"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Homily for the twenty-eighth Sunday of Year B. Wis 7:7-11; Ps 89; Heb 4:12-13; Mk 10:17-30

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The very fact that the rich man in today's Gospel asks this question highlights an important contrast with the kinds of questions people generally ask in today's world. While people ask many kinds of questions about improving life and society here and now, surprisingly few people seem to show much interest in asking questions about salvation, about eternity. Yet if we want to be happy forever, the rich man's question is something that we also should be asking, "What must we do to inherit eternal life?" In today's brief homily, I want to consider Jesus' answer.

Jesus' answer is given in two main parts. After a brief opening question in which Jesus invites the man to reflect more deeply on why he has described Jesus as 'good', the first part of Jesus' answer is about the commandments. In particular, he lists the fourth to the eighth commandments of the Decalogue, which are principally about actions towards other human beings: you must not kill; you must not commit adultery; honour your father and mother and so on. Now commentators have debated why Jesus chooses these particular commandments and even adds a commandment for the benefit of this particular man, namely, "You must not defraud." Nevertheless, the central lesson is clear: our actions towards others have a bearing on inheriting eternal life.

Now one reason why this first part of Jesus' answer is important is because of a certain confusion among Christians today, especially since the time of the Reformation. As you may know, one of the arguments of Martin Luther, who begin the Reformation in the sixteenth century, was that we are saved by 'faith alone'. And one of the accusations that Luther made against the Church of his time is the following: while the Bible teaches that we were saved by faith alone, the Church teaches that we are saved by our good works, by earning our salvation. Now this accusation is mistaken for two reasons. First, while the Bible does teach that we are saved by faith, the phrase 'faith alone' appears only once in Scripture. Ironically, this one occasion is where Luther's doctrine is refuted. James 2:24 states clearly, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." So Scripture does teach that what we do, given the particular context of our lives, is important for salvation. Second, what Luther said about the Church is also incorrect: the Church has always rejected the notion that we earn our salvation by good works. Indeed, the early Church condemned the belief that we can earn our salvation as a heresy called Pelagianism. What the Church has always taught, however, based not least on today's Gospel, is that we can lose our salvation by our evil works, including our acts of omission. In other words, our faith must be fruitful, and not like the dead branch of a tree.

So while faith is primary for salvation, what we do is important for inheriting eternal life. Hence keeping the commandments is important because these commandments define certain actions that are incompatible with the love of God. Now, however, we come to the second and more difficult part of Jesus' answer to this man. When pressed to go further, Jesus tells him that there is one thing he lacks, "Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." And the man cannot do what Jesus asks: Scripture says he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Now Jesus' message to this man is found in many other forms elsewhere in the Gospels, such as the parable of the pearl of great price, or the treasure buried in a field. In such parables, the person gives up everything to gain this priceless treasure. But how do we apply this message to our own lives? Is Jesus giving us a literal, universal rule of conduct, or is there some deeper principle that varies in its application from person to person? Well, it should be noted that at least some Christians have been called to do literally what Jesus asks. Most famously, St Anthony in the fourth century left everything and went to live in the desert after hearing this Gospel, initiating Western monasticism. Yet there have been many other Christians, including even monarchs, who have not literally left everything, and yet have become great saints. So how, then, is this Scripture to be interpreted?

I think that the key to interpretation of this message is to found in today's First Reading, in which divine wisdom, not earthly wisdom, is described in the passionate language of a lover, "I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me. I esteemed her more than sceptres and thrones; compared with her, I held riches as nothing ... I loved her more than health or beauty, preferred her to the light, since her radiance never sleeps." Notice that the writer does not hold that riches or health or beauty are nothing in themselves, but that they are nothing in comparison to divine wisdom. The writer has, in other words, made his choice about what is most important to him, about what will be the true object of his love. And I think that the question of love is at the heart of today's Gospel as well. The question that God puts to this rich man, and the question, indeed, that he puts to every human being is this: what do you really want? What do you most love? What really penetrates to the heart, the two-edged sword mentioned in the Second Reading, is when circumstances frame this question in the following form: what do you most love and what else are you prepared to lose for the sake of what you most love?

The answer that Jesus Christ gives is shown on the cross. The answer that each one of us will give will be shown by the final outcome of grace in our lives. And God, my dear brothers and sisters, is infinitely courteous, for although he desires us all to be with him in heaven, he will respect our answer.

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