“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I have long been puzzled by the question the Rich Young Man asks Jesus in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17)

It sounds like the man is asking simply what he needs to do to get into heaven. Commentators tell us that the reference to inheritance is a rabbinic phrase which translates as “enter.” But I wonder if there is not more to it and whether we should be stressing less the ‘doing’ and more the ‘inheriting’ when pondering on this vital question?

It seems odd to focus on what must be done to ensure an inheritance. For surely an inheritance is, standardly, a gift from a loving parent? For a parent to hold the denial of an inheritance as a threat over a son or daughter to ensure their good behaviour, to make them proud, is the worst kind of emotional blackmail? One shudders at some stories of children being disinherited for some failure, some disappointment, caused to an irate, demanding parent.

If this Young Man could recognise who Jesus truly is and how much he is loved, he would know that the inheritance is already on the way, as Jesus moves towards Calvary. It doesn’t depend in first place on what he does or does not do but on what Jesus does and is doing.

To inherit, after all, is a very poignant reality, a mix of sorrow and joy. Because an inheritance requires the death of a loved one, and in this case, it is the death of Jesus for the salvation of the world.

It is in the light of this infinitely precious gift of a life-giving death, which enriches us in the most profound way, that the giving up of wealth on the part of this man seems a paltry exchange. He goes away sad because he was hoping for the best of both worlds, to have his cake and eat it; but, if he only came to see clearly the inheritance he is missing, he would be the saddest man ever to walk this earth.

What does it profit one to gain the whole world and to lose one’s soul?

Kieran Cronin OFM