“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10:17
From the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we realize that the questioning man in this Sunday’s Gospel was a wealthy, young ruler. It should be positively noted that he showed respect and honor to Jesus as he both knelt before him and—with a total misunderstanding—labelled Jesus as Good Teacher. Imagine a wealthy young ruler, who obviously lived in a luxury unknown to practically every other person in that society, kneeling before Jesus. This certainly demonstrated a remarkable degree of humble faith. He was on the right track.
Almost certainly as this young man held a position of rulership and possessed wealth, both his position and his affluence were inherited. He knew how he inherited his position and money; it was not by anything he had done. And this makes his question of Jesus clearly out of place, for when he asked what must I do to inherit, he failed to apply his own life to this question, for this rich young ruler had done nothing—and in fact he could do nothing—to inherit his unique position in society.
This, however, is the common ailment that clings to the corrupt nature of every human being: We are convinced we must do or accomplish something to obtain eternal life. This thinking in itself is symptomatic of the ailment of man’s corruption, for it is a horrible sin to think we can be good enough to bypass any need for the Great Physician.
Before the Great Physician can heal the disease of sin he must first make a sin-sick person realize his sinfulness. Thus Jesus seems to “play along” with the rich young ruler, making it seem as though this man (or anyone) could do something to inherit eternal life. But Jesus is simply using the scalpel of the law, cutting away the skin of self-righteousness, enabling the rich young ruler to see his need for forgiveness. Jesus sets forth the truth that if anyone wants to earn eternal life, the commandments of God must be perfectly obeyed. This wealthy young man thought he was making progress with Jesus, for after hearing some basic commandments he joyfully declares, Teacher, these I have kept from my youth [v 20]. This rich young ruler was clothed with some pretty thick Pharisaic skin (indeed his identity as “ruler” may have something to do with this elite position among the Jews), so Jesus must use the scalpel of the law and cut even deeper. He commands this rich man, …go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me [v 21]. With one clean swipe of the razor of the law, Jesus exposes that this man did not love God above all, nor did he love his fellow man with a self-sacrificing heart. Jesus is lovingly enabling this man to realize he is a poor, miserable sinner. The rich young ruler walks away dejected; God’s law has done its deed and sliced him to the heart.
We don’t know what ultimately happened with this rich young man. There appears to be good evidence that he is John Mark, the very writer of the Gospel of Mark, which is perhaps why he is the only one to record this account with the personal remark, And Jesus, looking at him, loved him [v 21]. At any rate, this wealthy young man was prepared by the Law to joyfully believe in the healing forgiveness earned by the death and resurrection of the Great Physician. He was ready to realize Jesus is correctly identified as the Good Teacher, for He is God in the flesh. He was prepared by this loving exchange with Jesus to grasp the fact that there was only One who actually earned eternal life by perfectly keeping the commandments. And He earned it for all of mankind.
At least the rich young man got something right; eternal life is inherited. And this is how each one of us receives this most wonderful gift. Saint Paul was inspired to summarize the truth this way: But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life [Titus 3:4-7]. Re-read this and note all the connections with our text. Jesus is God our Savior. We are saved not by deeds of righteousness, but according to His mercy and grace. We are thus justified (declared righteous) as a gift bestowed upon us in our Baptism. But note particularly the final statement of these verses of Scripture that we become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Indeed in our Baptism God brings us into His family, making us brothers and sisters of the Sinless Man. And being in His family we are then heirs, we inherit the gifts earned by Christ. As heirs with Christ we have the hope (the Christian’s certainty) of eternal life!