A man comes to Jesus and asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As the story unfolds, he reveals to Jesus that he observes all the commandments and has done so from his youth. Unfortunately, the man has asked the wrong question because the real answer to the question is quite simple. You cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. It is a gift, pure, simple, and gratuitously offered. Nothing we do can earn us a place in heaven.
This is a hard concept for people of any culture. We are used to earning everything we have. We study diligently so that we can get a college degree so that we can get a good job so that we can earn a good living and provide for a family. As a result we have come to believe that we are judged by our performance. Those who don’t earn a degree and don’t get good jobs and don’t earn a good living are often judged as less worthy. They don’t produce.
The man in the Gospel yearns for heaven. However, he is so used to earning everything he has that he has come to the belief that if he does something to please God, he will earn his way into heaven. It simply cannot be done. Gifts are not earned, they are freely given. Heaven is a gift.
Jesus shifts the conversation to a different topic; namely, perfection. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven.” At first it looks like Jesus is giving him another task to perform to earn heaven. Actually, Jesus is simply asking the man to make a choice. He can choose to follow Jesus or he can continue doing what he has been doing. Following Jesus means making Jesus our priority. Jesus asks only one thing of his followers; namely, to believe in him. We are asked to turn away from the ways of the world and take up the ways of Jesus.
This man is not the only man to ask the question in the Gospels. Remember the discussion Jesus had with the Jews after feeding them in the desert? “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus’ answer: “Believe in the one he sent.” In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Faith in Jesus is the one thing that is necessary.
Throughout the history of the Church, many have done as Jesus asked this man. They have sold all they have and given it to the poor. They have taken Jesus quite literally. Francis of Assisi is one such individual. However, this action did not earn Francis’ place in heaven. Seven people are being declared saints today. Much has been made of the two most famous: Pope St. Paul VI and St. Oscar Romero. The other five included two priests, two religious sisters, and one nineteen year old blacksmith. Each led completely different lives: pope, bishop, priests, sisters and layman. However, they all had one thing in common. They all believed that Jesus was their Savior and God incarnate. Jesus died to forgive their sins just as he died to forgive mine and yours. This is the essential element of our faith. We believe that Jesus died for us and rose from the dead to open access to heaven for all who believe.
As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we remember what Jesus did. We are here to offer thanks. We are here not because we have to be here, but because our faith tells us that this is where disciples of Jesus must be. We remember, we believe and we celebrate our faith.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator