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; Honour 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. (Mark 10:17-22)
What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is this a valid question? It sounds like it on the surface. In fact, it sounds like the most valid question possible--the most important question possible. Eternal life is the most important thing a person can inherit, so this sounds like it would be a good question to ask our Lord. Jesus answers, essentially, "Keep the commandments." Now, here is where the young questioner gets arrogant, gets obstinate. He suddenly holds his head up high and says, I've been there, done that. I've kept all those commandments since my birth.
What does Jesus respond? If we were he, we'd all be shouting LIAR! But Jesus is not so crass. He looks on him and loves him. He knows what is in the man's heart. The man is not lying. He honestly believes he has kept the commandments. Once I led someone through the Confession of Sin and when we got to the line, "We have not loved you with our whole heart," she stopped. "I can't say that," she told me, "because I HAVE loved God with my whole heart." What do you say to that?
Well, did you have breakfast this morning? Yes. Did you pray over your breakfast before eating? Yes. Did you think about God while you ate? Well, no. I had a issue of the Coastland Times in front of me. I was thinking about a ratchet that I was going to buy at Ace Hardware. You see, we CANNOT love God with our whole heart. It is impossible to love God with our whole hearts, because it means constantly thinking about him and loving him. We have too many distractions.
But it wouldn't matter if you got rid of all those distractions. Get rid of the World and you have the Flesh and the Devil to contend with. Somewhere, there is a monk in a cell kneeling for prayers. He is trying to love God with his whole heart, but suddenly this song from childhood pops into his head, and he is distracted from God.
Jesus responds in an interesting way. This is a very misunderstood response, because it seems that the young man has stumped Jesus with his answer, "I HAVE kept all the commandments," and Jesus now has to think of another challenge for the man. "Drat!" Jesus thinks, "Now I have to think of something... Aha! Now, what I want you to do is to sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor!" There! Try that one on for size. Sure enough the young man walks away.
Is that what is happening? No! Jesus is not turning the tables. He's not adding a layer of challenge on the already righteous young man to weigh him down. Jesus is merely pointing out the "untruth" in the young man's response. Jesus is merely saying that IF one is REALLY keeping the commandments, then he has ALREADY sold all of his possessions and given the money to the poor. IF you have NOT done such a thing then you are not really keeping the commandments. Did I mention that the commandments are impossible to keep?
What does it look like when you keep the commandments? Well, it looks like selling your stuff and giving the money to the poor. Have any of us in this room done that fully? I know we are charitable, but have we given up everything? No. Because we can't keep the commandments. We are unworthy for eternal life. Now, here is something interesting that Jesus tacks onto the end of his command. He adds this, "THEN, follow me!" Those two words, "follow me," are actually the ANSWER to the young man's original question. "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Follow me."
So why the other stuff in the middle? Why does Jesus go through the Q & A with the young man when the answer is really just "follow me?" It seems like Jesus is setting up a sequence. FIRST, obey the commandments, okay? Done that? Now SECOND, give everything to the poor. And then, once you've done that, THIRD, follow me. Shouldn't we be following Jesus first?
Exactly, and that is why the young man's original question is NOT A VALID QUESTION TO ASK GOD! We thought it was. It sounded great. It's a question that we all want to know the answer to, but the question should never have been asked. The young man should merely have dropped everything and followed Jesus. That is why Jesus went through all this Q & A. Because he already knew that the young man was NOT CALLED to follow him. The young man is trying to achieve salvation through human means: WHAT MUST I DO, and Jesus has called him out.
Did Jesus come up to the twelve and say to them, "have you kept the commandments? Have you given all your stuff to the poor? Then follow me!" No, he said to them, "follow me," and they followed. It's only AFTER we are following God's call that we are able to keep the commandments and begin to release ourselves from all the garbage that we have gathered unto ourselves that distract us from God. I have a massive DVD collection that has been sitting in the cabinet for years without being watched. Following Jesus comes first.
Jesus knows that the young man will not follow him. Jesus knew that when the first question was asked. You are hearing these words, reading this far, because God's voice is calling your heart to follow him. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Follow Jesus. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things--keeping the commandments and giving to the poor--will be added unto you. Following Jesus is the answer to the question.