This past Monday the Gospel was from the story of the Rich Young Man. We read it this year in Mark chapter 10, but you can find the account in Matthew 19 and Luke 18.
A week in, I still want to write about it, so I will.
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
A lot of people are recorded in the Gospels asking our Lord questions, or asking Him for other stuff. The first thing I notice here is what the question is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
Now it’s possible that the man is just trying trip Jesus up or start an argument. But there’s evidence to follow that this is the thing he wants to know. Asking this is commendable, because I think a lot of us just don’t even care about the question or the answer. We assume we already know the answer – whether eternal life is possible, and if so, what it’s like and how we obtain it. But here’s someone who isn’t presuming.
Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.
This initial answer has obvious rhetorical bearing on the fact that Jesus is God. But for we mere humans, the question of goodness comes around at the end, back to the question of eternal life.
Our Lord proceeds to lay out what goodness looks like:
You know the commandments:
You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”
Now here’s this shocking answer that I don’t think shocks enough:
He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”
How many people can you say this about? Some, I’m sure. But most of us? I don’t think so.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him
Catch that? I infer from this exchange a series things:
- The man was telling the truth. He really had been keeping the commandments.
- He knew that it wasn’t enough. That’s why he approached Jesus and asked the question: He’d been keeping the commandments, and was stirred by a sense that there was something greater for him. That being satisfied with his (impressive) observance of the law was not the way to eternal happiness.
- Jesus isn’t about to go all table-flipping. What follows isn’t a rebuke. It’s the next thing. Here’s someone who wants the next thing!
and [Jesus] said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
So this is the next thing. The man’s reaction isn’t all zip-a-dee-doo-dah:
At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
This is the moment when people love to hate the rich young man. But really? Have you done this? Have you done something close to this? Because if you’ve freely given up everything you owned and all your security and all your safety, you’re in rare company. You probably don’t read this blog, and you probably do know that it’s a big thing.
I don’t mean it was taken from you. I mean you gave it up freely.
Even the women who followed Jesus and supported the disciples from their wealth didn’t give up everything – hence that wealth. The Apostles still had their livelihood to turn back to. After Jesus died, they went back to fishing.
I would hazard that most serious Christians disciples whom I know personally are already feeling the pinch just by taking a bit of risk, or choosing to live a little more simply, or choosing to give a little more generously.
Now think about the man’s reaction from another angle: Why did his face fall?
Because the man took Jesus at his word.
He didn’t convert the command in his head to something less – something easier to live with. Nor did he take it to mean, “Here’s a suggestion, but you might have other ideas and those could work too.”
The Gospels tell us the man went away sad, but we don’t know what decision he made. What we do know is that when he left, he was actually wrestling with the decision. He was taking it seriously. He was counting the cost.
It’s really easy to follow Jesus when you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s a lot harder to convert when it means necessarily giving up things you’re not sure you can live without, or not sure you want to.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”
This comment should scare you. You probably have things left to lose.
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”
Even the disciples had things left to lose, at that point. Eventually they’d get down to nothing, but that was later.
Meanwhile, back to that question of goodness:
Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
Sooner or later, we reach the limits of our human perfection. Some of us are sufficiently bad that we hit the wall early and hard. Some, like the rich young man, have to be squeezed to find out where the faults lie.
Christianity isn’t the worship of our human goodness. It’s the worship of the Goodness that comes to rescue us when ours is fresh out.
Artwork: Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10) – 1879, Beijing, China [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.