As he 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?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
I’m struck by Jesus’ response to the man’s question. Actually, it’s not his question that Jesus seems to object to, but rather the way he addresses Jesus. Which is curious, because calling him “good teacher” is simply a polite form of address. So why does Jesus retort that only God is good, implying that the man should not address Jesus in this way? Does he think the man is merely flattering him?
I don’t think so. I think Jesus is setting up a standard by which to measure our attitudes, actions, and requests. Consider, the man is asking what he must “do” to inherit eternal life. How good must he be, in other words, to enter God’s kingdom? And Jesus’ very first words indicate that there is something amiss with the question itself. Once you imagine that eternal life is something you inherit or earn by being good, you’ve lost. No one is good – that is, really and truly good – apart from God. Which means both that no one is “good enough” to inherit eternal life and that entering the kingdom is finally not about “being good” in the first place.
Jesus’ second response is also important to note. He continues by citing the commandments (and adding or amending them to include not defrauding one another). Interestingly, nowhere in the Old Testament is it assumed or asserted that keeping the commandments will grant you either eternal life or relationship with God. God, that is, doesn’t give the commandments to help Israel become God’s people; rather, God makes Israel God’s people (Exodus 19) and then gives them the commandments as a gift (Exodus 20). Keeping the commandments, then, isn’t about our becoming good enough. In fact, they’re not about us at all. Rather, the commandments direct us to care for our neighbor. If they help us become better people, they help us become better to and for our neighbor.
All of this puts an interesting spin on the man’s original question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? he asks. To which Jesus responds in two ways: 1) There is nothing you can “do” to inherit eternal life – life with God, like every other kind of inheritance you can think of, isn’t earned but is given and received as a gift. 2) You’ve already received an inheritance – the law. So rather than worry about your relationship with God, look instead to the need of your neighbor.
Does this nullify the man’s question about eternal life? I don’t think so. But it does put it into perspective by reminding us that eternal life and relationship with God isn’t something we can earn and therefore not something we should worry about. Instead, freed from concern about the hereafter, we’re invited to throw ourselves into the present moment, caring for those around us with the abandon and love of the God who gives law as a gift and grants eternal life as an inheritance.
Prayer: Dear God, help us to get over our worries about whether we are good enough to merit your love and instead, inspired by your goodness, let us reach out to those around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.