How To Inherit Eternal Life

A rich man approaches Jesus and asks the most fundamental question of life – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, what must I do to know God; to dwell with God? What must I do to live under the reign of God, and to orient my life towards my Creator? What must I do to develop such an intimate relationship with Him, that our love for one another will not only enrich and bless this life, but even conquer death itself, so that I may have an eternity of bliss with Him?

What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must each one of us do?

It’s a deep question to ask ourselves, and yet how rare it is for us to pause and reflect on such spiritual questions. Our lives get swallowed up with our entertainment, with the pursuit of what is superficial, with our busy, family lives, and we don’t find time to focus on the essential questions. How many of us carve out time each day to pursue and cultivate a vibrant relationship with our Creator? And how many of us are even aware of the obstacles that hinder such a healthy connection with God?

We have to give the rich man credit in today’s Gospel story. At least he asked the right question. This man had progressed in his spiritual journey to the point of asking the most crucial question in life. “What must I do to inherit eternal life? 

So Christ responds with three important lessons which lead us to the proper answer of this question.

First, we see how he responds when the rich man approaches and calls him “Good Teacher.” This title may seem appropriate for Christ, since he is good, and yet Jesus clarifies something from the start with the inquiring man. “No one is good but One, that is God.” He’s basically saying, “Do you understand what true goodness is? Don’t start thinking that you are good.” The world’s standard of what is good and bad often strays from the standard of God. Christ reminds us that true goodness starts and ends with God Himself. He is the standard that we need to strive for. Thus, we can never be content with our own lives, and think that we are spiritually “good enough.” There’s no such thing as “good enough” in the spiritual journey. We are on a never ending walk towards God, constantly growing in His divine love, in His goodness, kindness, compassion, and mercy. Our journey never ends. So be careful not to ever think that we are “good enough.”

Second, Jesus responds to the question of “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” with the most basic answer. “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Our Judeo-Christian tradition has given us a path on how to live – love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Follow the commandments of love and we will live.

Here Christ reminds us that the beginning of eternal life starts with obedience to a certain way of life. Christianity is not a philosophy or an intellectual set of beliefs; Christianity first and foremost is a way of life. And to begin our path towards eternal life, we must learn to obey the basic teachings of our Lord and His Church.

For the rich young ruler in the Gospel, however, obedience to the commandments didn’t appear to be his problem. He seemed to sincerely try to follow all the commandments of God since the days of his youth. He was progressing down the right path. Yet something was holding him back. Was it that he thought of himself as “good enough?”

In this particular case, Jesus knew the young man was wealthy, and could sense that his riches were enslaving him. “There is still one thing lacking. [If you really want to discover eternal life] sell all that you own and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  And at this extremely difficult command, the rich man became very sad and walked away from the Lord.

“There is still one thing lacking.” Imagine, the young ruler said that he obeyed all the commandments of the faith from his youth, and yet he still lacked one thing. Obeying God’s commandments are the step in the journey, yet it is only one step leading into the kingdom of heaven. As we strive to deepen our relationship with God, we need to continually proceed to a higher level – a level where nothing possesses us and stands between us and God, a level where we understand that everything we have is not our own, but is a loan from God – whether our possessions, our pleasures, our family, or even our life itself!  Our path towards eternal life in Christ cannot proceed in a proper manner if any such barriers stand in our way. 

Now, many of us struggle with step one, thinking that we are “good” in God’s eyes. Others struggle with step two, simply obeying the basic commandments. As we draw closer to God, however, then comes the most important question, “What is the one thing still lacking in our own life? Is there something that hinders us in experiencing a vibrant relationship with Christ?” Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler was a particular commandment to a particular individual, for he realized that riches enslaved this young ruler. For other people the danger may be something else.

What holds us back from a rich relationship with our Lord? Can it be our work? Our money? Our desire for success? Our greed? Certain hobbies and pleasures? Are there any sins, or continual habits, that we can’t get rid of in our life, like some hatred or disagreement with another person.  Maybe even our obstacle is something that appears good, like our families. Remember, even our children and families are gifts from God that He loans us. We cannot possess them, or allow them to possess us. All these things can become gods in and of themselves, replacing the one and only true God.  We must surrender all other desires and loves to our first and primary love -- Jesus Christ.

Remember, our Lord didn’t congratulate the rich young ruler by saying, “You have followed all the commandments from your youth. Great job! Don’t worry that you still have one problem hindering your spiritual growth.”  No! Instead, he challenged the young man, “One thing you still lack.”  Correct that one thing and discover eternal life!

This sounds difficult, and it is. Yet, as St. Symeon the New Theologian reminds us, “Don’t believe the lie that says there is no one in our times and in our midst who is able to keep the Gospel commandments and become like the holy saints.” This is possible, if we allow God’s Spirit to dwell in us and guide us!

May each of us begin by asking the necessary question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and then proceed in listening to the answer – understanding what is good, striving to follow the basic commandments of love, and casting off anything that hinders us in experiencing a rich, vibrant, living relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the beginning of eternal life!

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