As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Mark 10:17

A man ran up to Jesus, knelt before him, and asked him an urgent question. We’ve read and heard this kind of thing before, haven’t we? We might wonder, without reading any further, what is wrong with this man? What does he need from Jesus? Is he sick? Blind? Deaf? Possessed by a demon? Or does he have a family member who is sick? Perhaps a son or daughter? What does he need so urgently? 

But the man in question isn’t sick. Nor is his family. The only “problem” that he has is a deep, abiding concern about what will happen to him when he dies. He is desperate, and he kneels before Jesus to ask him what he must do to inherit eternal life. As we come to find out, this man has lived a good life. He is a religious man who has kept all of the commandments since his youth. And he has been blessed with many possessions. But he’s not content. Because he knows that all the possessions in the world won’t keep him from death. So he interrupts Jesus on his journey seeking an answer to this question that is gnawing at him. What must he do to inherit eternal life?

Jeff Bezos and the Quest for Never-ending Life

This story makes me think of an interesting article on the internet that I came across recently, with this catchy title: “Jeff Bezos is hoping piles of money can buy never-ending life.” (You can find it here.) Jeff Bezos, of course, is the founder of Amazon, and one of the world’s richest people. He has more money than he will ever be able to spend. He has everything in this world that money can buy. He has even flown to space. But Jeff Bezos also knows what we all know: that he is eventually going to die. So, he is investing in a secret startup company that is researching  anti-aging technologies. 

According to this article, other famous billionaires are doing the same thing – investing in anti-aging research. The article says that “the fascination with anti-aging is an interesting one, perhaps because death is one of the few things that money hasn’t been able to overcome — at least, not yet.” How optimistic! To think that there might come a day when death can be overcome by money! 

Money can buy many things, but it cannot buy never-ending  life. Not yet. And I daresay, not ever. Eternal life remains out of reach for everyone, no matter how much money they might have. If Jeff Bezos can’t buy it, then neither can we, or anyone else. 

When it comes right down to it, death really is the great equalizer. We are all the same. We are all mortal. None of us will live forever. Not without Jesus. And so, everyone should be able to relate to the man in today’s gospel reading, who has many possessions, but knows that they will not lead to eternal life. 

A Rich Man in Need of Healing

You have probably read or heard this particular story in today’s gospel reading many times. So have I. But this story took on new meaning for me when I began to see it as a healing story. The setting, when you think about it, is very much like a healing story. There is a man running up to Jesus, kneeling before him, and asking him an urgent question. We have seen this happen many times before in the gospels, but always with someone in need of healing, for themselves or for a loved one. This time is different. Or is it? 

Maybe this man needs to be healed, too. Healed, in his case, of his tight grip on his many possessions. Jesus seems to see right through to this man’s soul, and makes just one request of this man. He looks at him with love – an important detail – and says to him: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man was shocked. And he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” 

The one thing that he needed to follow Jesus, and to be assured of inheriting eternal life, was the one thing that he could not bring himself to do: sell his many possessions. His possessions themselves, though, were not really the problem. It was this man’s tight grip on those possessions.

How to Catch a Monkey

It reminds me of the old story of how to catch a monkey. Not something that I have personally ever wanted to do, but it still strikes me as a very clever way to catch one. You start with a jar, or something that a monkey can just get his hand into when his fingers are opened. Then you put something into the jar that the monkey wants – some fruit, for example. Then you put the jar where the monkey is likely to find it. The monkey will reach his hand into the jar to get the fruit. He will close his fist around it. But of course, when he closes his fist, especially if it’s got something inside it, he can’t get it out of the jar. The monkey doesn’t want to let the fruit go, but unless he does, he won’t be able to get his hand out. And he is stubborn enough about it that he will risk capture rather than let go of that fruit.

The rich man in today’s gospel reading is much like the monkey – he can’t let go of his many possessions. He has the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to become a follower of Jesus; and to be assured of eternal life. It’s exactly what he wants. He wants what Jesus offers. He asks Jesus how to get it. And Jesus tells him exactly how. Only, it’s just not what he wanted to hear. He doesn’t want to open his hand, and let go of the fruit: let go of his many possessions. 

Think about what a gift this man is given. Jesus tells him exactly what to do with his life. How many times have we wanted that same thing? To be told by Jesus exactly what he wants us to do? We look for signs, we pray for direction, we wonder what we’re supposed to do in all manner of situations. So many times, we would love for Jesus simply to come, and tell us exactly what he wants us to do. 

In this case, the rich man is told exactly what to do. But there’s a problem: It’s not what he wants to hear. He is told to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. Now he knows exactly what to do – to become a follower of Jesus, and to inherit eternal life. But he doesn’t want to do it. Sell all his possessions? He has so much! How can he do that? How can he let go of all that he has? He is shocked. And he turns and walks away, grieving. And misses the opportunity of a lifetime.

What Is Our One Thing?

Now, as I said, we have probably all read or heard this familiar story. And when we have, we might have wondered whether we are supposed to do the same, sell all our possessions in order to become a follower of Jesus. The answer, I think, is no. Not for most of us. Probably not for any of us. Very few people are called to do that. Not even all the disciples were called to do that. We know, for example, that Peter still had his house after he began following Jesus, and still had his fishing boat. He didn’t sell them and give the money to the poor. Not even all the disciples were asked to sell everything they had. And so, certainly we are not all called to do that.

But think about the monkey again and the jar. I suspect that we all have something that could be put in that jar, or that is already in that jar, that we might struggle to let go of. We all have something that is keeping us from giving ourselves fully to God; from completely trusting Jesus. 

Jesus looked at the rich man with love and said to him, “You lack one thing.” If he were to look at you today, with love, and say the same thing, what would that one thing be? You lack one thing. What is that one thing? That thing you are holding onto too tightly to give yourself fully to Jesus? What is in your jar? What are you tempted to keep your grip on, to cling to, that you might need to let go of, to more faithfully follow Jesus? 

That, to me, is what this story is inviting us to think about today. And it may not have anything to do with your possessions. It may be something else entirely for you. Something that is keeping you from being all that Jesus wants you to be. But here’s the thing about it. It’s not something you have to do. It’s not something you have to add to your busy life. You just have to let it go. Loosen your hold on it a little. If it has become a burden, let it go. Trust Jesus. That is all he is asking. 

Who Then Can Be Saved?

The rich man with the many possessions couldn’t do it. He went away grieving. Jesus then looked at his disciples, and said: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” The biggest animal they could imagine, in other words, trying to go through the smallest entrance they could imagine. Impossible.

They were “greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’” Who can be saved? And that’s the right question, isn’t it? Because it turns us to the Savior. Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Who can be saved? Without Jesus, no one. With Jesus, everyone. The kingdom of God cannot be purchased. No matter how much money we have. But it can be entered. By everyone. All we have to do is take Jesus’ hand. And let him lead us. 

And that is why, I think, Jesus invites us to let go of that one thing that we are keeping a tight grip on. Simply so that we can take the hand of Jesus, and be led into the kingdom of God. It’s what Jesus wants for us all. He wants to heal us. He wants to save us.  From death, from evil, and from whatever it is that might be keeping us from opening our hearts fully to his love. 

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Take the hand of our Savior. And follow him. It is an invitation that Jesus makes to us all, with love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

4 thoughts on “How to Inherit Eternal Life: My Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

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