“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question was asked of Jesus one day. A man actually ran up to him to ask it, seemingly intent on receiving an answer. The story is found in three of the gospels (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30). From the three accounts, we not only learn that his man was determined to receive an answer to his question, but also that he was a young man, he was some kind of ruler, and he was rich.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked.
Do you see anything as being wrong with this question?
This was not the only time that this same question was asked of Jesus. He was asked the very same question at least one other time that we know of (Luke 10:25). Besides this, Jesus spoke often of eternal life.
But the premise of the question seems wrong to me. What seems wrong is this: An inheritance is not achieved by doing something, or that for which one works to obtain. An inheritance comes because of who you are, not because of what you do. An inheritance is received based on a promise, not on works.
This is a point that the early apostles especially were careful to teach. Perhaps the most succinct statement about this is what Paul wrote to the Galatian church, “If the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise” (3:18).
The point that he was making was that we cannot earn our salvation. It must be given to us by God as a matter of grace from him, and received by us in faith.
However, when the rich, young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus did not mention receiving this life by the grace of God, or anything concerning being born again. He did so at other times. For instance, when the man Nicodemus came to him, Jesus told him, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…whoever believes in [me] will have eternal life” (John 3:3,15)
With the rich young ruler, Jesus simply said, “If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
At first blush, this may seem like a contradiction with what Jesus had said to Nicodemus. It also does not seem to be the same as the teaching of the apostles. However, let’s continue with the conversation between the rich young ruler and Jesus.
Doing the Minimum
“Which commandments?” the young man asked. He may have been interested in working in order to obtain eternal life, but apparently, he did not want to do more than was necessary.
Jesus summarized them for the man. “You shall not commit murder; you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness, and honor your father and mother.”
Then the young man asked another question that is a bit interesting. “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?”
What is interesting about this question is this. If the man really did keep all of these commandments as he said he did, why did he still feel insecure about his salvation? Hearing this list from Jesus, why did he instead not congratulate himself on obtaining the eternal life that he was seeking?
He did not feel secure in this because in his heart, he knew that he was holding back. He knew that there was still something wrong.
“One thing you still lack,” Jesus continued, “Sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor.”
This was a step that the young man did not want to take. When he heard what Jesus said, he went away grieving. After all, he was a very wealthy man. He did not want to just give it all away.
“How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” Jesus went on to say. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Great Commandment
We will get to the camel going through the eye on the needle in a moment, but we first need to back up and look at a couple of things. First of all, when Jesus summarized the commandments for the man, we should notice that the summary was actually not a fair representation of the written commandments of God.
As a matter of fact, Jesus did not mention the most important of all of these commandments. On another occasion, when some Pharisees asked Jesus which of the commandments was the great commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38).
Why did he not mention this one to the rich, young ruler? Jesus only summarized the commandments having to do with our treatment to other people.
Measuring Our Love
Of course, any answer that I could give to this question would only be speculation on my part, but I will give you some ideas of what I think may be the reasons.
First of all, when we talk about our love for God, how are we to measure it? The first and great commandment is that we should love God with all of our hearts, soul and mind. Nevertheless, we do not have a good, objective way to measure this. It is not like checking our blood pressure. Neither do we have a dipstick into our souls that gives us the level of our love, as if we were checking the oil level in our cars.
If you were to ask me if I am keeping this commandment of loving God with all of my heart, I could tell you anything that I wanted, and you could not really dispute it. It is an internal matter that you cannot verify. That is, you cannot verify it by the means that I mentioned. However, there is a way.
Although you cannot take a numerical reading of some sort of my love for God, you can tell quite a lot about it by my actions. You can tell a lot about my love for God by the way that I treat other people.
That is why, when Jesus told the Pharisees about the greatest commandment, he continued with these words: “A second commandment is like it (speaking of the first one about loving God), ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:39-40).
Motivations for our Love
The young man who came to Jesus was doing all that he thought might be required of him, but his actions were mechanical. His motives for fulfilling the commandments were not based on love – not his love of God and not his love for others. His motive was doing what was necessary for his own eternal security, but no more than that.
Earlier I mentioned another person who had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. All that we know about this particular man was that he was a lawyer.
When Jesus asked this man about how he had been following the commandments, the man quoted back to Jesus the commandments about loving God, and the one of loving his neighbor, the same commandments Jesus himself had quoted on the other occasion that I mentioned. The lawyer’s answer was good, according to Jesus, but like the young ruler, this man also was looking to do only the minimum of what was required.
Wishing to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus went on to tell the lawyer the now well-known story of the Good Samaritan, illustrating for him that the motivation for doing good for someone else should not be out of self-interest or so that one can merely appear to be righteous. It should be done for the benefit of the other person, despite what may or may not come back to you in return.
In this story that Jesus told, of three people came upon a robbed and beaten man lying on the side of the road: a priest, a self-righteous Levite, and an ethnically unclean Samaritan. Of these three, only the Samaritan felt compassion on the man and helped him. This he did even at great personal expense.
“Which one of these proved to be a neighbor?” Jesus asked the lawyer.
“The one who showed mercy,” was the answer.
Mercy toward others was the test of neighborliness.
More Difficult for the Wealthy?
To return to the rich, young ruler, Jesus told him that despite having followed what the man saw as the letter of the law, he had missed the issue of the heart, or as we sometimes say, he missed the spirit of the law. To point this out to the young man, Jesus said to him, “One thing you still lack, sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor.”
When the man seemingly refused to do this, Jesus went on to say, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”
In saying these things, Jesus was not expressing that it is evil to have a lot of money. Let’s read carefully the passage from the Gospel of Mark, for here it makes it a bit clearer how Jesus expressed this.
Looking at [the young man], Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.
And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:21-25 NAS)
When speaking of entering the kingdom of God, Jesus did not mean that the difficulty was only for those who are rich. It is for everyone. The difficulty perhaps is enhanced for those who are rich, because people who have a lot of wealth are accustomed to simply buying anything that they want. They do not have the monetary restrictions and limitations that many of us have.
But entrance into the kingdom of God cannot be purchased – not at any price. For a man who is not used to being restricted in getting what he wants, this may be difficult to accept.
An additional difficulty for the wealthy is that in this life, it is easy to depend upon that wealth to fix any broken situation. In many ways for the wealthy man, money can become his savior. When the young man was confronted with the call to simply give all of his money away, it was something that he could not bear to consider. It would be throwing away his very security in living.
The Camel and the Needle
In some ways, becoming part of the kingdom of God may be more difficult for the rich, but truly, it is difficult for us all. Not only is it difficult, it is impossible.
Hearing what Jesus said about the camel and the eye of the needle, the disciples were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?”
Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:26-27 NAS)
This is the statement where the analogy of a camel going through the eye of a needle comes in. Not only is this a difficult thing to do, it is an impossibility. No matter what we do, we could never get a camel to pass through such a tiny opening. Difficulty is what we might say we have in getting the thread to go through that opening in the head of the needle. Impossibility is what we have with a camel.
Perhaps you have heard the interpretation that in those days there was a very small gate in the wall of Jerusalem called “the eye of a needle” that would allow passage of a camel only if it stooped low and had all of its baggage removed. This was to allow those who came to the city after the main gate was closed to be able to enter the city, while at the same time restrict an invasion.
It is said that in using this example, Jesus was saying that a man could get into the kingdom of God if he humbled himself and divested himself of all his worldly riches.
I do not agree with this idea. First of all, there is nothing that would tell us that such a gate actually existed in the wall of Jerusalem, and secondly, even though Jesus did use the word “difficult,” he was speaking of an impossibility for men and women to enter the kingdom of God by their own means. I believe this phrase concerning the eye of a needle was an aphorism of the day that spoke of an unthinkable thought, or an impossibility; much as we would say, “It will be a cold day in hell before I do that!”
At least that is how the disciples understood Jesus. When the disciples heard Jesus use this phrase about the eye of a needle, they were astonished. “Then who can be saved?” they asked.
This is when Jesus answered, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
In the months to follow, the disciples would see time and again as they walked with the Son of God, how he did the impossible. Most of the people who came to Jesus were merely attracted to him because he did wonderful things, marvelous things. But the disciples learned not to be attracted to Jesus because of marvelous things. They instead learned to follow Jesus because he did impossible things.
Jesus could make life arise from death. This the disciples came to believe.
Some time later, when the thousands of people who had been enthralled by Jesus began to abandon him because of difficult times, Jesus asked the twelve if they also were going to leave. It was the apostle Peter who gave the classic answer:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.”
Peter had come to understand and believe that Jesus could do the impossible. He is Lord of the impossible.