Multiple times in the Gospels we see people asking Jesus the question that all religions seek to answer: What must I do to have eternal life? The question is phrased in different ways. The rich young ruler states it directly, but others put it in terms of “What must we do to do the works of God?” or “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Everyone is born into this world with the same question hardwired into them. It finds expression in many different forms. How can I find inner peace? What is the meaning of life? It seems like there’s something missing. I wish I could just be happy. Where can I find truth? Many people wrestle with the question and many others stuff it down or try to bury it under one activity or another.
Every religion in the world will point you to something you must do. Practice the Five Pillars, keep to the Eight Fold path, obey the Law, keep the Sacraments, follow the teachings, or just be a good person. But notice that it’s always something you must do because every religion believes God’s favor must be earned or merited in some form or fashion. So we come to believe that as long as we make a good effort to keep the rules or stay on the path, then God is obligated to give us a good life. But like the rich young ruler, that nagging feeling of something being out of sync won’t go away. He was one of the most put together people of his day. He had status, wealth, looks, drive and he was moral! Still, he came to Jesus saying, “Something’s missing, I’m not at peace. I don’t sense God’s favor.”
Mark tells us Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Yet, He would not lower the bar for him. In essence Jesus was saying to the young man and all the others who came to Him with similar questions, “You want to earn your way into eternal life, then the standard is perfection, perfect obedience to the Law. You must love the Lord your God with every thought, motive and action at all times (heart, soul, mind and strength) and you must do for your neighbor everything that you would do for yourself with the same enthusiasm and determination that you would do it for yourself” (and, as He told the Pharisee your neighbor includes those who are not part of your family, friends or tribe.) Jesus put his finger on the thing that stood between the young man and eternal life. “Sell all you have and follow me” and the he walked away heartbroken. Jesus shook His head and commented how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples were appalled and said “If that guy can’t make it then who can?!!!”
Jesus’ answer is very instructive. “With man this is impossible.” Listen carefully to the words of Jesus. Do you notice how He always raises the bar? “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees!” “You’ve heard it said ‘don’t murder, don’t commit adultery’ but I say don’t hate, don’t lust.” He said all the Law and the prophets can be summed up in two statements: Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as you love yourself. If we’re honest we would have to say “Impossible!” No one can do that perfectly!” And that is what Jesus is driving at. You might as well try to push a camel through a needle’s eye as to earn eternal life. Ah! “But with God, all things are possible!” This is why He came and why He lived as He did. We confess that Jesus was perfect and lived perfectly so that He could be the perfect sacrifice for sin, but He also loved God and His neighbor perfectly and completely, fulfilling all the Law and the prophets, so that He could give us the righteousness that we need and that we could never earn. He did, as a human being, what was humanly impossible so that you and I, by faith, might stand before the Father with His righteous, perfect record of obedience. Jesus told the crowd in John 6:29 that there is only one thing you can do to gain eternal life. “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.” Trust and confidence in His work, and that alone, is the only way into eternal life.