What must I do to inherit eternal life? (Luke 18)



 “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” *Luke 18:18)

Well, what would you have answered?

Before you reply, take a look at the two passages that precede this one. In v 9 Jesus tells a parable aimed at “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” And in v 17, just spoken, Jesus declares  that “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

OK OK, says the ruler. So,  “‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” 

I can almost imagine the back of Jesus’s palm on his forehead and a look of withering amusement. He might be imagined as asking, “Do you really not see the point?” Or perhaps “How long must I put up with you?” (as he does say on another occasion).

And yet, perhaps in context, it’s a fair enough question. Maybe the emphasis is on the “I” and the distinguished guest in the audience has heard the stories and yet feels that the preceding categories do not precisely fit his case. He is neither a Pharisee nor a tax collector; and he is certainly not a child. “So what about me, Jesus?”  “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

My wife Val, who teaches Maths, tells me that it’s about a hundred million to one that my lottery numbers will come up (or even less, seeing that I don’t do the lottery). To which, the standard answer is, “So there IS a chance?”

That is to say, the ruler has missed the point completely, as we often do ourselves.

Jesus seems to answer the question head on. But that’s not the case. What he really does is answer the question in the terms that it is set, whilst offering an opportunity for rethinking those terms.

“‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.” 

21 ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he said.”

If you cast the aquisition of eternal life into the category of something you  DO (or achieve), then you are stuck with a caricature of the Old Testament system  which someone described to me as “Doing the Stuff.” Don’t smoke, drink or swear. Avoid shellfish and mixed fibres. That sort of thing.

Any kind of legalism gets a bit ridiculous, eventually.

But the ruler admits (with touching pride) that he has done a good job of “Doing the Stuff.”

So why is he here? Why is he asking the question? It must be because he knows that there’s something more.Maybe he has been listening more than I gave him credit for and he pondered the fact that God accepted the tax collector’s grief-stricken acknowledgement of being Not Good Enough. And maybe he saw the exhuberant children vying for Jesus’s knee and Jesus saying “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.” God accepts the broken and the boisterous. But what about the nice people? What do I do?

22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’

23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”

This passage is not a summons to divest yourself of income (you may be relieved to learn!), though St Francis and many others found it a powerful stimulus to life-change. And Luke does have much to say about the “deceitfulness of riches” and the distraction of wealth and clutter.

But right now we are still answering the set question: “‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  

And right here, in the phrasing of the question, are two subversive solutions which we have to hear.

The first is the adjective “good.” “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God.” Jesus offered a challenge, as he invariably did, to compare yourself to God. What is your standard of goodness? If it is less than God, then it is not enough. And that’s why Pharisees don’t make it, but tax collectors and dirty children do. Because they have no pretensions about their own ability to perform, but are filled instead with a sense of their need, and their joy in his presence. 

The second is the verb “inherit.” The point is, who inherits? You can’t make yourself worthy to inherit something, you have to be born to it. Or adopted into the family.

So the call to give up his great riches is -partially- a metaphor here. For the ruler, it means that nor only is his own “righteousness” not good enough, but neither are his resources. How can you learn to trust in God if you don’t really have to?

It’s like wanting to learn to swim but refusing to go out of the ten-inch-deep zone and refusing to let go of the massive dinghy strapped to your waist!

But don’t miss the admirable qualities of the ruler. In Matthew’s account, the writer notes Jesus’s affection for him. And the disciples too are impressed by this fine figure of a man. He’s rich, powerful and pious. What more could you ask for? And yet Jesus turns him down?

Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’ Peter said to him, ‘We have left all we had to follow you!’ ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God  will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’” (Luke 18: 18-30)

No doubt the “all” that Peter left to follow Jesus wasn’t as impressive as the ruler’s “all” but it is quality of intention and not quantity of possession that is the point. The widow’s mite was the more impressive because it was all she had.

And Jesus stood before the ruler as one who himself who given up everything for God. As the old song goes,”He laid aside his majesty, gave up everything for me.”

“He made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:7-11)

So what must I do to inherit eternal life?

– Nothing.Nothing at all. Stop trying to prove yourself worthy. There is none good but God. And he has done all that is necessary for you.

So what must I do to inherit eternal llife?

-Everything. Everything you have and depend on has to go. Be a child. Be His child and you inherit his everything. And “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God  will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’”


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