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?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept 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." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth…
Today we encounter the anti-example in our series “Dangerous Faith.” Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler is recorded in three of the four gospels and carries important implications for the modern church.
It should be noted that this young man comes to Jesus in all sincerity. In fact, he runs to Christ and kneels at His feet in earnestness to ask his question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is desperate to find that which he lacks—certainty of his place in the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ response to his question is interesting and puzzling. He points the young ruler to the Mosaic Law, specifically to the last half of the Ten Commandments. Jesus seems to be telling this young ruler that he can inherit eternal life by keeping the law. Isn't this inconsistent with the rest of Christ’s teaching? Why didn’t Jesus tell him “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36)?
Jesus sometimes said things that are hard to understand. When we encounter these hard sayings of our Lord, it is important that we stop and dig deeper to discover what he meant. Is Christ saying that all you need to do to receive eternal life is keep half of the Ten Commandments? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why. Jesus’ response would have been fairly typical and expected in his day. I believe that Jesus knew His answer was not completely satisfactory, but He wanted to know if the young ruler knew that. Plus, this also served Jesus' purpose in helping the rich young ruler see where his true problem lay.
Jesus pointed the young man to the second half of the Ten Commandments which deals directly with how we interact with other people. The rich young ruler quickly brushes this aside saying that he has kept all of these commands from childhood and yet he knows that he still lacks something. This would ground his problem soundly in the area covered in the first half of the Commandments…his relationship with God.
It is only now that the young man can see where his problem lies that Christ offers a true solution to the problem and issues a call. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Again, Christ’s response leaves the modern day Christian staggering. How are we to interpret this? Does this mean that in order to become a Christian you have to renounce all your earthly possessions?
Once again we must delve deeper if we are to understand Christ’s difficult saying. First, notice that Christ issues a call to discipleship to this young man. The passage of Scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Christ saw something special in this young man, so in the same way that He had called each of the twelve disciples to follow him, Christ looks at this young man and says, “Follow me.” The New Testament only records Christ saying this to two men outside of the original twelve, so this is very special indeed. The rich young ruler responds in sadness though. He thought selling all his possessions was too high a price to pay.
This brings us to the reason why Christ told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions in the first place. The first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Christ looked into this young man’s heart and could see that his wealth was a hindrance to his relationship with God, so He asked him to set it aside. In pointing the rich man to his problem, Jesus is not giving a general teaching that all should be expected to follow, but rather is showing this one man what was impeding his relationship with the Lord: his wealth.
Although Christ’s message to the young man may not apply to us literally, its application most certainly extends to us figuratively. Christ is making a very clear statement that following Him as a disciple means laying everything at the foot of the cross. He asked the rich young ruler to give away his riches because they were preventing his spiritual growth, but He could just as easily ask any of us to do the same. Being a Christian is about declaring Christ as Lord of your life. Declaring Him Lord makes you His servant. All that you have, your very breath, belongs to Him and is at His disposal. Such is the relationship between God and His people.
For those of us who have heard the Holy Spirit's call this is easy. We have seen the goodness of our God. He has proved His love for us in Christ's death. We trust Him with our lives more than we trust ourselves. Though we do not always understand His methods, we trust that He is in control. All things work together for our good and for His glory. Surrendering your whole life to a God like that isn't as hard as you might think.
For further reading this week: