"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Many years ago, I was rector, or vicar, of a small Episcopal church community in suburban Minneapolis in the US State of Minnesota. It was the custom back then in many such suburban communities for the local high school to invite the ministers in town to each spring’s graduation ceremonies, at which one of us would preach a short sermon or homily, a kind of spiritual commencement address, if you will. One particular year, as I recall, it was the turn of the local evangelical pastor to speak to the graduates.
And, his message was straightforward. If you want to have a good and prosperous life, he told them, follow God’s will and way. If you want to be successful in your business or profession and become as wealthy as Solomon in the process, if you want a lovely house in the suburbs and two or three cars in your garage, follow the Ten Commandments. God will reward you. Wealth and good fortune are after all, he concluded, the recompence of a Christian life lived well, the genuine sign of God’s favour and blessing.
My former colleague’s theology -- called by the way the Gospel of Prosperity -- has become increasingly popular in many parts of the Christian world, not just suburban Minneapolis, as people everywhere yearn for a quick and easy way to assure themselves and others not only of their own goodness and righteousness but of their material success as well. I am not sure what our squirming young graduates back then may have made of the message. In any case, I led the closing prayer, and we all processed out of the auditorium and into the world, such as it is.
"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
It is, I suppose, an innocent enough question on the face of it – one likely asked by each generation of Christians and a lot of non-Christians as well. No doubt something each of us here today has asked ourselves. The question has a number of presuppositions behind it, as our Lord himself points out. That Jesus is good, for one; a point upon which our Lord demurs, reminding the Rich Man that only God is truly good.
The question also presupposes that there is such a thing as eternal life in the first place; and that we must do something beyond the simple activities of daily life and breathing in order to merit or inherit eternal life, as if it were a family heirloom or legacy of some sort; something to be achieved if we only work hard enough at it. Jesus’ answer is troubling for this Rich Man – and perhaps from time to time for us as well. In the case of the Rich man of the Gospel, he simply walks away.
As our Lord’s words make clear, the life the Rich Man is seeking can neither be inherited nor exactly earned – in the way we, say, earn our salary for instance at work. It is not achieved by what he – or we – can ever do or accomplish. There is no simple quid-pro-quo in God’s upside-down economy of salvation and eternal life. What one must do is in a sense precisely the opposite of doing anything at all. One must, as Jesus teaches, renounce the quest for worldly riches and wealth and all that such a quest represents. “You lack one thing,” Jesus tells the Rich Man.
Now, it probably comes as a surprise to this wealthy individual to learn that he lacks anything. He has riches, after all, and he follows the dictates of the Law as he understands them. What else is there? What else could there be? Ought he perhaps build a school, presumably naming it after himself...? He could probably do that. Should he perhaps tell others of his own devotion and adherence to the Law, setting himself as a good example to others...? Maybe on Facebook or Twitter...? Or on the other hand, is he perhaps simply expecting a pat on the back from Jesus, an atta-boy...? In any case, Jesus promptly tells him the one thing he lacks.
And, what he lacks is paradoxically and precisely what he does not have and almost certainly does not want. What he lacks in other words is nothing. This man does not have enough nothing. And, if you do not possess nothing, you cannot inherit – much less earn – eternal life. It is as simple as that. One must distance oneself from worldly pursuits in order to inherit the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven. One must make room for God. Yet, this most assuredly does not come with the kind of guarantee offered by my Minnesota colleague; at least not as I understand the Gospel and its promise. The ultimate promise of the Gospel after all -- where it leads -- is the Cross.
Most of us are attached to some degree or other to what we possess – and more precisely to what sometimes possesses us. World leaders, as we have learned yet again in a recent BBC exposé, sock away billions of pounds of wealth, often at the expense of the very people they ostensibly serve. Yet, everything material and extraneous must become as nothing to us in order for us to recognize true value and worth – in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus offers the Rich Man what he lacks – free for the taking. He offers him the freedom which comes from following him into the way of the Gospel, the way of the Cross.
We inherit eternal life – the rich man is at least correct in his terminology of inheritance and life -- in allowing God to first possess us. What we must do is understand that we can ultimately do nothing to inherit eternal life: We must rather empty ourselves of empty pretensions and accept that Christ has done for us what we could not possibly do for our own sakes. So, must we now in turn give up our own little financial empires...? Perhaps. But probably only to the extent that we have allowed ourselves to be possessed by them. Only to the extent that we, like the Rich Man, walk away from the true riches of the Gospel.
In some sense that Minnesota pastor of decades ago was probably right. But not as he understood it. If you really want to be rich, follow our Lord and his Gospel. Walk with him the way of the Cross. It might not put a Mercedes in your garage, but you will nevertheless be wealthy beyond all human measure. Richer far than the Rich Man of today’s Gospel account. Richer by far than the richest of the world today.
For, your inheritence will indeed be eternal life.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs