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Context of Today's Gospel
The story of the rich young man, as it is known to most Christians, appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Whenever a particular account appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is regarded as going back to the very earliest stories that were told about Jesus. Scripture scholars have posited that there was a common source (frequently referred to as the “Q” source) that included a number of sayings by and stories about Jesus. Although this hypothesized source is lost to history, the fact that the Gospels concur on the precise language of the encounter lends credence to the analysis that this scene really did take place during the public ministry of Jesus.
Indeed, what is remarkable about the three Synoptic accounts it that they are almost word-for-word identical in their phrasing. Even when certain stories are common to the Gospel authors, it is unusual to have the specific vocabulary and syntax overlap so seamlessly. In short, we are almost certainly listening to the words of Jesus himself.
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer poses precisely this same question to Jesus, to which Jesus replies with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jewish Scripture scholar Amy Jill-Levine observes that the question itself ought to set off a red flag among hearers. The verb used, aptly translated to English as, “must,” bespeaks a sort of legalistic minimalism that both the majority of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries and our own 21st century theologians would reject.
The question presupposes that (a) eternal life can be inherited based on human actions; and (b) there is a set checklist of the sorts of actions that one must fulfill, in order to achieve this desired outcome. Both are problematic.
The ancient Jews regarded Torah not as a set of legalistic obligations, but as a free gift from God, meant for the liberation of the individual human person and flourishing of the broader society. Ben Zion Bokser, writing on the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures, observes, “God did not thrust people into the world to grope entirely on their own for the right course in life. Rather, he gave people a chart by which to steer themselves: the Torah and its commandments. These commandments, the rabbis believed, help each person find his true self and achieve closeness to God.”
Although frequently mischaracterized as a God of wrath and punishment, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is abounding in mercy and ceaseless in forgiveness. Eternal life, insofar as it was a still-evolving concept at the time of Jesus, would have been viewed as the free, gracious response of this merciful, all-loving God, and not the result of a life of acts righteousness. The young man misunderstands the nature of living in accordance with Torah if he views it as his ticket to Heaven.
What do we believe about inheriting eternal life?
In the early Christian church, one of the most pervasive heresies was known as Pelagianism. Pelagianism can basically be reduced to the sort of acts-righteousness that is described in today’s Gospel, i.e. God gives us a set of directions to follow, and those who follow all of the given commandments earn their way into Heaven. Formally condemned by the Church, this notion that we earn our way to Heaven is incompatible with our theological belief that Heaven is only for the perfectly pure of heart, and that none of us lives a morally flawless human life.
Instead, we profess belief that, if we are to inherit eternal life at all, it is only by way of the freely-given mercy of God, as brought into human form in the person of Jesus. God becomes human to reconcile us to God’s self--taking on our sin and offering us the chance to accept Eternal Salvation.
If we accept this offer of salvation, we will necessarily wish to arrange our lives in a manner that reflects this truth. If we believe, wholeheartedly, that Jesus has come to lead us to the Father, then we will wish to keep the commandments as a way to celebrate this belief.
An analogy: let us say we profess to love someone, and we seek to marry him/her. The sort of acts that we will undertake in order to demonstrate that love may be viewed as a way of giving concrete expression to our underlying commitment. For instance, we may resolve to communicate each day with the loved one, no matter how busy we get with work. Or we may decide to do certain chores like washing the dishes, cleaning the laundry, or organizing the house, in order to express that love. Too, we might cook our loved one dinner or purchase a gift on an anniversary -- all of these are ways we communicate our love.
But we do not earn the other person’s love in so doing these things. It would be like us saying to a fiance or spouse, “I’ve folded the towels, I’ve bought you flowers, I’ve rented us a car to visit your parents at Thanksgiving. What more must I do to earn your love?”
The question is fundamentally backwards, because love -- like eternal life -- is given freely as a gift, and the things we do, keeping the commandments of God or offering up acts of service to a loved one, are expressions of our accepting that gift. Not ways to earn it.
But to answer the individual’s question (and in doing so to really answer the question, “How might I better show my acceptance of God’s offer of eternal life?” rather than, “What must I do to earn it?”) Jesus identifies the one thing in his life that he seems unwilling to give up. Riches themselves are not intrinsically evil, but Jesus points to them as problematic if we hold on to them as the one thing with which we would be unwilling to part. For ourselves, “riches” could be meant to take many things. We try to live a holy life; we try to make it to Mass; we try to treat others as we would want to be treated... what is the one thing in our lives that Jesus would point to and say, “That. Would you give up that to follow me?” Perhaps it is a material possession like an iphone or internet connection, but more likely it is something about our lives, like what sort of job we’d like to do, which sort of person we’d wish to marry, or how much money we might make. “That,” Jesus might say, pointing to our particular item, “Would you give up that to follow me?”
Questions for Reflection
1.) What sorts of commandments do you try to carry out in your own life? Do you find some more difficult than others?
2) What sorts of riches do you have in your life, that it would be difficult to give up? Perhaps it is material comfort, or a set of friendships, or a desired career path.
3) Why do you think that Jesus is consistently asking his followers to give things up and to engage in a self-sacrificing sort of discipleship? What about other parts of the Gospel does this seem to relate to?