By Paul Koch –
The story of the rich young man, as it is usually called, is an especially difficult text for us to deal with in the church. Not that it is a complex story that is hard to unpack, not that it is full of analogies that are distant from us and therefore hard to understand. No, this text is difficult for us precisely because it deals with the heart of the matter. It cuts to the core of our desires and hopes in the church. It is not a theoretical discussion about heaven and hell. It’s not a description of an evangelism mission seeking to convert the unbeliever. This is not a text that seeks to simply enlighten your hearts and minds or give your cause to ponder heavenly things. This is a text that leaves no one untouched, that gives you nowhere to hide, that exposes everything. For this is about a man who ardently desires to be saved. He comes directly to the source, to our Lord Jesus Christ, and asks the question that all long to have answered; “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now you can imagine when he asked this question, everyone standing nearby did the same thing we would’ve done. They leaned in a little closer because they didn’t want to miss this answer. They didn’t want to lose out on hearing just what it is that we must do to inherit eternal life. I mean, if eternal life is the goal, if that is the hope and the dream of us all, then here is the opportunity to get the answer right from the source itself! So, what do we hear our Lord say? Well, he began to recount the commandments, what we call the second table of the law. These commandments deal with our relationship to our neighbor. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not defraud. Honor your father and mother. These are the things that the children of God are called to do in our lives. It is how we are to live amongst one another. And this wealthy young man, shockingly said, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”
Now, this is a little pompous. If our Lord was to ask you if you had kept those commandments, would you be able to answer with such certainty as this guy? Probably not. And if we were there, we would probably be making fun of this guy a bit behind his back. Some spoiled rich kid thinks he is better than everyone else. “All these I have kept from my youth?” Give me a break. However, our Lord doesn’t respond with ridicule or laughter. No, it says in the text that Jesus looked at him and loved him. He loved him and motivated by that love he began to attack the one thing that this man treasured above all else. Because he loved him, he wouldn’t pat him on the head and tell him he’s doing a good job. He wouldn’t allow him to be content in his own works and accomplishments. Because he loved him, he said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
Out of love Jesus directs this earnest and devout young man to attend to the one thing that he didn’t want to deal with. Instead of focusing on the second table of the law, on how one treats his neighbor, Jesus gets to the heart of the issue and calls him to have no other gods. Sell everything. Sell it all and give it away and follow me. Let go of that which you’ve made into an idol, that which gives your security and meaning in this world. Give it away and follow. Then you will inherit eternal life. Now let’s be honest for a second, this isn’t exactly the news any of us want to hear. We may think that it serves this pompous guy, but it is a bit more difficult when we think that this must impact our lives as well.
What you see reflected in this story is your desire to approach Jesus on your own terms. You can come with longing and heartfelt desire for salvation, yet you come to him with the parameters that you’re comfortable with. You have the things that are negotiable and the things that you don’t want to deal with, the things that are off the table. I’ll never forget a conversation I had years ago in a little dive bar in St. Mary’s, Georgia. I was talking with a few folks about faith and life when one lady became suddenly passionate. She said that if someone was to come in with a gun and demanded that she denied her faith or die, why, she would gladly kneel and tell him to pull the trigger. That, of course, sounds impressive. Who wouldn’t cheer her on for such a bold confession? But here’s the thing, she was shacking up with a guy that wasn’t her husband. Now, God isn’t vague about His commands regarding adultery. In the highly unlikely incident that one would demand her life to deny her faith, she was ready. But when it came to her chosen living arraignment, well that was off the table.
In speaking to this rich young man, Jesus doesn’t let him define the terms. Out of love he rooted out the one thing that he didn’t want to let go of, the one thing that perhaps he wouldn’t let go of. But you all have things that are off the table. You all have things in your life that are simply non-negotiables. It may be certain habits, things that are so routine that your life would seem to spiral out of control without them. It may be particular relationships or possession or ideas. For you all have those things in your life that you look to for security and assurance, things that you believe provide some grounding to your life, giving it meaning and purpose. It could be your job or your family or wisdom or your bank account, or some combination of it all.
And if your Lord was to say, give it all away. Give it away and follow me. Would you? Would you do it? Could you do it? Or would you, like the man in the text, go away sorrowful? Would the price for inheriting eternal life be too much for you to bear? Eternal life is not just found in the keeping of the second table of the law, the part that focuses us on our neighbor. You must also keep the first table of the law, the part focusing on the things of God. You are to attend to His word to keep His name holy and to have no other gods before Him. You must sacrifice it all if you are to inherit eternal life.
The rich young man is you. For you have much that you long to hold on to. But Jesus won’t let you. He looks at you with your meager works, your good deeds that are done when it’s convenient to you. He sees right through it all and yet he loves you. Out of that love he demands it all. To inherit eternal life, you must sell it all and follow him. He will empty you of everything that is not him. You will give and give and give until you confess that you cannot give, you cannot do it. You are afraid and weary, and your faith seems weak and shallow and great sorrow overshadows your weak efforts. But he is not done with you. He will not allow you to simply walk away full of sorrow and regret. No, his whole purpose, the reason that he came and was born of a woman and lived under the law and suffered at the hands of sinners and died a cursed death and rose again on the third day, all of it, was so that you might inherit eternal life.
In emptying you of your own works, he leaves only himself as your savior. In your despair, he breathes into you hope. In your confession that you have not sold it all that you have not sacrificed everything and followed him, he declares that he will make that perfect sacrifice for you. In your sin and shame, your Lord whispers into your ears the same thing that he shouts in the courts of heaven. He says, “I forgive you. I forgive you all of your sins. Go in peace, for eternal life is yours!”