Summary: The rich young ruler’s question was off-base. It assumes that we can do one overriding deed to win God over; it is possessive; and it is self-centered.

I am not very good at giving gifts. I just have a hard time, when Christmas and birthdays and anniversaries roll around, a hard time giving the right gifts. It’s not that the folks I want to give to are picky or unworthy; it’s just that I can’t seem to figure out what they want and get it.

For more Christmases than I care to count, I have messed around and procrastinated until those last hectic days before the packages were to be opened. The space under the tree would be filling up rapidly, and my name would be on a lot of things down there, but I would be painfully conscious that for the love of my life I had as yet bought exactly nothing: nothing, nada, zilch. And so, in desperation, on the 23rd of December, or, I shudder to confess it, even after Christmas Eve services here, I would run to the store, grab something, wrap it up, put it under the tree, and hold my breath, hoping against hope that it was acceptable. Sometimes she would be polite and say that it was fine (although I noticed it went back to the store a week later); and sometimes she would come right out and tell me, “Not a good idea.” Frankly, do you see anything wrong with a set of snow tires for Christmas? As the shrinks will say, “Who knows what women want?” These were all-weather steel radials, too!

I just don’t seem to have the knack of giving gifts. So this past Christmas it seemed as though heaven had smiled on me when my wife said, “I think we should do something different this year. We both agree that there is nothing we really need. So let’s just pick up a few little things and not give each other anything big this time.” Sounded good to me. My gift-giving problem was solved.

Except that I saw this necklace. And I knew it was right, just exactly right. I knew it was the right length, the right style, the right everything. Silver. It was more than a dollar or two. It wasn’t a little stocking stuffer. It was a real gift. The kind I would have died to have thought of in previous years. But this year we had an agreement: no big gifts.

I thought about it a couple of days, and made a decision: I don’t care about the agreement. I don’t care about the plan. I don’t even care that she isn’t going to give me anything. I just want her to have this. And I fairly raced to the store and bought that necklace.

When Christmas Day came, and she saw it, there were three comments: one, “Oh, it’s beautiful, I love it.”; two, “What about our agreement? I didn’t get you anything’; and three, “Oh, it’s beautiful, I really love it.”

The thing that makes a gift a real gift is that we don’t have to earn it, we don’t have to deserve it, we can’t bargain for it, and all we need to do is to receive it. Just receive it. Somewhere down inside we think we should earn it or pay for it or give something in exchange for it. But no, a gift is a gift is a gift.

A young man came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” That’s an ultimate question. An ultimate question points beyond the here and now and looks toward the future. It points toward something that is all-important. It recognizes that there is a whole lot more beyond this day, this meal, this good time. It’s an ultimate question.

But it’s off the mark. This question is off the mark. It has built into it some very wrong-headed assumptions. “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus must have felt like I do sometimes; would you please let me answer the question I wish you had asked?

“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” What’s wrong with this ultimate question?


First, it assumes that there is one over-riding, overwhelming, good thing you and I can do in order to convince God to let us into His kingdom. It assumes that no matter what else we have done, no matter how many mistakes we have made, no matter how much madness we have indulged in, we can fix it. “What good deed must I do?” What is the one biggie I can do that will erase all the blunders of the past? What is the one silver necklace I can give that will make her forget about thirty botched-up Christmases?

The problem is that the young man and you and I have never really understood what keeps us out of the Kingdom in the first place. He had not really grasped what it is that separated him from God. The thing that separates us is sin and not sins. It is sin, not just sins.

Now follow me carefully here. The thing that separates us from God and keeps us out of the Kingdom is sin, and not just sins. What is the distinction? Sin is an attitude, sin is a bent of the heart, sin is a posture of life. It is not just wrong things, it is not just a list of no-nos. It is much more serious than that. Sin is that spirit, deep down in the soul of every one of us, that says, “I’m here for me. I’m looking out for Number One. I’m taking command of things.” Sin is that rebellious core that defies God and wants to be in charge. And that’s a whole lot deeper than sins. That’s a whole lot harder to get rid of.

Let me try a picture for you. When we first moved to our home in Silver Spring, we not only took out a bank mortgage, but we also signed a second mortgage with the previous owner. That meant that both he and the bank had liens on our house, and had the right to get hold of it if we didn’t pay up. Well, after five years, I had paid him all he was due, and asked him to sign a release of that lien. He didn’t do it. I wrote him, I called him, I got promises. But he wouldn’t sign off. I didn’t think too much about it until we started to borrow some more money as a home equity loan. Then I found out that my house was not my house, free and clear. Somebody else still had a claim on my house, as far as the court was concerned, even though I had paid my debt. Somebody else still had a claim on my house, and I had to chase him all the way to his office to get him to sign off on it and free me.

“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” That assumes that all I have to do is one whopper of good deeds to balance off the bad deeds, and I am home free. But the problem is not the sins, the debt, I have accumulated. The problem is the sin I have agreed to, the sin which clings so closely, the sin which has a claim on me and will not let me go. You and I are caught in the grip of something a whole lot larger than our list of rights and wrongs. No amount of good deeds, no number of wonderful actions, no quantity of nice things, can ever break the hold that sin has on us. The young man was wrong when he asked, “What good deed must I do?” He was thinking of sins, actions, when he should have dealt with sin, the heart.


But it gets worse. It gets far worse. This ultimate question just keeps going wrong. Not only “what good deed must I do?” but “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The scholars who know the language tell us that the verb “have” really should be translated, “get”, “grasp”, “possess”. What must I do to get hold of eternal life and keep it for myself? What can I do to sign up for a one-way ticket to heaven? What can I do to guarantee a reservation in a nice mansion in the sky, with a free parking place on the golden streets, not too close to the pearly gates, and soundproofed against the loud Hallelujahs of the four-and-twenty elders? “What must I do to get, have, grasp, and possess eternal life?”

The trouble is, we just don’t get it about gifts. You don’t earn gifts. They aren’t gifts if you earn them. The thing that was so right about that Christmas necklace is that it was unexpected. I just gave it. It had nothing to do with what I expected in return. It had nothing to do with whether my wife had earned it. As it happens, she had. Putting up with me for thirty-six years should earn her not just a silver necklace, but the whole Paul Revere sterling silver factory. And maybe a Nevada silver mine too. But that’s not the point. The point is that gifts aren’t earned, can’t be earned, can’t be grasped, don’t have to be grasped, don’t have to be held on to. They are just given, that’s all. They are given out of the relationship of love.

Poor young man. He is called the rich young ruler, as you’ll see in the weeks to come. But he is not rich; he is poor beyond measure, even though he had lots of things. Because he had lots of things, and because people no doubt had tried to take those things away from him, he never knew that there were some things you don’t have to keep. Some things you don’t have to grasp. Some things you don’t have to fear losing. They are gifts, they are yours, they are free for the asking. We just don’t get it about gifts, do we?

“What must I to do to get hold of eternal life?” Well, young man, what did you have to do to get this everyday life? Did you say to your mother, “Oh, Mom, please nurture me for nine long months until I am out there on my own. And Mom, please don’t forget to pipe some nourishment down my umbilical cord so that I will stay alive.” Certainly not! You didn’t have to grasp for this life; it was given to you. Nor do we have to grasp for eternal life; God wants to give it to us. God wants even more than we can imagine to draw us to Himself, to have us with Him forever. God wants us in fellowship with Him. He wants to give us eternal life.

Don’t grasp for it. Don’t worry with whether you have it or you might lose it. Don’t fret over not being good enough, because it’s already clear that we’re not good enough, but it’s a gift, so that doesn’t matter. Don’t work yourself into madness trying to be perfect, because that has been settled a long time ago. Eternal life is a gift, and it doesn’t have an expiration date. Don’t spend any energy wondering if your baptism was valid or the church you grew up in was right or the pastor taught you the correct doctrine. When she got the silver necklace, the ribbon and the wrapping paper didn’t matter in the least. A gift is a gift is a gift. God wants to give you eternal life. God wants you with Him in His kingdom.

“What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” You just don’t get it, do you, rich young ruler? You’ve spent so much time in a quid-pro-quo, get-what-you-pay-for world that you just don’t get it. You cannot do anything to have eternal life. But here it is. Just receive it. It’s yours. Just receive it.


You see, the basic issue is that the question centers in the wrong place. The question focuses on the wrong person. The question focuses on the recipient and not on the giver. The question focuses on the one who wants to have and not on the one who wants to give.

“What must I do?” Stop right there. There’s the problem. The problem is the “I”. It’s an egocentric question. It’s a selfish question. It’s the kind of question lots of folks raise in our day. We think we can do everything. We think we ought to be able to lay our hands on anything and make it happen. We have magnified self-sufficiency and self-esteem and self-this, self-that, self to the point of arrogance! What must I do? I, I, I.

Give me a problem and I will solve it. Give me a task and I will accomplish it. Give me an issue and I will come to grips with it. Give me and I, I, I.

And we don’t think, do we, that there is anything that I cannot do. Until. Until. Just the other day I heard someone say, “I should be able to do this.” She was speaking of something I knew she had no control over. Naturally I am not at liberty to say more about what that was. But here was a capable, educated, highly trained, successful person, one of those folks who has just about always done what she wanted to do, gotten what she wanted to get. “I should be able to do this”, she said. But then with a tear in her eye, “But I can’t. I just can’t do anything about this. I can’t be in charge of this.”

That, I submit, was her finest moment! Thank God we don’t have to be in charge of everything. Thank God there are some things we can only wait for and receive. Most of us press through life thinking we ought to be able to manage it all. Hiding it when we can’t. Stuffing our feelings when we fail. Keeping up a good facade.

No, young man, no, good friends, no matter how hard you try, how long you keep at it, you will never accomplish eternal life on your own. In fact, you will never accomplish satisfying life here and now on your own. It is not going to happen. If it is to happen at all, it will have to be a gift. Pure, solid, simple gift.

Just before the rich young ruler came with his wrong-headed question, Jesus had taken little children into his arms and had said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Let the little children, simple, unadorned, open, with nothing particular to offer, let them come, for to such as these the kingdom already belongs. What an irony that after that this young man, complex, accomplished, well-trained, with lots to offer, comes with his question, mocking everything Jesus had had to say.

One more time! It’s not about accomplishments or the lack of accomplishments; it’s about a God who just loves us, because we are His children. It’s not about good deeds or bad deeds, it’s about the hostility in the human heart and the love in God’s heart. “What good deed?” None. None. God in Jesus Christ has chosen us and loves us.

And it’s not about grasping and having, holding and getting. It‘s just about being at home with the Father. “What must I do to have?” It’s not about claiming a room in glory and putting out the reserved sign; it’s about knowing that the Father’s home is like any home, where, as Robert Frost said, when you go there, they have to take you in. I’d only change that to say, they want to take you in. He wants to give you the Kingdom.

And most of all, folks, it’s not about the old enemy “I”. It’s not about what I can handle or what I can do. It’s about what God in Jesus Christ has already done. “What must I?” Wrong, wrong, wrong! It’s about one unique, unrepeatable, selfless life that was given as a gift for us. It’s about one sacrificing act, where on the cross of Calvary He laid down His life for us, in utter abandon, total love.

It’s not about what I can do, for nothing in my hand I bring; simply to Thy cross I cling. It’s not about what I can pay, for Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. It’s not about what I can bring to the table, not about what I can count in the bank account, not about what I, what I, what I. It’s only about the amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Come to think of it, maybe the reason I don’t do well in giving gifts is that I have never understood why I received them. I always thought I had to do something to earn my Christmas, my birthday, my anniversary, my whatever. I never really saw that the gifts were someone’s love, and all I needed to do was receive them. Just receive.

So profound the sages have never exceeded it; but so simple a child can hear it. Just receive. So complex that theologian Karl Barth wrote a whole shelf of books to interpret it; so direct that when the great theologian was asked to summarize a lifetime of thought he said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Just receive, just receive. Not a matter of how good we are, yet it will make us want to be better and better. Just receive, just receive. No earning, no striving, no pushing, no grasping. Just receive. Just receive. Just receive.