Luke 18:18-30 (ESV)
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
The central question that plagues the human heart is the one a junior executive once asked Jesus. He's a guy who made out well for himself. Of course, this was all while the economy was doing really well, before their version of 911 that happened in 70 AD (the destruction of the Temple). We don’t really know how he fared after that.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
There it is. THE question. Most of us think we can cheat death because, somewhere deep inside we believe this is all there is. Or at least that’s what we’re afraid of. The junior executive in this scene (repeated in Matthew 19 and Mark 10) is totally sold out to acquiring as much as possible and staying alive as long as possible.
What must I do. This guy really isn’t interested in eternal life in heaven at all. He’s got it good here and would like his prosperity to continue forever. The wording of his question takes the whole thing even further, since he says, “…to inherit…”
This is a fellow who would sell his own grandmother if it would get him where he wants to go. He’s saying, “You can call me O’Reilly if that means I’ll inherit.” He doesn’t much care what it is he’ll inherit. He just likes that word a lot.
Jesus gives him what seems like a non sequitur in response. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
There are whole books out there that try to make the point that Jesus is saying something about how he is sinless and therefore is God. I don’t think that’s at all what he’s up to here. The man had asked Jesus what he would have to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus is saying it isn’t about goodness. It is about something deeper.
Again, there have been books written on the obvious fact that Jesus only recites five of the Commandments to the man. Presumably the point is that the man was so dedicated to his wealth that he had broken these five utterly.
But Jesus doesn’t pick up on this. He says, “One thing you still lack.” He seems totally unconcerned about whether the man has kept any of the Commandments, and then amazingly sums up the deeper meaning of all ten while simultaneously answering the man’s original question.
“Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Have no other gods -- Only by selling all would God ever be the Lord of this man
Make no idols – Only by selling all could this man be free of his idols
Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain – Only by selling all would the name of God finally be holy to him
Remember the Sabbath Day – Only by selling all would he ever be in a position to drop his pursuit of gain for a whole day to spend it with God
Honor Father and Mother – Only by selling all could he ever be concerned about the deeper heritage that was his and not just about what he could gain from his parents if they died
Do not kill – Only by selling all would he be free from the shark-like competition to win at all costs. To win at business means to kill your opponent
Do not commit adultery – Only by selling all would he rid himself of the mistress (his money) that kept him from true fidelity to his wife
Do not steal – Only by selling all would he see that in business there’s a lot of “steal” in every “deal.” He would never deal honestly with people as long as gain was his primary objective
Do not bear false witness – Only by selling all would he ever stop bending the truth about the people around him in order to make himself look better so he could gain more
Do not covet – Only by selling all would he ever stop wanting what he did not already have. This may have been the deepest hole in the man’s heart
Jesus has even thrown in the other Great Commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.
The encounter ends with Jesus making the man a very real offer. When a respected rabbi invited someone to “follow me,” any good Jewish man knew exactly what was being offered: a kind of deep life-on-life training you couldn’t get anywhere else. Jesus is inviting the man into the inner circle of his disciples and has laid out the terms of the contract for him. But there is no gain in being Jesus’ disciple. And yet at some level the man knows Jesus is right about all of it. So he goes away sad, knowing eternal life, whatever it is, doesn’t pay.
I love Peter. He’s such a guy. Jesus is standing there wistfully watching the young executive walk away out of sight, and Peter comes and stands next to him. Thinking he’s being sensitive, in a cave-man sort of way he says, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.”
A slight smile comes across Jesus’ face. In my version of this scene he never diverts his eye from watching the man, who is now at some distance. He sums up all Ten Commandments again and the terms of Peter’s discipleship in one sentence. “Peter, you’re married…right? You don’t know the half of it yet.”