I made the case Monday that, contrary to what might be our first impression, Jesus is not telling the rich young man in Matthew 19 that he can be saved by selling his possessions and giving the money to the poor. What, then, is he telling him?
The young man starts by asking Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” What’s implied in this question is that whatever Jesus tells him to do, he’s willing to do it, and assumes that he’ll be able to do it. Jesus’ response is somewhat abrasive: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” Right off the bat, this should make the man question his original assumption. If there’s only One who is good (presumably not him!), then what should make him think he can do whatever “good deed” is required for eternal life?
Jesus’ next response should also give the man pause: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Note that he does not say “If you would enter life, try to keep the commandments.” Or “If you would enter life, keep most of the commandments.” Or even “if you would enter life, have a lifestyle that generally reflects the commandments.” No, he simply says, “Keep the commandments.” Like, all 614 of them (or whatever). All the time. Without exception. For your entire life.
This is where our hero should say something like “But I haven’t! I can’t! Now what?” But he doesn’t miss a beat. Instead, he says, “Which ones?” Give me some specific criteria, Jesus. So Jesus does: “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.” Notice that, with the exception of the last one, Jesus generally picks commandments that are more externally-oriented– or at least seem to be. Most of us would feel like we could look at that list and say, “Done.” That’s what the young man says. “All these I have kept.” OK, Jesus, I’ve done all that. Check. Now what?
So here’s what’s gone on so far. The man has asked Jesus what “good deed” is necessary for eternal life. Jesus has said obedience to God’s commandments is necessary, and the man responds (!) that he has done that. Obeyed God’s commands. All of them (or at least the ones Jesus listed as examples). He’s claiming his own righteousness on the basis of having fulfilled God’s law. It’s in that context we have to look at Jesus’ response: “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.”
Now, keep in mind: Jesus is the one who searches hearts, who “knew what was in a man.” He knows this kid is not about to go sell all his stuff. Sure enough, as soon as the young man hears Jesus’ words, he goes away sad, because he has so many possessions. But he said he would do whatever he needed to! What just happened here?
What just happened is that Jesus held up a mirror to the young man’s heart. If he were keeping the commandments of God, he would, among other things, “Love the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might.” If he did that, not to mention if he “loved his neighbor as himself,” then selling a bunch of camels and giving away the money wouldn’t be any problem at all. But in reality, his heart is caught up in his riches. He does not love God with his whole heart– his affection is divided between God and his stuff. He’s an idolater. He can’t truthfully say about God’s commandments, “All these I have kept.” Jesus shows him that, and he’s unable and unwilling to turn away from his idolatry.
The story of the rich young ruler isn’t about how much we need to do to enter eternal life, as though if the man had sold his possessions Jesus would have congratulated him and said “Now you’ve done enough.” The story tells us there’s nothing we can do– we are incapable of obeying God’s law the way we would have to to earn eternal life. We are the rich young man; we share in his idolatry. Like him, we have to let go of our own efforts, abandon hope in our own righteousness, and flee to the One who alone is good.