Saturday, July 24, 2010

What must I do? An interesting look at the biggest question of all.

For most Christians I've met (and for most people, probably) the crucial question of their life is, "Will I go to heaven?" This is perfectly natural and I'd expect nothing less. If the stakes at hand are trillions of years of bliss vs. trillions of years of torment, you'd better believe that a lot of energy will be expended to make sure we're on the right side of the equation.

Jesus met a rich young man burning up with this question -- what must I do to inherit eternal life? The ensuing discussion is recorded in all the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), although there are a few differences across the three accounts.

What fascintates me, though, is that Jesus is asked the big question two times, and neither time does he answer with anything resembling how a 21st Century Christian would answer. In fact, he doesn't answer the question at all! He ignores it and instead answers something else entirely. Here, bear with me as I go through it in three parts:

Part 1 -- The First Question

The rich young ruler chased Jesus down, fell on his knees before the rabbi and asked the big question, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" Doesn't get any plainer than that. He's desperate for clarity on how to secure a spot in heaven.

And Jesus' answer couldn't be any muddier. After a sidenote of mentioning that only God is good, he says that if you want to "enter life", then obey the commandments. In the Greek text this is very clearly a rephrasing of the young man's question. Jesus was asked about eternal life, but answered about life in general, completely omitting the mention of heaven. Why would he do that?

The muddiness continues. Jesus tells the man to obey the commandments, and the young man predictably asked which ones. By this time the Pharisees had laid out over 600 commandments based on Mosaic law, split about half and half between "do this" and "don't do this" types of instructions. The rich young ruler knew these very well -- Luke's gospel hints that he was probably a ruler of a synagogue.

This time is Jesus' answer any more predictable? Not really! On the point of which commandments the young man should follow, Jesus gives him some of the Ten Commandments. But the order is all jumbled up and then he throws in a wildcard:

"Do not commit adultery" -- number 6
"Do not murder" -- number 7
"Do not steal" -- number 8
"Do not give false testimony" -- number 9
"Honor your father and mother" -- number 5
"Love your neighbor as yourself" -- not in Moses' commandments, but was called The Greatest Command throughout Jesus' ministry

Notice a pattern in that list? It only includes instructions about our relationships with other people. In other words, the "horizontal" aspect of our faith. The "vertical" aspect, how we respect, worship or speak to God, isn't mentioned.

Jesus also skipped Commandment #10 -- "Do not covet". At this point I have to wonder if it was just to mess with the young man's mind!

Part 2 -- The question repeated

Not to be outmanuevered, the young man tries again, saying he has kept those commandments but he must be lacking something else. Just like all of us, he simultaneously shows great pride ("all these commandments I have kept since my youth") and great insecurity ("what else do I lack?"). We wouldn't be human if we didn't have both. And it is at this point in the story, but only recorded in the gospel of Mark, where my favorite thing happens. Mark says that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him.

And from this place of love, Jesus planned his answer to the simple and heartfelt question -- "what must I do to be saved?".

But again, Jesus didn't quite answer it. Instead, in Matthew's account, he quotes Jesus as, "if you want to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." . The young man walked away crushed, knowing the summit was too high.

But should he have been crushed? Jesus later explains to his disciples that there will be some sort of reward system in heaven, and those who sacrifice much will inherit 100X more than the rest. So was he telling the young man how to get the 100X reward? Or does it really require perfection just to get in the front gate?

Part 3 -- So what's the answer?

In my lifetime I've probably read 30 commentaries on this passage. Most of them say that the moral of the story is along these lines:

-- If you value money over God you won't go to heaven
-- God requires more righteousness than we can imagine, if we are to be saved
-- Only the human part of Jesus loved the young man; the divine nature in Jesus was ready to condem him at his death (this shows up in a surprising number of commentaries)

I don't believe any of those. And I don't see how any of us can draw a conclusion about salvation from the story at all, since Jesus purposely rephrased the big question.

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"... to have a good earthly life, treat people well and love them.

"What am I lacking for salvation?"... well, if you want to be perfect...

So if you're still reading this lengthy post, I have two questions for you:

1) What do you think is the answer to what we must do to go to heaven?
2) Look at your answer for #1. Why didn't Jesus say this to the rich young man?

Note: I initially overstated Jesus' rephrasing of the young man's second question, and have since fixed it.


Bob said...

I'm not touching your questions but I'm so glad you're writing here again. So is THIS a sermon topic?! :-)

Logan said...

Awesome post...very thought provoking! I'll give some thought to those questions. Great to see you back!

Redlefty said...

Bob, ha! Nope, this isn't the sermon topic either. I promise I'll include it somewhere in the next five posts. :)

And I'm truly not trying to bait anyone with those closing questions. I don't have answers and am interested in what people think.

Jesus did give more explanation of that exchange with the rich young ruler, but it was for the benefit of his disciples (and us), not the young man whom had already left. I still wonder what became of that wealthy young Jew who seemed to have a very good heart.

And I have to remember that Jesus is the one who would leave the 99 safe sheep to relentlessly pursue the one in danger. So I trust he and the young man will work it out. Eventually.

Bob Barbanes said...

Michael, I think this is the problem with those who look to the Bible for specifics. It probably was never intended to be a detailed instruction book on How To Get To Heaven in 10 Easy Steps.

The Bible we Catholics use has two astonishing admonitions in the Preface: First, it instructs us to NOT take the Bible literally, for it was not dictated by God as a boss dictates a letter to his secretary. Secondly, and it allows for the possibility that the quotes usually attributed to Christ may not have been said by Him!

This makes our journey to "Heaven" incredibly complicated, because the instructions on how to get there are unclear.

If we assume that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the O.T., then I believe we merely need to emulate Christ, who happens to be our best example of what we're looking for. Nevermind what Christ may (or may not!) have said, specifically, but put more emphasis on who He was and how He lived his life.

I don't think we can do better than that.

Oh, and by the way, it's great to have you back. I've missed your writing.

Don said...

Nice exposition of the subject. I, too, was impressed by Jesus' rephrasing of the questions. Dr. Beck's explanation of the horizontal vs vertical obligations certainly played into my understanding here.
I guess my main problem with using the quotes from the various gospels and translations is that I am having much trouble separating what Jesus actually said and what is voice of the writer/s (and I guess indirectly, the voice of the community to which the various gospels were written. It is a tough "read". But, then again, if it was easy, what have we gained by studying, researching, etc;

Don said...

I'm really glad you included the quotes from the Catholic version of the Bible.

The Bible we Catholics use has two astonishing admonitions in the Preface: First, it instructs us to NOT take the Bible literally, for it was not dictated by God as a boss dictates a letter to his secretary. Secondly, and it allows for the possibility that the quotes usually attributed to Christ may not have been said by Him!

I really like those! Wish they had been in MY copy...It would have saved me a lot of time. I could have started my journey MUCH sooner! Thank You...

Don said...

I'm really glad you included the quotes from the Catholic version of the Bible.

The Bible we Catholics use has two astonishing admonitions in the Preface: First, it instructs us to NOT take the Bible literally, for it was not dictated by God as a boss dictates a letter to his secretary. Secondly, and it allows for the possibility that the quotes usually attributed to Christ may not have been said by Him!

I really like those! Wish they had been in MY copy...It would have saved me a lot of time. I could have started my journey MUCH sooner! Thank You...

Don said...

OOPS! Sorry for the repeat!

Bob Barbanes said...

Thank you for the kind words, Don. (And btw, I usually say things twice when I want to emphasize a point.)

I had never read all the "stuff" in the beginning of our Bible (NAB). And frankly, some of it is disturbing, especially if you're inclined to take the book literally.

I was speaking on the phone to my mom, who is a very devout Catholic and not too shabby when it comes to Scripture. I mentioned to her the part about how the Church specifically tells us not taking the Bible literally, and she scoffed at the idea. And then she quoted me some Scripture which contradicted my point. And I went, "Uhh, but...ahh, nevermind."

There are those for whom the Bible is their very detailed instruction manual...the one that they and indeed, ALL OF US must live by if we want to "get to heaven." They will not be swayed, and it seems that their faith is somehow hinged upon or otherwise connected to the Bible.

I pooh-pooh that idea and attitude (yes, pooh-pooh!). I say: Follow the Leader. That being Christ. Live by the example he set. I try very hard to do that, and I absolutely do not fear my eventual meet-up with Him. I know that one day He's going to call and say, "Bob, let's do lunch!" I just hope it's tomorrow. Which is what I say every day.

Sorry to hijack your thread, Michael!

Redlefty said...

Not at all!

Although I can't help but notice none of you have answered the questions from the post...

Ha! :)

Bob/Don, I hear what you're saying but you also both realize that biblical inerrancy is basically a "dealbreaker" doctrine for many, if not most, Christians. What I mean by that is that if you don't believe in biblical inerrancy (even in English translations) then you aren't a Christian. I hear that quite a bit at my church.

My responses make me a big hit at potlucks!

Tit for Tat said...

Maybe he meant this.

Luke 17:21 (English Standard Version)

nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you."

Sireeta said...

Man another great one! I would answer for number one that Jesus gave us the answer already. We always think that it should look a certain way or sound a certain way. If it doesn't look or sound how WE want it to, we walk away and don't even let it sink in.

Why didn't He say this to Him? Hmmm maybe like you said in one of your responses Redlefty, He has worked it out with Him, like He's always working our salvation out with us each and everyday. @TitforTat, I like your response :)
@Bob and Don, in addition to my school work I'll be reading the Catholic Bible and the books that are in it that have been left out of the other versions of the Bible. Good thing I'm a bookworm! :)

Debby said...

I actually am uncomfortable answering the questions. I don't know what God wants from me. I hear it differently from so many people. I figure to muddle along doing my best and hopefully, my life will be an Honor to him.

Steve H. said...


First I want to say "Bravo"! I thought this was brilliant!

Second, I think most people get the answer wrong because they ask the wrong question. The reason I believe Jesus seemed muddy is that the wrong question was being asked. For Jesus, it wasn't "how" to get eternal life but "what" was eternal life.

In John 17 Jesus prays to the Father and says that eternal life is his to give as a gift and that "this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent".

Personally, this is not an answer most can understand nor receive. People want to know they have somehow earned or acheived it...and we can't. That it is a gift to be given by begs the next question, "Who receives it?"

Redlefty said...

You guys are all so very insightful (yes, even you, humble Debby).

Where were you in my bible class this week when I tried this lesson and got a lot of blank stares for an hour?!? :)

Don said...

Yes, Michael, I do understand what you're saying about "inerrancy" and your denomination. However, one of my favorite responses to the inerrancy issue is: "we believe it is inerrant in the original autographs".

REALLY! Where are those autographs? Where are the second and infinitum...copies?

Makes for an interesting discussion I'm sure.

MamaRose said...

YEA, you're back to posting!!!!!!!!

Without reading ALL of your other comments, I would FIRST say that:
'To be SAVED/go to Heaven', we must OBEY & WANT to OBEY God--in everything & also SUBMIT to Him, which is sort of the same thing!!!!

And, then, Yes, the 2nd command is to 'LOVE your neighbor/everyone AS YOURSELF'--that's assuming you LOVE yourself, which some folks--even Christians, don't--makes THAT 'muddier', as you say, huh??!!

SIMPLE, BUT NOT EASY--as I see/read it--we NEED HIS HELP, HIS GRACE, HIS LOVE, HIS STRENGTH, HIS MERCY & JESUS'S SACRIFICE to 'get there', I also believe!!!!!!!!!!!!

BUT, ALL we have to 'do' to GET ALL THOSE & MORE IS JUST ASK!!!!!!!

It's GOD'S GIFT TO GIVE--and, HE knows ALL OUR HEARTS--HOW WE REALLY FEEL--BUT, I also believe that we can be/FEEL SECURE in our SALVATION--unlike some others--which makes it MUCH EASIER to actually LIVE FOR HIM, EVERY DAY!!

SIMPLE--any one can 'do' it--but, not EASY, like I said before--just like God/Jesus WANTED IT!!!!!!!!!!

I'll keep thinking about this & let you know IF I think of something else. OH, also--even though this 'story' is written about in THE Bible 3 times, it COULD BE that Jesus was answering 'just' to the young man--HOW HE would understand it & it's NOT something really 'to' us, today--what do you think about that?!!!!!!!!!!!!! We can ALWAYS LEARN SOMETHING FROM IT, though!!!!

LOVE YOU BUNCHES!!!!!!!!!!!!! Mom

Anonymous said...

Hi I am from Australia.

Yes the understanding of the meaning and significance of death is the only Real Question---everything else hinges on our understanding or mis-understanding of this over-whelming existential fact.

Please check out a unique Illuminated Understanding of the meaning and significance of death via these 4 references.

Eusebius said...

You must remember that this is not the only context in which Jesus dealt with this subject. In Matthew 22:36-40 the evangelist records the disciples asking "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." In this, Jesus was, typically, quoting scripture, and quoting it accurately (see Deut 6.5). It is characteristic of the modern world to place heavy emphasis on the second commandment, and to underplay the first. But when one thinks about it, its clear and obvious - the Apostles chose to follow Jesus not through the recognition that he represented the perfection of the Law - although he did - and not because of his teachings - although he had them. They followed Jesus because they loved him, and love of one's fellow men is based not on a system of teaching and morals, but on the recognition that other men are created in God's image as much as we are, and that if we have a claim on God's love and consideration, so, equally do they. What is needed to help us to God and eternal life (virtually synonymous in the Gospel of John), both now, and eternally, is love, first of God, and then of our neighbour. It is not a co-incidence that in the Gospel of St Luke, a variant account immediately precedes the Parabl of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37). We are told in St Mark's account that Jesus lamented the departure of the young man because he looked on him, and loved him (Mk.10.21). We are not told that the Young Man loved Jesus - we are told that he loved the Law.