Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
-Matthew 19:14-17 (NIV)
In a pivotal moment from the 1987 film Wall Street, Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko addresses the assembled stockholders of Teldar Paper, a company he’s planning to take over. In his speech, Gekko says:
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Gekko’s point, of course, is not that greed is objectively good. The rest of the movie demonstrates clearly that Gordon Gekko isn’t a character who cares about objective good. His point is that greed is good given the rules of the game he’s playing. He’s saying that “greed is right” in the culture of 80’s yuppie consumption, that “greed works” to accomplish the ends that the world in which he lives says are worth accomplishing. Greed, he promises the Teldar stockholders, will make their company profitable and put a lot of money in their pockets. \
We know that given other lives, priorities, and values, greed isn’t good. Gordon simply pictures the life that he - and presumably every other person at that meeting - wants to live, and argues that greed is the primary value of that life.
The man who asked Jesus about eternal life is essentially asking Jesus about the primary values of the life he wants to live.
I know, we don’t really hear the question that way. We hear something like, “Jesus, what good things do I need to do so that I can go to heaven when I die?” Jesus lists a few of the Ten Commandments, and the man starts to feel pretty good about himself. But then, as we understand it, Jesus points out that he hasn’t done enough after all.
We usually say that the man is legalistic. We usually point out how ridiculous it is that he thinks he’s OK just because he keeps a few commandments. We usually point out that salvation only comes from following Jesus - that is, it’s only to be had by believing in him, confessing him as Lord, being baptized, and then living a good Christian life. (Though we don’t seem to notice that following Jesus includes selling everything we have.)
But we’ve misunderstood what the man is asking in the first place.
The misunderstanding is forgivable, because it rests on that phrase “eternal life.” That’s an English translation of a Greek phrase that is, well, hard to translate. If you wanted to translate it literally, you’d say that the man is asking Jesus what he needs to do to have “the life of the age.”
You see how “eternal life” kind of rolls off the tongue more easily.
It’s not a terrible translation, but it does need some background to be properly understood. In Jesus’ time, and even before his time, Jewish people had a view of time as being divided into two “eons”, or ages. There was this age, the age in which we’re all living, the age in which sin and evil and death are in charge. For Jewish people in Jesus’ time, it was an age when the kingdom of Israel - God’s kingdom - was controlled by a foreign power. It was an age where good people could be crushed under the weight of poverty, oppression, and death.
But they also believed in an age to come. In this age, God would make himself known from heaven. He would break into the world in power. His kingdom would overthrow the kingdoms of the earth, like Daniel’s famous dream depicted. Jerusalem would be the theological, intellectual, and political center of the world.
And when Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was near, what the people heard - rightly - was that he was announcing the breaking-in of the age to come.
And so what this man is asking Jesus is how he can be a part of that age that’s coming. Life in that age would certainly be eternal, but the point is not “How can I go to heaven when I die?” It’s more like, “How should I live so what when this age to come you’re talking about arrives, I’ll be a part of it?”
Now, the point of the exchange actually is that it’s a fallacy to think that eternal life can be had for the price of obeying a few commandments. Jesus actually is saying that it’s a much more difficult proposition than that, that it involves giving up other things and demands single-minded dedication. He says, in fact, that it’s impossible for people to enter eternal life on their own, that it can only be a gift of God.
But then he says what he’s been saying all along: that living the life of the age to come depends on our attitude toward him. The primary value of the life of the age to come isn’t a rule, or a law, or a doctrine. It’s him. It’s Jesus.
We should know this even better than that man did. We know that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, something fundamental shifted. The old age began to die. And the new age, the age to come, came. It comes into being life by life, as human beings under the dominion of the old age are made new in Jesus. Into the darkness of the old age break millions, billions, of points of light, all blazing with the glory of the Light of the World.
So we obey him, we do good, we resist temptation, not so that maybe we’ll be good enough to go to heaven when we die - but because in him we already live the life of the age to come.
Let that make you less sure of your own goodness, less sure of your own ability to do enough good to earn a piece of that life. Nothing good you’ve done, all the good you’ll ever do piled together, is enough to qualify you for the life of that age that’s coming, and that in Jesus is already here.
But let it also make you confident, because God in his love has invited you in Jesus to share in that life anyway. Not on the basis of your goodness, but on the basis of his. There’s nothing provisional about that life. It’s not just a hope toward which you aspire, and heaven is not something you attain if you’re good enough here in this life. Heaven is simply the continuation of the life you’ve already been given and that you’re already living in Jesus.
And that is good.