October 14, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“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.’”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That was the question posed by a man to Jesus. The question indicates a desire to possess something that he did not have. The man wants eternal life. He thinks that Jesus has the wisdom to direct him how to get it. For those who believe in divine judgment and reward, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a good question to ask.
So how does Jesus answer the man’s question? What is His response? “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 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.”’” It is an interesting response, beginning with a statement about the goodness that only God has. That statement is followed by Jesus’ restating of the standard of righteousness that God has established.
The path to eternal life seems quite clear: keep the commandments that God has given. The man who asked Jesus the question receives this answer well. It is not foreign to him. In fact, he says that he has been devoted to this very thing: “And he said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, all these [commandments] I have kept from my youth.’” The commandments had formed this man’s piety. They were the charter for his daily living. And he believes that he has indeed done what was demanded of him. So he should receive the inheritance of eternal life.
But the man’s joyful response to Jesus’ answer ignores one of the first things that He said: “No one is good except God alone.” The commandments define what is good, right, and salutary. But Jesus’ statement indicates that the hearers of those commandments are not good; rather, only the One who gave those commandments is truly good. There is something that the man is missing here. He has not truly kept the commandments: their demands required more than the efforts that he had given. The man is not truly good, despite his belief that he had done all that the commandments required. Either the man does not recognize his faults or does not fully understand the demands of the Divine Law.
So Jesus responds to the man’s statement: “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 points out something that the man does not possess: “Here’s what you’re missing. Let Me tell you what you still need to do. Give up all that you own and donate it to those who have nothing. Then you will have great riches for eternity.” What Jesus gives in this statement is a taste of the full requirements of the Divine Law: “Let Me talk to you about where your love is. Have you kept the first and greatest commandment, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind’? Or is your love and devotion directed toward your possessions? Will you ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ by selling all that you have and giving them the proceeds? Or will you refuse to give of yourself to them?”
Jesus’ statement shows the full requirements of the Divine Law. They point out the flaw in the man’s thinking. It is true that the man who speaks to Jesus may not have committed the grave sins mentioned by the prophet: “you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth…you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him…you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.” No, this man who speaks to Jesus seems to have a desire and willingness to abide by the Commandments. Yet, there are demands that he has not met. More than that, there are demands that he would never meet. That will keep him from inheriting eternal life. And the man knows it: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
The words of the Gospel Reading show that the attempts to inherit eternal life through obedience of the Divine Law are ultimately futile. That is not to say that there should be no desire to abide by the Commandments. Striving to follow them is good, right, and salutary to do. It is the Lord’s will that they be kept. But Jesus’ statement is true: “No one is good except God alone.” And the Divine Law demands that all be like Him. In a way of speaking, the answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is “Be like God.”
But this dialogue between Jesus and the rich man is not simply a statement of what is demanded that leaves all hopeless. A statement about Jesus is found in this dialogue. There is testimony about His character and His actions. Hear again what Jesus said to the man: “No one is good except God alone. 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.’… You lack one thing; go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven….” These were the required actions, what the man had to do, to inherit eternal life.
But what Jesus declared to be the required actions are what He Himself has done. They outline exactly what He was doing during His life here on earth. Jesus kept the Commandments, even from youth. It was not a superficial keeping, but a fulfilling of them. Jesus sold all that He had and gave it to the poor. This is the apt description of what it meant for the Son of God to make Himself nothing, come in the form of a servant, and suffer death, all for the benefit of the world. Jesus gave the last full measure, so that we would have the riches of eternal life.
Those acts of Jesus are what we sing about, especially at Christmastide: “He undertakes a great exchange, / Puts on our human frame, / And in return gives us His realm, / His glory, and His name.” or “We are rich, for He was poor; / Is not this a wonder? / Therefore praise God evermore / Here on earth and yonder.” Jesus’ acts of obedience and humility are done for us who were disobedient and proud. But they turn us around; they bring us something that we did not possess, no matter how much we might have thought that we had done or could do what was demanded of us. The inheritance of eternal life is made to be yours because of Jesus’ work done for you.
So in this dialogue between Jesus and the rich man, the Gospel is found, not just statements of Divine Law. You ask the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus speaks the same words to you as He did to the rich man. The answer is to be like God, be righteous like God, be good like God. This is something that you cannot accomplish. If it was left up to your own effort, you should go away from here sorrowful and disheartened like the rich man. For you know what the Commandments really require of you. But Jesus’ answer does not leave you hopeless; His statement points you to the salvation that He has won. The call that Jesus gives to the rich man is issued to you: “Come, follow Me.” And in that statement, eternal life is found.
For what will it mean for you to follow Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, to be one who belongs to Jesus? It means the reception of the new identity and status and life that He issues to those who are His. For following Jesus, becoming a disciple of Jesus, being in fellowship with Jesus brings salvation. It is bestowed to you when you are united to Him in baptism, incorporated into His body, the Church. It is granted to you in the participation in His sacrificial death as you eat of the Lord’s Supper. It is issued to you, as you are called and recognized as His people. What is given in these things? The righteousness of Jesus is given to you, the holiness of Jesus is given to you, the perfection of Jesus is given to you. Salvation is not found in what you have done, but what has been done for you.
Ultimately, Jesus’ answer to the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” will either bring despair or hope. It will bring despair when focusing on the demands of the Divine Law and comparing them against your feeble efforts in life. But it will bring hope when seeing that what was demanded is what Jesus has done for you. Then Jesus’ gracious call to follow Him is the most pleasing words that you hear. It is the call that grants you to receive His righteousness to be counted as your own.
Because you have that new identity given to you by following Jesus and being His disciples, you have the inheritance of eternal life made to be yours. You are members of the Eternal Father’s household. This is what Jesus’ fulfilling the Commandments, His giving Himself in sacrifice, and His bestowing of gifts bring to you. So you are called to receive His great legacy, a place in the Father’s house for eternity.
This is what brings joy after hearing the dialogue in the Gospel Reading today. It lets you say: “I have cannot do anything to inherit eternal life, but You, Lord Jesus, have made that inheritance to be mine. Your actions have brought me salvation.” Or you can repeat the words of the hymnist which you sang: “All righteousness by works is vain; / The Law brings condemnation. / True righteousness by faith I gain; / Christ’s work is my salvation. / His death, that perfect sacrifice, / Has paid the all-sufficient price; / In Him my hope is anchored.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.