Summary: Wealth holds us back from inheriting eternal life: but wealth is anything earthyl that we hold onto as valuable in opposition to things heavenly. We must melt down these idols and consecrate the gold to the temple.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 17:17). There are two alternates to eternal life: eternal death and temporal life. Neither is appealing.
Eternal life is worth struggling for. The rich young man asked the Lord what must he do. He understood that attainment of heaven was not automatic. Eternal life doesn’t just happen, unless raising children just happen. The realization of excellence only comes through work (hard work), and effort (copious effort). Take the piano: I can strike C, F, G7, back to C; but I can’t do so in a way that would be acceptable for anyone with expectations higher than a five-year-old. Our friend Maryann is a far better pianist than I ever have been and ever will be. But she plays regularly; she practices what he will play on Sunday. Shee struggles with the music so that, when the time comes, we don’t. This struggle is worth it. Oh, the joy of being brought into the Lord’s presence by those who are already there.
Eternal life is an inheritance, not a payment. The rich young man understood that, despite acquiring great wealth, he had not secured eternal treasures. The rewards of earthly riches did not confer heavenly status. There is no exchange rate between earth and heaven. Temporal goods cannot be traded in for everlasting graces. Isn’t that straightforward? Heaven is not for sale. If Bill Gates brought all he had and laid it before the pearly gates, he could no more purchase one minute in heaven than I could pay my mortgage in Monopoly money. There is simply no amount that is big enough.
Eternal life is not achieved by temporal good. The man understood that good deeds that we do on earth don’t procure heavenly good. If we live a good life, giving to the poor, taking care of widows and orphans, visiting those who are sick, doing many good things, none these acquire even the smallest corner in a heavenly mansion. The reward we seek cannot be purchased by wealth or by works.
Jesus responded to the man with a list from the commandments; these are those things that must do to inherit eternal life. Why? Why would our Lord tell the man that the ticket to heaven is to keep commandments? Well, what are the Ten Commandments? They are the distilled version of the entire Law. And the Law is means by which God’s people behave like His sons and daughters. The Law makes God known. Through the Law, Jesus Christ is revealed. By living the Law, His life is witnessed.
The man responded to Jesus, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy” (Mk. 10:20). The man’s heart yearned, even fainted for the courts of the Lord; his heart and flesh cried out for the living God (cf. Ps. 84:2). Shall we judge the man for his presumption? On what grounds, when our Lord did not, but rather, “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mk. 10:21). Innocence walks hand-in-hand with sincerity. The man, at the very least, was pure and righteous in striving after the Law.
“One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mk. 10:21). Jesus was willing to grant the man, up to this point, that he had done well. The man had struggled for eternal life. He understood that wealth would not secure eternal life. And his response to Jesus hints that he even understood that his functional adherence to the Law was not entirely sufficient.
“One thing you lack.” St. Paul, I believe, had the Lord’s words in heart when writing to the Corinthians where he encourages them to desire more gifts for the good of the body. “But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). “One thing you lack,” Jesus said; “I will show you the most excellent way.”
The rich man outwardly kept the Law, but he was deprived of the fullness of grace that our Lord brought. So Jesus showed him the one thing he lacked, the most excellent way, the best and highest use of his efforts. Riches were stifling his journey. Based on the whole scene, wealth had not caused him to sin…yet; there were no unrighteous acts that he had committed to acquire or protect his wealth. We might call these sins of commission—sins where the wrong is in the act itself. Some examples are swearing, stealing, and speeding, where the doing of the deed signifies the sin.
But there are also sins of omission, things left undone that we ought to have done. Things like failing to congratulate a coworker or friend out of envy that I didn’t get what they did (and I deserved it!), ignoring the hungry homeless man on the corner, and neglecting to give to the needy out of the abundance that I have received. There is no positive act to point to in these cases, and there are a million “explanations” why to omit the act. I didn’t congratulate the coworker because he’d think I was insincere (well, would I have been?). I didn’t give the homeless man a dollar because he’d just use it to buy liquor (am I now a prophet and a judge?). I didn’t give to the needy because I had bills to pay or needed to save for my retirement (what of the widow’s bills?).