“Life is a journey”… so we’re often told. I’ve always resonated with that description of life. Maybe you have too. Life is a journey, not only because it keeps moving forward and changing, but it also has a destination – life with God in the world to come.
Our Gospel reading for today begins by telling us that Jesus is on a journey. The journey referred to here, however, is not the journey of life. Rather, it’s a specific journey of Jesus—the one which will take him to the cross.
Jesus was committed to going on that journey. But while he was on his way there were still opportunities to teach and to help, especially as people approached him. In last Sunday’s reading Jesus was approached by the Pharisees. They had questions about marriage and divorce. Jesus was next approached by his disciples. They wanted to keep him from being bothered by children. And now, in today’s reading, Jesus is approached by a rich young ruler. Our text from Mark only says he was rich, but when we read the story as recorded by Matthew and Luke we find out that he was also young and a ruler.
When this rich young ruler approaches Jesus he does so by running up to him and kneeling before him. This gives us the picture of a man who is eager and ambitious, yet also earnest and mannerly. He’s the kind who does well in the world, in any age. In our day he’d be the one who had attended a top school and then gone on to a successful career start in law, politics or business.
The Pharisees may have asked their questions to Jesus because they felt threatened by him, and others may have approached Jesus out of some immediate need of theirs, such as healing from a disease. But this man’s situation is much different. He has no immediate needs, so it seems. He’s a rich, young ruler. Still, he has something on his mind. He has a question which most people want to know—regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, young or old, a ruler or a follower.
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks.
Certainly Jesus would commend him for seeking an answer to this question. Some people aren’t concerned about the next life. Some people think this life is all there is. Yet most of us have a sense that there is something beyond the grave. Those who have undergone a near-death experience almost universally speak about more life to come, and the world’s great religions are agreed that death is not the end.
Notice, too, that the man asks the question using the word “I.” “What must I do?” He’s not asking the question in the abstract. He’s not trying to engage Jesus in a theological debate. He simply wants to know. He has heard of the great age to come from the scriptures. Prophets such as Isaiah spoke joyously about those days, comparing them to a great, ongoing feast where suffering and tears are no more. The man wants to make sure he gets there. He doesn’t want to miss out.
The man’s question to Jesus shows some good understanding. The life to come is indeed much desired, and not everyone will get there. However, the question also shows one big misunderstanding that must be corrected.
The man wants to know what he must “do.” The truth is—he can’t do anything. He can’t earn eternal life. He can’t make it into the promised age to come on his own.
We Lutherans would have liked Jesus to explain this truth to the man as simply and directly as I just stated it—that he can’t do anything to earn eternal life. Because of our theological background that’s where our mind immediately goes. But Jesus doesn’t take this route. He’s got another path in mind.
The first response Jesus gives is to challenge the man’s choice of address. The man had called him “good teacher.” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus replies. “No one is good but God alone.”
This response seems a little off topic. Even more, it seems a little concerning to us. Is Jesus saying he’s not good, and that he’s not God? No. Jesus is not denying his goodness. Jesus deserves to be called “good,” for he is indeed God. But the man wouldn’t know that. Jesus would make his divinity clear at a later time. Here, Jesus is concerned about the man’s question of obtaining eternal life. So, he seizes on the man’s words to make a different point. God alone is good. People are not. The man should think about that – especially in light of Jesus’ next words.
Those next words of Jesus are: “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.’” Here Jesus lists the second table of the Ten Commandments—the ones which speaks to our relationship with our fellow men. Why doesn’t he list the first three—the ones which speak to our relationship with God? Jesus is hinting at the man’s real problem. He’s doing fine in his relationship with others, so he thinks. But something is definitely lacking in his relationship with God. Jesus will soon make this clear. But first he wants to give the man an opportunity to respond. He’s leading the man to a place of important discovery.
The man responds without hesitation. He’s confident, and a quick learner too. This time he doesn’t say “good teacher,” he simply says “teacher.” He shows Jesus how obedient he is. And then he states it: “All these I have kept from my youth.”
How does one respond to such a statement? Certainly the man had NOT kept the commandments, at least not in the way that he should. Keeping the commandments requires perfection in keeping with God’s holiness. Keeping the commandments is more than just being better than average or even in the top of the class. The man had certainly broken the commandments plenty of times. The fact that he asked about how to inherit eternal life shows he had a sense that he wasn’t measuring up. Yet things had gone so well for this rich young ruler that another part of him thinks he must be doing just fine.
How does one respond to this statement? Again, the Lutheran theologian in us would probably launch into a rebuttal, fortified with David’s song about being “sinful from conception” and Jeremiah’s reminder that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” Yes, all of us are sinful. St. Paul said it very directly in Romans 3: “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But Jesus didn’t often speak in such theological language. He made his points in other ways, as he does here.
But first, before that point of Jesus is recorded for us, our Gospel writer notes that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. We shouldn’t pass that detail by. Jesus was about to send the man away sad, but what he says to him he says out of love. Likewise, the man may have had a great misunderstanding about his own moral standing, but Jesus loved him nonetheless. He loved him so much that he was ready to shake him up in order to teach him his truth.
So Jesus says something that he knows will conclude the conversation. It is a hard saying, but it was what the man needed. “One thing you lack,” said Jesus, “Sell everything you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”
The man did indeed go away sad. And let’s face it, we feel a little sorry for the man. It seems unreasonable for Jesus to demand that he sell everything. It also seems rather unloving for Jesus to give this saying without further explanation.
And yet, Jesus loved the man and knew what he needed, just as he knows what each of us needs. Jesus loves us all, and he wishes to teach us, to mold and shape us into the people he wishes us to be. He wants us to be good theologians and good people. He wants us to be workers in the Kingdom. He wants us to inherit eternal life. In order to accomplish these things sometimes Jesus needs to shake us up. So he did with the rich young ruler.
Our Gospel writer knew what was going on. The reason the young man went away sad, we’re told, was because he had great possessions. These great possessions meant too much to him. Jesus had poked him where it hurt. Next Sunday we will read the rest of this section from Mark 10 where Jesus goes on to speak about the challenges of being wealthy. But for today, concentrating on just the first part of the text, we note that wealth and possessions can have such a hold on us that they keep us from understanding God’s Word.
The rich young ruler walked away disheartened because he loved his possessions. And yet, certainly there was something else going on as well. The man also walked away because all he could see in that moment was his own failure. The truth of the matter was, he hadn’t kept the commandments. He hadn’t even kept the First Commandment. He’d let his possessions become his god. And seeing only his failure he walks away sad. That’s how it ends with all who think they must do something to inherit eternal life. Sooner or later they realize they’re not doing enough, and they end up walking away sad because they believe there is no life for them.
But how wrong they are! Eternal life is a gift. It can’t be earned. It can’t be deserved by any sinful human being. Jesus came to give it freely to poor sinners who confess that they have been sinful from their youth and could never do enough to make up for it.
Jesus doesn’t wish for us to walk away sad. He wishes us to stay and listen to him. He wishes us to eagerly approach him on our knees and receive his words of life. Yes, his words may sometimes shake us up when that is what we need. But they will always give great comfort and joy when we hear them in their entirety and trust them. His are the words of eternal life.
Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. Jesus gives the eternal life he has earned to us—it’s our inheritance as his forgiven children. The great irony in this text is that the rich young ruler knew the language of “inheriting” eternal life, but he was too used to relying on himself and what he could do. His great talents and ethics had earned him the praise of his fellow men, but they could not earn him eternal life. There is only One who is good enough for eternal life. Out of his great mercy and love that One, Jesus Christ, shares it freely with those who listen and those who follow.
“What must I do?” is a question we’re used to asking. Our school has requirements, our job has requirements and our community has requirements. God, too, makes requirements of his people. We are to live a certain way, and the journey of that way is not easy. But when it comes to eternal life we have a Savior, Jesus Christ. May that knowledge of our Savior sustain us on our journeys and keep us on the path to eternal life. In the name of Jesus. Amen.