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“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

On the Readings for Sunday, October 14, 2018

"Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" (1889) by Heinrich Hofmann [Wikipedia]

• Wis 7:7-11
• Ps 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17
• Heb 4:12-13
• Mk 10:17-30

“Once we see Jesus as a teacher of enlightenment, faith changes its focus,” wrote New Age guru Deepak Chopra in his 2008 best-seller, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore (New York, 2008), “You don’t need to have faith in the Messiah or his mission.”

[My lengthy review and critique of Chopra’s book can be read on Ignatius Insight: “Chopra’s Christ: The Mythical Creation of a New Age Panthevangelist”.]

Chopra’s statement is a perfect summation of the way many people today claim to accept Christ while actually rejecting him. And although the language of “enlightenment” might be modern and monistic, Chopra’s approach is hardly new. In fact, it bears a strong resemblance to the path chosen by the rich young ruler, whose encounter with Jesus is described in today’s Gospel reading.

Kneeling in respect, the man addressed Jesus as “Good teacher” and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It was a good start. After all, many people of the first century and the twenty-first century (and every century between) have failed to appreciate Jesus as a teacher. Many of them, it seems, don’t even ask the basic, essential questions about their existence: “Who am I? Why am I here? What or who am I made for?”

“Why,” Jesus asked the man, “do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” This response is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Some skeptics say, “See! Jesus denied that he was God!” But this misses how Jesus used questions to prompt deeper answers, and how he offered in his response an invitation to deeper reflection and recognition. Put another way, Jesus was asking the rich young man to more clearly identify the basis for his recognition that Jesus was good.

In reciting some of the core commandments of the Law, Jesus further opened the doors of invitation. He knew—as the one of gave the Law and fulfilled it perfectly—that the Law was a signpost, not the destination. The Law, as Paul often pointed out, reveals our desperate need for God, but cannot save us.

The young man seemed to implicitly understand the incomplete nature of the Law, for he had observed the Law his entire life, yet wanted something more. Jesus then took the invitation to the next level, asking him to sell his possessions, “then come, follow me.” It is here that the rubber meets the road, for it is one thing to give your attention to a teacher for a few hours, days, or semesters; it is quite another to give yourself completely to the Savior. It’s nice to have a good teacher; it’s frightening to a put your life in the hands of the Messiah and to join in his mission.

“He did not follow,” wrote St. Augustine of the rich young man, “He just wanted a good teacher, but he questioned who the teacher was and scorned the identity of the One who was teaching.” Jesus seems so agreeable as long as he agrees with us. It is so much easier to make him a mere teacher, or to remake him in our image and according to our likes and dislikes. Jesus, however, will have none of it, for he came not just to teach but also to transform.

The treasure of earth is so tangible, while the treasure of heaven can seem remote and unobtainable. Pleasure is so immediate, while God can sometime seem so distant. Power is intoxicating, while humility can appear dry and dull. We can be tempted to despair, like the disciples, and exclaim, “Then who can be saved?”

In response to this question, Jesus offered a third invitation—or, better, a third overture of the same essential invitation: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.” This is the invitation to total faith and familial trust in God the Father, who sent the Son as Savior, and who gives the Holy Spirit as a seal “in our hearts as a guarantee” (cf. 2 Cor. 1:21-22).

Many men—rich, famous, and otherwise—have rejected the invitation. Will we depart in sadness or accept in gladness?

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the October 11, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1141 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

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