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“Good Master, What Must I Do To Win Eternal Life?”

  • International
  • May 28, 2012
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The following passage from Mark’s Gospel – with its variants in Matthew and Luke – is one of the classic passages on discipleship, that is, on the following of Jesus.

Jesus is met by a stranger along the way. In some accounts, he is a wealthy young man, probably the heir to a large fortune. The man kneels before Jesus as a sign of respect, and poses the challenging question: “What must I do to win eternal life?”

There is a specifically Jewish context to this question. “Eternal life” to the pious Jew meant obeying the Law, the Ten Commandments in all their detail. In fact, Jesus lists some of the commandments, which draws out the admission from the young man that, “all this I have kept from my youth,” and the further question, “what do I still lack?”

With this question, the stage is set for Jesus’s definition of discipleship. The young man has lived a good and righteous life according to the Law. But Jesus invites him to a greater generosity than the Law requires. “Go, sell what you own, and come, follow me.”

The call to renounce one’s wealth is clear and unambiguous, echoing both the teaching of Jesus, and that of the early Church. The disciple who is sent out to proclaim the kingdom must not rely a bit on his own abilities or his possessions. His total reliance must come from God. This is how Jesus understood his own mission, and how wanted his disciples to understand it as well. This understanding is related to the Endtime: the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is already present upon earth in the person of Jesus. This presence changes everything. Even wealth, so important to us all, is of little value.

The young man is invited, but the invitation is turned down. So Jesus gives his group a teaching on wealth which totally upsets them. “Children! How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven!”

To say that this saying catches the disciples by surprise is an understatement. The conventional wisdom was that riches and prosperity were gifts from God, and so the more righteously you lived, the more eligible you became for them. Confused by the Master’s teaching, the disciples protest, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’s reply is categorical: Salvation is not your doing. It is God’s gift, and God’s alone.

One can’t argue ‘I deserve to be saved because I have kept the Law in every detail.’ No, it is always God’s invitation, not our merit. Even riches are not necessarily a sign of God’s favour, because riches create their own preconditions, which make it “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The disciples thought the rich young man was more eligible and blessed than they, and were surprised that he turned Jesus down.

Jesus chooses whom he wills. It’s not because we are worthy that he is gracious. It is his gracious generosity which makes us worthy. “For nothing is impossible to God.”
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