And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22 ESV)
The story we know as “The Rich Young Ruler” presents an interesting encounter between Jesus and a young man who by all accounts was both successful and devout. This incident obviously stood out among the hundreds of encounters Jesus had, as all three of the synoptic Gospels record the story.
It’s the question that drives us…
The question presented was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (The Matthew version reads “What good deed must I do…?”) This is an interesting question, as the discussion that follows shows that according to the popular Pharisee theology, he was already doing it. As Jesus presents a few examples from the 10 Commandments, the man’s response implies that he felt he had kept the entire law, but the question he asked Jesus reveals that he seems sincerely concerned that simply following the Law wasn’t enough. This could be because either he had realized himself that he still felt incomplete, or that he had been listening to Jesus’ teachings and recognized that what Jesus’ teaching on righteousness went far beyond the requirements of the law. We don’t know; we just know that he was wondering what more he could do to obtain eternal life.
The answer, my friend …
No one I know has ever suggested that in telling the man to give away his riches, Jesus was telling him he could earn his salvation, although I know there are some Judaizers out there who would read it that way (I’ve heard them on a local heretical radio station) . Jesus understood that money, “the root of all evil,” was standing in the way of this man’s relationship with God. To “enter life,” the man needed to take his focus off of his possessions, which were standing in the way, blocking the narrow gate, as it were. As Jesus said elsewhere, “No man can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24).”
It is interesting that in quoting Commandments, Jesus did not mention “Have no other god before me,” which was the one Commandment that the man was blowing big time. He, in fact, had two other gods: money, and the Law itself. The Law did not require him to give away his wealth, so Jesus was not pointing him toward the law in order to find life. Giving everything to the poor would not have been an act of obedience to the Law, but would have arising solely from a personal encounter with Jesus; that is, relationship. As we’ve already seen, a point Jesus is making is that keeping the Law, as impossible as that is, does not result in Kingdom-qualifying righteousness. True righteousness exists in a realm outside of the framework of Law, beyond the realm of human possibility. Which brings us to the rest of the story:
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:23-26 ESV)
Note that Jesus remarks that “only with difficulty” will a rich man be able to avoid the distraction of riches and enter the Kingdom; he said nothing about it being impossible. The disciples responded as we all do when mistaking that the conversation was about rules (or falling into the trap of thinking that great riches is actually a blessing).
When reducing the Christian life to a set of rules and principles, setting aside our own preferred idols is an impossibility. We cannot keep all of the rules, especially the one that says “have no other gods before me.” If we are successful in giving up our #1 idol, whatever that is, we immediately fall prey to pride, if nothing else. As Al Pacino (as the Devil) says in the final scene of The Devil’s Advocate, “Vanity, definitely my favorite sin.”
However, salvation is not based on our work, but on God’s work. Thank God.