What Must I Do?

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” so the adage claims. I suggest a parallel truism. Familiarity breeds inattentiveness. I’ll illustrate with a familiar incident in the life of Jesus, one we have read and heard countless times, commonly referred to as “the rich, young ruler.”

What Must I Do?”

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
– Luke 18:18, ESV

. . . and the parallel in Mark.

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
– Mark 10:17, ESV

What follows this question is the familiar exchange in which Jesus told the man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. The man was saddened by this because his wealth was extensive.

In a similar exchange, Jesus was asked the same question by a teacher of the law.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
– Luke 10:25, ESV

The exchange that followed this question/test was the familiar parable of the good Samaritan.

The hiccup, for me in these two stories is not in the goal of the question. I’m not focusing on eternal life. That’s a lofty and commendable goal. No, for me, the hiccup results from the use of the words, “do” and “inherit.” I’ve been a Christ-follower for more than forty years, and it was not until this week that I noticed this incongruent pairing.

What does any of us do to inherit anything? Inheritance is a gift bestowed on another by the free will of the giver. We do not perform actions one through seven and thereby earn an inheritance. We earn wages. We earn trophies and ribbons. Inheritances are freely bestowed at the behest of the giver, and typically fall to members of the giver’s family.

The idea of doing something to get something or to achieve a particular outcome was and is common among the Jews, just as it is among us. So, though the man’s question is misguided, it is not surprising that he would ask it the way he did.

Consider this question put to Jesus in John’s gospel.

Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
– John 6:28, ESV

In response to the question, Jesus answers that doing the works of God is believing in the one he sent, thus introducing to us the uncomfortable idea that belief is a work.

Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
– John 6:29, ESV

It’s Up to Me

Many today hold to the idea that God will weigh the “good side” of their ledger of actions against the “bad side” of that same ledger. The heavier side will win. In their minds, it is up to us to work on that good side of the ledger, filling it with meritorious acts such that it will be the heaviest side.

One of the greatest contrasts between western society and middle-eastern society is that middle-eastern society is communal—everything is about the community—where western society is individualist; self-sufficient, self-sustaining, self-motivated, and even self-righteous.

In general, we are uncomfortable relying on anyone but ourselves. We want to make our own way, to “leave our mark” on life. When we’re down, we want to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps to a firm, upright, standing position, beat our chests in barbaric triumph as the champion of the moment. With each querist above, we could ask that same question, “What must I do to inherit or obtain eternal life?”

The Heart of Jesus’ Answer

The question back at us is, “To what are you clinging?”

In the case of the rich young ruler, he was clinging to his wealth, his assets. Jesus told him to sell everything and give it away.

He was also a “ruler,” perhaps the leader of a local synagogue, or even a member of the Sanhedrin. We’re not told. But he was, unquestionably, a man of some distinction. Jesus told him to leave all that behind and follow him.

To what are you clinging?

Following Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler, Peter expressed his bewilderment along with his entrapment in a deed-reward system. I did this deed and I now reap that reward.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
– Matthew 19:27, ESV

Peter’s statement and question reveals a lifeview held by many today, that walking in God’s favor floods us with tangible rewards. Health and wealth gospel. Name it and claim it faith. Declare and decree mandates. “We’ve left everything for you Jesus. What do we get in return?”

My first year in full-time ministry, I worked with a small church in Ruston, Louisiana. One Sunday morning, I overheard a lively discussion going on in one of the adult classrooms. With a loud slap of a hand on the table, an obviously frustrated man shouted, “Dammit! I’m trying as hard as everyone else in this room to be a good Christian!”

Upon hearing this, my first reaction was, Then STOP! We are not called to try hard to be good Christians. Using that approach, we are standing with the young ruler, asking Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”

How many times have you heard a well-meaning man or woman say, “I just have to get myself right with God.” These are good folks, no doubt, and they have the best of intentions, but they misunderstand the call of God on their lives. I do not get myself right with God. God makes me right with God.

Yet we are programmed by our deed-reward culture to see “getting right with God” as a task we must perform. That poor, frustrated man in the classroom was trapped in the lies of a deed-reward faith, driven by a deed-reward culture.

We already know that it is by grace we are saved through faith, and not of works so that no one can boast.1 But in a twisted sort of way many of us have made the acquisition of faith that worthy deed for which we are rewarded with salvation.

The apostle Paul was telling the Ephesian church that it is by faith and not by works that we find salvation, but we have constructed a system in which growing our faith is the work. We have unwittingly, yet pridefully put our trust in our ability to attain and maintain a certain type and level of faith. We reach a point where, as author David Chadwell puts it, the question is no longer, “Do I believe,” but rather “Do I believe enough?”2 Beyond that, we have made faith into a formula to which God is obligated to respond: I have faith – God responds with salvation. It is misguided thinking.

A New Goal

We have touched on numerous specifics, any one of which could stand as a goal. It could be eternal life, wealth, faith, achievement, peace, joy, wisdom … or any number of things we could add to that list. I’m suggesting a simplified goal.

If we look again at Jesus’ exchange with the young ruler, Jesus called him to shift his goal, shift his focus. Let go of your wealth, and focus on me. Let go of your status and focus on me. It is the same for us. Let go of your obsessions, your “cling to,” and focus on Christ and Christ only.

The apostle Paul prayed for the church in Ephesus to have wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ—to know him! That was Paul’s goal, Paul’s focus, “I want to know Christ!”3

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
– 1 Corinthians 2:2, ESV

Blessings upon you, my friends.

Victoriously in Christ!

– damon

X – @DamonJGray
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1. Ephesians 2:8
2. Chadwell, D. (1986). Having the Faith of Abraham. (p. 5). 21st Century Christian: Nashville
3. Philippians 3:10

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  1. John Gacinski on June 24, 2024 at 3:17 PM


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