The question that people have been asking for centuries is not surprisingly also in the Bible. The phrase “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (though not in exact words) have been asked exactly 4 times in the Bible. 3 of the times occurred in the story of the “rich young ruler” or “rich young man” that occurs in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18 while the 4th occurs when a lawyer and Jesus discuss the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10. Many people believe that being a good person would give them a pass into heaven, as long as their good deeds outweighs their bad. In this article, we will dive into scripture to see what Jesus has to say. After all, he did provide the rich young ruler and the lawyer answers for their question. But is Jesus’ answer literal, or is there a message behind his message.
The story of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-31) starts with a rich man asking Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus then asks him if he follows the commandments in which the ruler says “all these I have kept from my youth”. Finally Jesus gives the man an answer saying, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. The rich man walked away sad because he had many riches.
In Luke 10-25-37, a lawyer tested Jesus by asking “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”. Once again Jesus turns to the law and asks him how he reads it. The lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” Then the lawyer wanting to “justify himself” asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” which Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.31Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.34He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.35And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
So how do we inherit eternal life? Do we have to sell our possessions, give to the poor and be kind to our neighbors? The answer is no. If we look carefully at the text, both the rich man and the lawyer is trying to work their way to heaven by following the law. Although Jesus told them specific things to do to inherit eternal life, the point was that no one can get to heaven without Jesus.
In the latter parts of the rich man story, Jesus tells his disciples “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. Jesus is not saying being rich is bad. As a matter of fact, his disciples were so astonished at what he said that they asked “Who then can be saved?” Jesus then gets to the point. He tells them “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”. What Jesus is saying here is that no one can get to heaven on their own. It is impossible for someone to follow the law completely. Everyone who tries will fail like the rich man.
Similarly, the parable of the Good Samaritan also follows this concept. The lawyer wanted clear cut definition of who is his neighbor. Obviously it is easier to love our neighbors if we see them as our physical next door neighbors, friends or family. But Jesus does not let the lawyer off the hook. He gives a story of the extreme, a Samaritan helping a Jew which is surprising because they are enemies. The Levite and the priest who passed the man by were regarded as holy people to the Jews. So what is the point of this story? Everyone is considered as our neighbor, yes even our enemies. This might sound harsh because it IS hard to follow. As a matter of fact, I can say that none of us have followed this completely in our lives.
I would take this even further and suggest that Jesus is referring to himself when he tells the parable of the good samaritan. Jesus, seen as an enemy to some of the Jews came to save them for no repayment. Like the Samaritan, Jesus comes to save without any expectation of repayment. In other words, you don’t have to work for it.
So why then does Jesus tells the rich man and the lawyer to sell all his possessions and love his neighbor? It is because both man asked Jesus the way to salvation based on the Law. And Jesus using the Law gave them the answer. But the law actually condemns people, because not one can follow the law completely.
In Galatians 2:16 it reads:
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
So am I saying we don’t have to do all these things? Of course not! The rich man needs to give up his riches because it is his idol. Instead of trusting in God, he placed his trust in his riches. The same goes for all of us. Whatever the idol is we must give it up. Secondly, we should all love our neighbors because that is what Jesus told us to do. But is it a must if we want to be saved? No. Many get confused with doing and believing. The actions will come when you believe but the only way to the Father is through Jesus, not through works.