18 A ruler questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
The young ruler was likely a Pharisee or one of their followers. The Pharisees were the largest sect of Judaism that believed in a resurrection of the body during the Messianic age. The righteous would enjoy a blessed state of existence and reward from God, while the wicked would be punished. If you believe in an afterlife and you believe that God is going to punish the evil and reward those who are righteous, you want to make sure you’re going to be on the right side of that equation, so his question to Jesus is a natural one.
The young man has probably heard of Jesus, maybe listened to His teachings and seen the work He has done with the poor and suffering, so the young man has a high opinion of Christ. He calls Jesus a good teacher, good being a moral judgment on the young man’s part. Despite the opinion of some of the other Pharisees, the young man perceives that Jesus is good. So, the young man comes to Him and asks for His wisdom. Tell me how I can get eternal life. I want to make sure that I’m on God’s good side.
Jesus’ questioning to the young man is an attempt to coax the young man into admitting the truth. Taken literally, it sounds as if Jesus is denying divinity and admitting that He has erred or sinned in His life and does not qualify as good, but it doesn’t make sense to interpret it that way. Luke, a close associate of Paul, who was a firm believer in the divinity of Christ, would be highly likely to have the same point of view as his friend and mentor. (In the possibility that the author was not Luke, but was a pious fraud, the author would be unlikely to include such a passage that defied the accepted orthodoxy of the day and undermined the church.) So a reasonable interpretation is that Jesus is leading the young man to a confession of faith via questions directed at the young man to get him to think everything through.
Jesus lists off some commandments and tells the young man that he must keep them to have eternal life. The young man replies that he’s done this from his youth, but something still nags at him. Something still plagues his conscience. He still feels as if he lacks something. Maybe some of us feel that way too. We’ve been to church. We’ve kept the big commandments. We show up every week, sing the songs, drop money into the collection plate. We’re nice to folks. We believe the right things. We say the right things. We vote the right way.
But there’s something there. Something that still gnaws at us. Something that seems lacking. Maybe it make us feel like we’re play acting at being a good person or being religious. So we live our lives unsatisfied and maybe if we had the opportunity to talk to Jesus face to face, our first question would be exactly what this young man’s is. How can I be assured of eternal life?
22 When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 23 But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
In the other gospels, it says that Jesus loved the young man. Christ felt compassion for him. He could see the young man’s dissatisfaction with the religious trappings he had wrapped himself in. He could see that the young man earnestly wanted to find the truth. So He told the young man. His priorities were misplaced. He was holding onto security and comfort in his possessions. He was vested in the temporal things that would pass away and have no value in the eternal that the young man craved. So Jesus tells him to give it up. To let it all go, help the poor with it, and come and follow Christ. He was to let go of his own comfort and security and focus his attention on feeding the poor and helping the weak. It would be a great sacrifice for him. He would lose everything he relied upon and become a poor, itinerate rabbi following Jesus around. But He would be investing in the eternal treasure of men and women’s hearts. He would find eternal life and satisfaction in community, friendship, and brotherhood.
The young man walks away sad because of Christ’s answer. The cost is too much. He is too invested in the wealth he possesses, in the things it buys, the respect he gets. The eternal seems far off to him now, while the things he can do with his wealth now are immediate. He can’t give it all up. He can’t let it go. He grieves and he will go back to his old life. Jesus once described hell as a place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. I imagine that in a sense this man carried hell with him, as he moved through his days doing his usual routine, deep within him a sense of unhappiness and spiritual need gnawing at his heart. Never dying. Always reminding him that none of what he cherishes will last. Reminding him as he starts to find gray hairs and his laugh lines turn into wrinkles that it’s all in vain. Telling him that he will never find the happiness he seeks within himself or within the things he has dedicated his life to.
How does this apply to us? For starters, I think many of us feel that same sense of need. It hounds us. Reminds us that we lack something. We may believe the right things, sit in the right churches, but we still hear a voice deep within telling us that it’s not enough. That we wear the trappings of religion, but lack the authenticity. We vest ourselves in things that are temporary. We distract ourselves from our unhappiness with more things. Self-medication, books, television, politics, sex.
Christ’s call is to let it all go. Let go of the security blanket. Let go of the distractions. Let go of everything that is temporal and focus on the things that will last: people. We might not have to give up everything to follow Christ, but we should be willing to do so on a moment’s notice. It’s a hard lesson. It’s a difficult thing to do. To keep your heart free from entanglement with the temporal things. The culture ingrained within us values possessions. It values distractions. It values frivolity. It tells us that the eternal is a long way away and bids us to continue on for another day. Christ calls us to let it go and follow Him in a journey that does not guarantee comfort, safety, or wealth in this life, but promises that in death, there is new life and in loving people selflessly, there is the great reward of seeing them find eternity for themselves and silence the gnawing discomfort they have lived with for their entire lives.
We have a choice.