“Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Matt 19:16 NRSV
So begins the story of the “rich young ruler” in Matthew.
There’s a lot said negatively about this man, some founded and some unfounded. But let’s start by giving him the benefit of the doubt. He comes to Jesus, recognizing Him as a Rabbi with authority, to ask about how to attain eternal life. It seems as if at first that he is appealing to do something over and above what is necessary regarding the law, as he is asking about a “good deed” and not a general “what do I do”. No doubt that Jesus had many ask him this as it would be a question pressing to many Jews. No doubt the Pharisees and Sadducees had their own teachings on this and I would imagine people going from Rabbi to Rabbi (like the way people church-hop today) to gather opinions and find one that they find best fitting and proper, or most convenient for them.
Jesus’ initial response is interesting. He simply says “keep the commandments”. No doubt the other Rabbis said the same, so our inquisitor says, “which ones?” This sounds a bit ridiculous to us but bear in mind that the Jews were dealing with centuries of debate over the Tanakh and its interpretation. These debates were yet to be written down, but were passed along as oral history. So there was no doubt a lot of confusion and varying interpretations going around about the primacy of certain laws and so on. Jesus’ response is to summarize the more active, relational parts of the 10 commandments. No mention of the Sabbath or idols at all. It’s not that Jesus thinks these unimportant, but rather to me He is focusing on the relational aspect of the Law.
The man replies that he has done all these, so what else is necessary? Jesus cuts to the point – sell everything and give it to the poor. Perhaps that’s because he knew what the response would be. He also didn’t condemn or chastise the guy openly either. He didn’t question his motives, which is something many interpreters and preachers are want to do. However we know how the story ends, with the young man and Jesus both saddened at the inability to escape the grip of wealth.
Most of us come away tut-tutting this man who is unable to part with his stuff to follow Jesus, <sarcasm> which is the obvious thing to do of course </sarcasm>. However how many of us, when faced with the same choice, would do the same? This man was confronted with the fact that salvation was going to cost him more than one good deed – it was going to cost him everything, literally. We read this with the true application that we must give up everything for the sake of Christ. But how many of us ever do? Too often we make self-sacrifice a spiritual/metaphorical exercise, where we tell ourselves that if we were given the choice we would give it all up for Christ, while trusting that we probably won’t ever be faced with that choice. It’s sort of like me saying I could take out the school bully with one punch, meanwhile praying that I would never be faced with the necessity to do so. We maintain the luxury of “giving up everything” while still having it.
I would hope that if I were ever confronted face-to-face by the real, living Jesus and asked to sell all I had that I would do so. I actually think I would. However the chances of that happening are extremely slim. The chances of me selling everything to follow Christ at the admonition of someone else (like some schmuck on TV) are much more slim.
I for one easily see myself as the rich young ruler, tied to security that comes from worldly things, not cursing Jesus for asking too much but cursing myself for having so little faith in Him.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus not only tells this man to sell everything but to give it to the poor. This goes back to the relational element of the commandments Jesus refers to. Jesus seems to be pointing out that our stuff can not only get in the way of our relationship with Him but with others as well.
So what does this tell me, do I need to go and do likewise? I doubt that my family would appreciate that. But something inside me longs to be able to do just that. I chase after those things and when I have them they in turn have me to a certain extent. They have my time and my concern, which should be directed elsewhere. How to reconcile this is still a puzzle to me. Yes I certainly need to be more “sold out” to Jesus and the Word. Still, that does not reconcile us fully to this and other teachings of Jesus that point out that following Him is costly business – not just in acceptance or other intangibles, but in everything.