The Right Question

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“What must I do to be saved?”

The man who had asked the question—finely dressed and leaning on a freshly oiled staff— smiled under his long, neatly groomed beard. It was a good question to start a good conversation.

It was a question Jesus had heard before. In fact, it was one of the questions which Jesus made a special effort to answer carefully. Who was standing in front of Him? What would send this person away with deeper—better—questions? This man was a role model of Jewish piety, an expert educated in the religious law and customs—not unlike a modern day lawyer. He was picture perfect—rich, intelligent and educated. Jesus started in familiar territory, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”

The law expert’s smile split wide. A true teacher! he thought. A question for a question. No, even better, two questions for one! Nice. Quoting Scripture, he answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). It was the obvious answer. It was the law in a nutshell. It meant do everything in the Jewish teachings: keep the commandments, the law and the prophets.

Jesus smiled. I’m sure He would have said, “You’re right! Do that and you’ll be safe enough” (author’s paraphrase).

Not wanting to be outdone, the man added one more question, “And who is my neighbour?” (verse 29).

Then Jesus told a story, one which is now known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A man was robbed, beaten and left for dead. Two men walked past the man as he lay dying. They were Jewish leaders, Jesus said: a priest and a Levite. The third man was not Jewish. He, a Samaritan (a group who the Jewish people had animosity towards), stopped and helped. He took the injured man to a safe place and paid for the man’s wounds to be treated until they were healed. Finishing His story, Jesus said, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36).

The expert in the law, upon hearing the Good Samaritan story, replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

The wrong question

In the 10th chapter of both Matthew and Mark, another man asks Jesus this same question.

As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up to Him and fell on his knees before Him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17).

Jesus recognised this man’s wealth had him bound. He was a good man. He was blessed by God. But, he was still searching. He still felt lost.

Jesus said, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother’” (Mark 10:19).

Through his tears, the rich man cried, “Teacher . . . I’ve done these things since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” He said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).

Two very different stories with the same outcome. Both men—the law expert and the rich man—walked away unwilling to change. But they acquired new clarity, knowing what they were missing. The first man was missing love for other people. The second was low on love for God. Both had put themselves first. Both were unwilling to change.

Jesus met people on the road of their journey. He answered the wealthy man and the lawyer’s question, even though their question was wrong. He could have corrected them. But they needed an answer that challenged their next step. An answer they could hear.

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The right question

There is another story that answers the right question. The story is about a paralyzed man. In all three times the story is told in the Bible, friends bring the paralytic man to Jesus by lowering him through the flat roof of the disciple Peter’s house where Jesus was speaking. He heals the man and people praise God for the miracle.

When he is brought to Jesus, the first thing Jesus does is forgive the lame man’s sins. He could have whispered it to the man. But He didn’t. Everyone in the room heard it. “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20). Minds started to race, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (verse 21).

Jesus knew their thoughts would go there. But, He also knew everyone in the room believed this sick man was paralyzed because of the actions of a sinful person. That’s what religious leaders had taught for decades. All deformities were a result of the sin of a parent or the person themself before birth. It was wrong, but Jesus didn’t attack the misunderstanding of the religious teachers and followers. Instead, He wrapped His truth around it.

Jesus asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” (Luke 5:22,23). And then the answer to the question everyone should have been asking. The ultimate truth Jesus brought to Earth.

“But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:34). Then He told the man, “Get up. Take your mat and walk!”

This is the key point: Jesus wanted people to know He had the right and the power to forgive sins.

Jesus forgives sin first. Then, to prove it is true, He changes your life from the inside out. This is God’s modus operandi—He starts at the heart. This is why Jesus forgave and healed the man without a word from him—Jesus already knew the man’s heart. The physical healing Jesus provided was not the same thing as the forgiveness provided by Jesus’ words.

This is also why Jesus did not tell the expert in the law and the rich man that they were asking the wrong question. He knew their hearts. “What must I do to be saved?” is precisely the wrong question. There is nothing you can do to be saved if by “do” you mean “something else to add to my list of tasks”. You can’t save yourself.

These three stories show us who can help us in our struggles and offers eternal life. To the rich and the righteous, Jesus made it clear that it wouldn’t be obedience, savings or kindness. Only Jesus can save.

Everything we need for salvation comes from “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus saves. Jesus alone.

The wrong question focuses on self. The right question focuses on Jesus and His death on the cross. The question all of us need to ask before we can be saved is not “What must I do to be saved?” but “Who can save me?”

The man on the mat

We are all broken, even if it can’t be seen on the outside. We are all paralyzed—some by wealth, others by education, tradition, achievement and even obedience. Sin is the selfishness that overtakes us when we love anything more than we love God.

Pride is an impossible place to climb down from. It requires a fall. Unexpected falls abound: bankruptcy, diagnosis, divorce or death. Or you can choose to fall. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10). Fall to your knees. It’s that easy—and that hard.

Jesus knew before it was written that “the wages of sin is death”. He also knew we would receive “the gift of God” which “is eternal life” through His death and resurrection (see Romans 6:23)

We all need Jesus. To receive all that God has for us, we need to realise we are the man on the mat. We are paralysed. We are being carried by others. We can do nothing to save ourselves. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23,24).

Jesus forgives us. Jesus heals us. Jesus saves us. Look to Jesus. He is the answer.

If you’d like to find out how to know Jesus better, try the free course, “Try Jesus“.

Dave Edgren is a storyteller and writer. He lives in Victoria, Australia.

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