What must I do? – Mark 10:17-22

Have you ever seen a child clean their room after their parents told them to go clean it?  When they think they’re done, their parents go to inspect their room, and it still looks like a disaster area.  I can remember being a kid and doing the same thing.  My standard of “clean” was not the same standard that my parents had.  I’d spend what seemed like an eternity trying to tidy up my room, but it never seemed to be clean enough for my parents.  Finally, my Mom would threaten to throw anything away that was still on the floor by the time she got out the vacuum.  That tended to spur me into action.  

Unclean rooms and mismatched standards.  It’s a similar thing in Mark 10:17-22.  A man runs up to Jesus to ask him what he must “do” to “inherit” eternal life.  Jesus says, “You know the commandments,” and then he recites most of the second table of the Law to the man; these set of seven commandments deal with our relationship with other people.  In telling the man these commandments, Jesus is giving him a set of standards by which he will be judged.

But in response, the man says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”  That’s pretty bold.  Jesus then tells him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  And the man was “disheartened” at Jesus’ words, and “he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

Do you think there’s a bit of that “unclean room” phenomenon going on here?  Do you think that there’s a bit of mismatched standards?  The man thinks he’s done all the commandments.  It’s as if Jesus said, “Clean your room.”  And the man said, “It’s clean.”  But, Jesus said, “Are you so sure?”

To see this, we have to look closer at the text.  First, the man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him; the first words out of his mouth are “Good Teacher.”  The man thinks that Jesus is good, not because he is God in the flesh, not because he is Immanuel – “God with us” – but because he perceives that Jesus does the right things and he teaches well.  The man thinks that Jesus is good because of the things he does, so he also wants to know how to be good.  That’s why Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.”  

Think about that.  No one is good except God alone.  We think we’re pretty good people.  If we don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, defraud, and honor our father and mother, we think we’re pretty good.  Our rooms are clean – at least, so we think.  We think we have things in pretty good order and that we’ll pass inspection.  

But, God steps in and says, “Not so, you are still unclean.”  You haven’t perfectly fulfilled all these commandments.  You’ve hated another person in your heart – you’ve murdered.  You’ve looked at another who is not your spouse with desire – you’ve committed adultery.  You’ve slacked off at work – you’ve stolen.  You’ve gossiped and sometimes lied – you’ve borne false witness.  You’ve shaved off a little bit in your transactions – you’ve defrauded.  You’ve distressed your parents – you have not honored your father and your mother.  You are still unclean, despite your best efforts to make yourself clean.  

And so Jesus tells the man to go and sell all that he has, give to the poor, and come and follow him.  If the man wants to be perfect, if he wants to “do” something to “inherit eternal life,” then here’s something else he can do to get things in order, another thing he can “do” to clean things up.  Go get rid of everything and come and follow Jesus.  Surely, then he’ll be clean.  

This would actually be a great point at which to take the text and start talking about stewardship and offerings, but that’s not actually the direction that Jesus is going.  It’s not the man’s possessions and money, per se, that’s the problem.  Instead, the man has a God-problem.

You see, in this response of Jesus to the man, Jesus is turning to the first table of the Law; the commandments that deal with our relationship with God.  In Jesus’ response is a hidden shift to dealing with the man’s relationship with God.  Jesus started with the second table and the man’s relationship with other people, and the man thinks that he has done all those from his youth; so, now Jesus shifts to the issue of the man’s relationship with God.  

For the first three commandments (the first table) tell us that we are to have the Lord only as our God, that we are to honor and use His name rightly, and that we are to keep the Sabbath by making time to rest to hear His Word.  So, Jesus tells the man to sell everything, give everything away, and come and follow Him; after all, Jesus is God.

Come and follow Jesus and get rid of everything else; love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  The man already thinks he loves his neighbor as himself, so here is yet something more for the man to “do” if he desires to be perfect and “good” and clean.  

But, the man can’t bring himself to do this.  He went away sorrowful, disheartened at Jesus’ words, for he had great possessions.  The man couldn’t part with these.  He couldn’t love the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind.  He still clung to what he owned and loved these as well.  And perhaps now we see that he really didn’t love his neighbor as himself either.  The man thought that he was clean and perfect, but now we – and perhaps he as well – see that there was still something amiss.  

In fact, the man’s thinking was out of whack from the very beginning.  His question, even, of what he must “do” to “inherit eternal life” is odd.  For an inheritance is a gift; it is given to us at the death of a relative or someone who loves us; it’s not something you earn by doing. 

And indeed, at the man’s impetuousness, the text says that Jesus “loved him.”  I imagine that Jesus looked at the man in a similar way that a parent looks at a child who claims that his room is clean, when the parent knows it’s not and is in fact still a mess.  The child’s standard is so out of whack that the parent feels a sense of pity for the child.  Likewise, Jesus knows the state of this man; he is lost and needs to turn from his own “doing” to instead truly “inherit” something that can only be given as a gift.  So, Jesus looked on the man with “love” and gave him an impossible task to do.  

Why would Jesus give the man something to do that he knew was impossible?  Well, God does this to us as well.  He has given us His Law, told us to do it, and that if we do it we will be perfect and have eternal life.  But, yet we can’t.  We can’t fulfill God’s Law perfectly.  We can’t perfectly love Him and love our neighbor.  When we hold all our best works and best efforts at being clean and good up to the mirror of the Law, we see God’s standard pointing back to us the fact that we are still unclean.  We see God telling us we don’t measure up.  For sin always intrudes into the relationships that we have with God and each other.  We can’t be “good” as God defines it; we can’t be “perfect” as His standard requires; we can’t be “clean” as He demands.  

All sounds lost.  We sound doomed.  If we can’t do it, then who can?  And indeed, right after this text for today, the disciples ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”  And, Jesus responds to their sense of despair by saying, “With man it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God.”

So, who can do it?  God can, and He does.  It’s not “Yes we can,” but “Yes He can” – and did.  God gives us our inheritance of eternal life as a gift.  It’s always a gift, an inheritance, and we can’t earn it.  We don’t earn an inheritance; it’s given to us at the death of one who loves us.

And one who loves you has died in order to give you this inheritance.  Jesus looked at you, before you were even born, before the foundations of the world were laid and “loved you,” like how a parent loves their child before he or she is born.  And so he came to die for you.  He has brought you into his rest through his work on the cross and empty tomb.  

This is a rest from works, a holy Sabbath where you do not work for your salvation.  It is a gift of God to you.  Left to yourselves and your own works, your salvation is impossible.  But, what is impossible for you is possible for God.  In fact, it’s more than possible, it is certain. You have received an inheritance through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this inheritance bequeaths to you eternal life.  

St. Paul wrote to the young pastor Titus to remind him that “… we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.  But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-8).

St. Paul calls you heirs, because you have received the inheritance of eternal life through Jesus Christ your Savior.  He has washed you with the water, Word, and Spirit in Holy Baptism.  And he feeds you in his Supper.  So, you have been saved and created anew by your Lord God who loves you, and therefore you are not what you once were.  

What Christ did was clean your room for you.  He made you his own and then he cleansed you.  He did what you could not “do.” 

And now he works to keep cleansing you through Word and Sacrament so that you don’t go back to the way you once were.  You are different people, because of him who has saved and cleansed you; you are Christ’s people because he has already joined you with his own death and resurrection in your baptisms.  Therefore, you are inheritors of eternal life through the testament of Christ’s body and blood which was given up and poured out for you.  



(Image: By Heinrich Hofmann – Riverside Church, New York, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14265296 )