As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is doing his Jesus-thing, teaching about the upside down nature of the kingdom, when a yuppie shows up and asks about the requirements for salvation.
We only know what we know about this particular character based on what scripture tells us, and his story is a cautionary tale (and a beloved one among preachers).
Notice – the rich young man is already a success story in the eyes of the world: he’s a winner.
But he wants more.
What could drive someone to such a desire? Surely none of us know of such thirst and such hunger for more.
Robert Farrar Capon, in his seminal work on the parables, imagines the innermost thoughts of this yuppie with Jesus like this:
“Oh yes, I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced statistical methods in the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel… But the world is not better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whisper of my secretaries… deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of disheveled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted, misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want… translate me, bright Angel, from this hell of inert and ailing matter, growing steadily senile in a time forever immature, to that blessed realm, so far above the twelve impertinent winds and the four unreliable seasons, that Heaven of the Really General Case where, tortured no longer by three dimensions and immune to temporal vertigo, Life turns into Light, absorbed for good into the permanently stationary, completely self-sufficient, absolutely reasonable One.” (Capon, The Parables of Judgment, 42).
The yuppie certainly has a problem: he is a winner who cannot fathom, whatsoever, the end of his winning. He is positively bewitched by the idea that there are no limits to what he can achieve by his own power.
Jesus responds by adding insult to injury and gives the man an impossible list of goals to achieve, namely the Ten Commandments. But the yuppie assures the Good Lord that he is, was, and forever will be perfect in the eyes of the Law.
And then, as Mark puts it, Jesus looks at the young man, loves him, and says something like, “Okay hotshot. There’s only one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Hopefully removing all your winnings will free you to see that the only real way to win is by losing, the only way to be great is to be the least, the only way to live is to die.”
But the yuppie walks away sad, because he has many possessions.
And yet, here’s the really sad part: the yuppie walked away from the only really good news he would ever hear. Because all of that winning, in whatever form it took (material, moral, or even spiritual success) would eventually pass away like the wind in his death.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
The rich young man couldn’t stand the thought of being a loser. But Jesus saves sinners (losers) and only sinners.
In the strange new world of the Bible, only the winners lose because only the losers can win – that’s how reconciliation works. If winning could’ve saved the world we would’ve done it a long time ago. Evil cannot be destroyed by moral score-keeping. The only way to save the world is to do what God did – by taking evil out of the world by taking it into himself in Jesus, nailing it to the cross, and leaving it there forever.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? Well, nothing. Nothing because, we can’t save ourselves.
But, thankfully, Jesus is in the business of making something of our nothing.