One of the difficulties, as well as one of the joys, of a lifetime of Christian discipleship is being confronted with your own shortcomings. It might be a failure to understand a key doctrine, or it might be a failure to live up to clear, biblical morality. What you once thought you knew like the back of your hand suddenly becomes a fog because of some new information. The way you once lived, thinking it was good and right and true, now seems to be at odds with reality.
One example of this is that of the rich, young ruler. We read about a young man who was clearly a first-born people-pleaser. This man’s whole identity was wrapped up in pleasing other people by keeping a close eye on how well he obeyed the law. He was meticulous when it came to obedience. It’s very difficult to be this kind of person, but it’s kind of the person we all like. They’re trustworthy. You know they’ll be where they should be when they should be. He’s likable. He’s ever going to offend anyone by saying the wrong thing.
You know someone like this in your own family or friends. You like them, but their inability to do anything wrong probably grates on you. Because you know that they do all the right things, but just the fact that they never do anything wrong makes you question what’s really under the hood. Nobody is this perfect.
This kind of guy gets his own personal interaction with Jesus in the story of the rich young ruler. He’s confronted with his own shortcomings when everyone else besides Jesus is just so proud of him. This is the guy who dads want dating their daughters, who we want in charge of things, who we want to throw into leadership, but Jesus doesn’t pull any punches. People pleasing isn’t going to get this guy as far as he thinks. Being in a position of power isn’t going to save this man.
This kind of person is found on both sides of the biblical aisle. Those who hold to a biblical morality and ethics can become proud of it. They live lives of strict adherence to a principled code of ethics and biblical doctrine, as we should. But it’s possible to make meeting the demands of the law the way of salvation.
Those who hold to a social gospel and spend their days arguing for progressive cultural changes can become proud of it. They think they’re actually making a difference in someone else’s life, so they sleep easy. But cultural changes do not deal with the effects of sin in the inner man.
This man’s whole life is rooted in forming an identity, described as someone who never strays or steps out of line, who supposedly takes the law of God more seriously than others. But the correction that Jesus offers is not to form an identity based on anything you do, but to see Jesus for who he is and the identity he gives you.
This man who has kept all the laws since he was a child still has no peace. He still doubts that he’ll one day inherit eternal life. Just not breaking the rules does not necessarily lead to any kind of assurance. But that’s the point. For many of us, there’s a place where, if it’s touched, we recoil. Some things are easier to give up than others, or to repent of than others. But there are other identity markers, where if we’re confronted, we refuse to give it up, and we walk away sorrowful and sad like this man. But in the gospel, we lose our fear of losing our identity
Losing everything for Jesus means inheriting everything.
At certain times, everyone needs a soft correction. And that’s exactly what Jesus offers this man. We’re told that when Jesus looked at this man, he loved him. There were plenty of people with whom Jesus was angry, but that’s not mentioned here. There were plenty of people with whom Jesus was frustrated, but that’s not mentioned here. Jesus took pity on this man. He loved him.
When we’re prone to make what we do the foundation of our faith and assurance, it won’t be long before we’re knocked off our pedestal. There were Pharisees who believed their performance was what made them a good person. Good works were a performance to get the admiration of others and eternal life from God. Jesus had little patience for performances.
But with this young man, Jesus sees a man struggling with his faith. The young man desperately wants to take care of it himself. So if you’re someone who isn’t performing your faith to get the applause of others, but you’re struggling to see what real faith is, this tragic story calls us to consider the kind of salvation that Jesus offers and how it’s infinitely better.
Before this man approaches Jesus, Jesus is teaching in public. The crowd was bringing children to Jesus so they could see him and he could bless them. His closest disciples thought the children were a distraction or a hindrance to what Jesus was trying to do. But when he sees what’s going on, we’re told that Jesus was “indignant”, or angry. Children were a major audience for Jesus. He never turned them away. That’s why Jesus responds to this attitude of children being a bother by telling the disciples, “Let the children come to be; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
It’s only after this that this man, described in other gospels as the rich, young ruler, approaches Jesus with a question about the way into eternal life. First, Jesus says,
vv.17-19: To inherit eternal life, look to the Scriptures.
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”
This man runs ahead of the crowd to get to Jesus, and he calls him “good teacher.” Why does Jesus answer the man the way he does? “Why do you call me good?” Is Jesus rejecting the man calling him good? Wouldn’t that mean Jesus is rejecting being equated with God?
It’s interesting that nowhere else is Jesus called “good” by anyone else. “Good teacher” wasn’t a common title for a rabbi, and there’s no record of it inside or outside the Bible. What this man is doing is trying to flatter Jesus. He’s a people pleaser. We’ll find out soon that he’s an outstanding, law-abiding citizen. He’s a rich man. You don’t get rich without having a strong mind and being self-motivated. He’s young. Most young men have to be taught to respect their elders, which he does. He’s a ruler, which means he probably holds an office in one of the local synagogues. He’s a respected person trying to shower respect on someone else to get his respect, as well.
But Jesus says that only God is good. Right off the bat, Jesus basically tells this rich young man, “You don’t really know who God is. All the things you do, you do for yourself.” And Jesus never says, “Don’t call me good, cause I’m not good.” Without saying too much, he just tells this man that only God is to be called truly good.
Moving beyond that, Jesus turns this man’s mind to the Scriptures by quoting from the ten commandments. It’s telling that Jesus only quotes commandments 5 through 10, which are the commandments that have to do with the relationships between people. Commandments 1 through 4 are all about the relationship of man to God. So Jesus has told this man that he has a misguided doctrine of God. And he’s about to call into question the motivations behind his adherence to the commandments about men.
The thing about the law is that many of them are easy to do, but none of them are easy to do for the right reasons. Not murdering someone is easy, but how many of us have had some kind of deep desire to hurt someone else? Most people won’t commit adultery, but how easy is it to train your eyes and your mind to refuse to look at him or her, this or that? He had amassed a tremendous amount of wealth, and it had blinded him to everything that was underneath the law. So Jesus tells him,
vv.20-22: To inherit eternal life, leave this life behind.
And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “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.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
This young man assures Jesus that everything Jesus just told him that he needs to do, he has done. It was common for a Jewish male to be considered an adult around age 13, and from that point on, he would be accountable for keeping the law of Moses. So what this man is saying is that as long as he’s been accountable, he’s never broken the law. It’s an incredible statement, but it’s not unusual. The apostle Paul says something similar when he’s giving an account of his Jewish pedigree in Philippians 3. He says that he was “blameless” when it came to all that the law demanded.
And this amazing statement comes next. “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He sees a man struggling. This man is so good at keeping the law and yet so bad at loving God and loving others. If he really knew what the law required, he would see that he has never really loved God as he should. He would see that he never really loved his neighbor as he should. In Romans 7, Paul demolishes the argument that anyone can truly keep the law. In fact, when the law was given, sin came to life, because now there were names for the sins we had committed. And before the law was given, the sins that we committed, even without specific laws and names for those sins, were all committed because no one has ever loved God as he deserves, which is the foundation of all sin.
Jesus is asking this man, “Do you really love God? Do you really not idolize anything? Do you really find your only comfort in this life and the next in the promises of God? Or do you actually feel comfortable because of your wealth? Because of your attempt at being a law-abiding citizen? Is your security in the things you have and the things you do?”
The one thing this man lacked was the only thing that matters: unconditional, unmatched, unwavering love of God. And the barrier was what he did and what he had. So Jesus tells the man to give it all away as a way of proving to the man where his allegiance really was.
If you were in this man’s shoes, and you asked Jesus the way to eternal life, what would he tell you to do? Would he tell you to give it all away? What does giving it all away look like for you? Where’s the bone of contention? What’s the unrecognized idol? Is it the comforts of money and wealth? Is it name recognition? Is your good works? What makes you get defensive? What specifically would Jesus call out as what you need to give away to inherit eternal life? What is it that, if you were asked to do it, would immediately stop you in your tracks and say, it can’t be done?
Now to be clear, Jesus is not adding anything to the finished work of salvation. He’s not saying that there’s anything that you and I must do to inherit eternal life. He’s making a point to the man and to us. Eternal life is a gift. If God was supreme in his life, if love of God surpassed any creature comfort, then how would anything in this world compare to God? It’s not that this man could not be saved, or that his salvation depended on his own sacrificial generosity; that actually misses the point. Because immediately, Jesus says that…
vv.23-27: To inherit eternal life, God must give it.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
“All things are possible with God” is one of those lines that’s used for all kinds of purposes. But when Jesus says it, he’s talking about the impossibility of salvation. No amount of money, generosity, or good deeds will ever merit your salvation. The difficulty with wealth is its capacity, or potential, to blind us to that reality. Wealth offers comfort, ease, and security, none of which are any great evil. Wealth also offers more chances for sacrificial generosity, which Scripture always commends. Perhaps in ways that other temptations do not, money has potential to ruin us.
But then, Jesus expands beyond the wealthy and says that it is difficult for anyone to enter the kingdom of God! The rich man was simply a jumping-off point. And clearly, Jesus is speaking to those who will enter the kingdom. He calls them his children, and in the previous passage, Jesus just blessed the children who came to him. You must enter the kingdom as a child, with a child-like disposition, with dependence not on money or works, but on God alone. He’s saying to them, “Remember what I said about how the kingdom belongs to children? Then come to me like a child, with empty hands, nothing of any worth of your own, but in joyful love and trust.”
All this time, the disciples thought they were shoe-ins for the kingdom. They thought they got it. But when Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to shove itself through the eye of a needle, all of a sudden, they realize entrance into the kingdom isn’t achieved the way they had expected. When they ask, “Then who can be saved?”, the relief comes when Jesus says that God gives it, and that’s the only way to be granted eternal life, or entrance into his kingdom. Then Peter pipes up again. So Jesus tells them,
vv.28-31: To inherit eternal life, live for Christ now.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Peter speaks for the group as the lead disciple. The young man has just made something of a fool of himself, so to contrast themselves with the man, Peter reminds Jesus just how much they have left behind to be disciples.
The usage of saying the reward will be a hundredhold in this time and in the age to come sounds an awful lot like the parable of the soils where Jesus says that when the seed is planted in good soil, the harvest is thirty-, sixty-, or a hundredfold. But here it’s not just the harvest at the end of the age, but both present and future blessings. There is nothing you will lose or give up now that will not be returned to you and multiplied graciously in the age to come.
What’s incredible is that it’s not just things, but people, as well. When you confess that Jesus is Lord, you inevitably place some distance between yourself and those who do not. That distance isn’t meant to be cruel or mean, but the things of God are foolishness to the heart that rejects him. It’s completely natural. You may want to share your faith with your family and friends, but they may not want to hear it, and that causes some distance. Now with God, all things are possible, so that distance is not a barrier for him.
Jesus says that in confessing him as Lord, you leave behind your old self, your house, your family, your land. That’s precisely what has always been required of those who pursue righteousness. God told Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). Lands, siblings, and everything you know. Come out of your old ways and into God’s kingdom.
But that doesn’t mean a life of ease. When we enter into God’s kingdom, into eternal life, we gain a new family, new brothers, sisters, mothers, one Father, as well as a new land, one that waits for us in the age to come. We are a part of a new kingdom, but until that kingdom comes in its fullness, we will face persecutions. We will be mocked. We will be abandoned by those who once loved us. We’ll be re-classed. But are you willing to give it all away and follow him? Are you willing to lose your great life to inherit eternal life? Or will you walk away sorrowful, because what you have is so great?
This passage is often preached to show the merits of altruism, or the extreme selflessness that forces you to sell everything you have to give it away. One of many problems you now have is that you’re a pauper and starving your family.
When Jesus quotes from the ten commandments to this rich, young official, he doesn’t even bother quoting any of the commandments about obeying and loving God. Why is that? Because this man worshiped an idol. He didn’t worship the one, true God. If Jesus had listed the four commandments about obeying God, the man could not have said that he had kept the laws since his youth. Sure, he gave his sacrifices, his tithes, and he went to the festivals. But keeping a chair warm is not the same as a heart that’s warm toward God. So instead of a direct attack, Jesus actually gets to the heart of the matter and tells this man to take his idol and toss it into the fire. He tells him to take his many possessions, sell them, and give away the money.
When we’re confronted with the truth about our idols, we will get defensive. Sometimes that looks like ignoring what we have just learned and going away sorrowful. Sometimes that looks like outbursts of anger. But losing everything for Jesus means inheriting everything. There is nothing in this world that’s worth ignoring Jesus Christ. Losing everything for Jesus means inheriting everything.