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.