Magazine article The Christian Century

The Cost of Eternal Life

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Cost of Eternal Life

Article excerpt

WHEN A MAN asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him that he should keep the commandments. When the man replied that he had always done so, Jesus added another requirement: Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. At that, the man "went away grieving, for he had many possessions."

But what if the man had been able to reply, "I just did that. I sold everything and gave every last drachma to the poor. Is there anything else I must do?" How would Jesus have responded to that? Here is one possibility: "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! But this man has done it! Move over, Peter, this man has earned a place with us." If this story were merely a cautionary tale about the ways in which wealth impedes our relationship with God, then this would be a fitting response.

But there is another possibility. Perhaps Jesus would have replied, "You have sold everything and given the money to the poor? Really? Well, you are almost there. Just one more thing: Go and stop the wind. Get yourself brown eyes instead of blue. Do some things to earn the love of your parents. Then we'll talk about what else you can 'do' to inherit eternal life."

It seems to me that this second response fits the intent of Mark's story more closely. Although this story does little to comfort the comfortable, it is about more than the hazards of wealth. Rather, it affirms the vanity of thinking that eternal life is something we can earn.

Notice how the man poses his question: He uses the word "inherit," which reflects an understanding that eternal life is a gift that he is powerless to give himself. But then, in his confusion, he asks what else he must do to gain this inheritance, as if eternal life were an accomplishment. He sounds like the child who asks, "Mommy, what must I do to earn a Christmas present?" or, "What must I do to deserve a sunny day?"

Perhaps eternal life can be earned. Perhaps that is why Jesus responded to the man's query by telling him to follow God's commandments. I believe, however, that Jesus' intent was the opposite: Jesus wanted the man to understand that what he seeks only God can give. The law is rigorous, and we persistently fail to live up to its demands. (As one man said after hearing a sermon on the Ten Commandments, "Well, at least I haven't made any graven images lately. …

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