man’s benefit: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘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 loves the man, and He tells the man what must be done for him to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to abandon self-reliance: get rid of everything of the man’s possessions in which he found security. But Jesus goes further: He calls the man to be His disciple.
Jesus is acting on the man’s behalf, giving the man the status which he needs in order to inherit eternal life. Those who believe in Jesus, who follow His way of life, who are placed under His discipline will have great treasure in heaven. It isn’t their choice; it isn’t a result of their own effort. No, it is what Jesus chooses to give them. He calls them away from error, away from the bondage of sin, away from the power of Satan.
The inheritance of eternal life is what you have been chosen to receive. Jesus chooses you despite the fact that you do murder, you do commit adultery, you do steal, you do bear false witness, you do defraud, and you do dishonor your father and mother. You may claim, like the rich man: “All these commandments I have kept from my youth.” But such a claim would not be true. And yet, Jesus still chooses you to follow Him, to receive the great treasure in heaven which the Eternal Father has to give.
Why can Jesus do such a thing? Why can He make this selection, this choice for you to follow Him and be an heir of eternal life? It is because Jesus meets the criteria that He listed for the man. Jesus knows the commandments, and He did keep them from His youth. But even more than that: Jesus divested Himself of everything that He had and gave it to you who lacked everything. That is the great result of His Incarnation: the Son of God emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant and made Himself subject to all the Law of God. And that action led to His giving His own life for your sake, making you and all sinful humanity eligible to be chosen to receive the inheritance of eternal life.
Salvation is a matter of dependence. You cannot be self-reliant and obtain eternal life. No, it must be given to you. It must be made yours by someone else. But note how the man in the Gospel Reading reacts to that truth: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Though Jesus loved the man and disclosed the way of life to him, the man does not receive it. He will not make himself reliant on Jesus’ actions. No, the man will keep to the delusion that eternal life is something that he can obtain by his own effort. How sad that is! How awful for the man to be chosen by Jesus to follow Him, but for him to refuse it. It is as if the will was made, but the heir listed chose to have his name deleted.
This is one of the reasons why this incident in Jesus’ life is heard year-after-year in the Church. All of you must know the way that eternal life is given, that it is the result of Jesus’ actions for you. But you must also know that the status of being chosen can be rejected and abandoned. Making yourself your own savior is a great temptation. It is the idolatry that all sinful beings revert to. And such thinking repeats the error of the rich man in the Gospel Reading.
That is the great error which you must avoid. The worship that we do in our Divine Service helps to avoid it. As you speak the Confession of Sins, you hear again that you have not kept the commandments from youth and that you are loath to give up reliance in your own selves. The pleas for mercy in the Kyrie, Gloria in Excelsis, and Agnus Dei acknowledge your dependence upon the Lamb of God who takes away your sins and the sins of the world, even the sin of pride and self-reliance. The presentation of forgiveness in Holy Absolution and the Lord’s Supper confirms the fact that salvation is given to you through Christ’s work, not earned. Recitation of the Creed and invoking the Triune God’s Name affirm the baptismal identity bestowed upon you, when you were made heirs of eternal life.
The question that the rich man asks—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—cannot be answered with a method or prescribed action. No, the real question is: What must Jesus do for me, so that I can be given eternal life by His Father? The answer to that is simple, the same answer which Jesus gives to the rich man: “You lack one thing. Come, follow Me.” You lack salvation in yourselves, but being called to discipleship by Jesus and believing in His words and works brings it to you. Do not be deluded into self-reliance, but be dependent upon Jesus and His actions. For by them, you have been given a blessed status, and so you shall inherit eternal life.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.