Jesus’ encounter with the man in this Gospel likely troubles us in some ways, but also leaves us with some questions. About the only thing we know about him is that he was materially wealthy, he had a lot of stuff (probably no one here can relate to that but try your best to imagine). But another thing we know about him is that he wanted something more than his possessions, prompting him to ask Jesus how to attain it: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Asked another way, “How can I get to Heaven?”
The question infers that there are certain requirements to entering heaven. Now some would say that the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, coupled with one’s declaring their belief in him are all that is necessary. But this reading certainly seems to suggest there’s more to it than that. And while we certainly don’t believe that one earns his/her way to heaven, it seems to say that there are necessary ways of living.
In his dialogue with Jesus, the man made it clear that he followed Jewish Law. But then we’re given a curious detail: we’re told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. In my prayers, I’ve tried to imagine that, but I interpret it to tell us that Jesus could see through him, and into his heart. He could see what was keeping the man from being fully alive. Despite what he saw in the man, in his love for the man, he wanted to help him to move toward the eternal life he desired.
Jesus said to him (pardon the paraphrase), “Here is what you need to do: go and put your stuff on eBay. After you sell it, give what you earn to the poor….then come and follow me.” And this too is a curious detail, because the man had asked him how to get to eternal life, yet Jesus told him what he must do in order to follow him, as though Jesus didn’t hear the question correctly. But in truth, he did. To follow Jesus is to be a disciple, and it seems he is saying that’s how you move toward eternal life: discipleship. That clearly wasn’t the answer the man wanted. Sadness consumed him, and he simply went away. It’s worth noting that Jesus let him go. He didn’t water-down the requirements.
There are two points I’ll make on this. First is what might seem like a condemnation of wealth. To be clear, while Jesus demands that we care for the poor, he doesn’t call us to live in abject poverty. Remember, there were people of wealth who supported Jesus—Joseph of Arimathea, the unnamed women described in chapter eight of St. Luke’s Gospel. They used their wealth to help facilitate his mission. He doesn’t condemn wealth, but he does send a warning about what it can do to us, and I think he would warn us that wealth requires serious spiritual discipline.
When it comes to wealth, there is no universal norm, such as a fixed amount of how much one should make as an income; how much one should give to help the poor; how much one should pay for a car; or anything else. But as men and women who likely wish to inherit eternal life, who therefore need to grow deeper in becoming disciples, such questions about our money, how much stuff we’re collecting, and if we’re sufficiently contributing to the poor—should be something that regularly re-evaluate. I suspect Jesus would challenge us for any way we are preoccupied with and attached to things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom.
But the second point I gleaned from this reading is that there is something demanded of us in order to inherit eternal life. This narrative infers that heaven is not a given for us. And I suspect that if each of us were to ask Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, what’s demanded from him would likely be different for each of us.
It’s probably not a question most of us ask, though it would likely do us some good, from time to time. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Be prepared to listen and to take some time with it—give God some space to speak to you. And maybe be prepared to be initially disheartened, because it will likely demand that you detach from something you don’t want to or take on something you aren’t eager to. But despite our reticence, somehow it will lead to discipleship, to a deeper relationship with Jesus, to eternal life. What do you need to cease doing/begin doing, to move you toward eternal life?
Like the man in the Gospel, our Lord invites us to more. Will fear of the demand cause us also to walk away? And will we also like him do so in sadness, knowing that something our hearts long for is still missing from our lives?