17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
The more I read this text the less sure I am that Jesus actually wanted this man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor.
And the more I read this text the more sure I am that what Jesus most wanted this man to do was to follow him.
This man is living in a performance paradigm. What must I do to inherit eternal life? How can I achieve it. Obviously he thought it had to do with some measure of being “good.” Clearly he had done good. He had followed the rules from childhood. We know he respected authority from the way he ran up to Jesus and knelt down before him. After all, it’s the good son who inherits the estate, right?
I’m going to speculate at this point. I think this man was like so many others in that keeping the law for him had become about keeping the law– for him. He wanted to measure up, to meet the requirements in order to achieve (or inherit) the good life. He got the A yet he knew deeper down he was failing the course. He had everything he wanted yet he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. He was asking Jesus for the next assignment or accomplishment or test for his religious resume.
For Jesus, the law is never about the law. The law is an expression of the character of the Law Giver. The character of the Law Giver is Holy Love; the kind of love that gives Life. Now, because the Law Giver is about Love, the law actually becomes the training ground for this kind of life. What the law wants to do is to train me to live my life with your highest good in mind and to train you to live your life with my highest good in mind. The law is never about compliance for my sake but obedience for your sake. The law is meant to train us to love in such a way that the law is no longer needed because it has become written on our hearts. It’s why the “Golden Law” is to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s why when Jesus is asked about the Greatest Law he renders it according to the Love of God and neighbor.
When we make keeping the law about keeping the law it’s all about the self-interest of getting the A. This is how you get the A and fail the course. You see the man’s question tips us off to the big problem we are dealing with. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Did you catch it? The big problem is self-interest. This is the big problem of the human race.
This man had a ton of money. Let’s just stipulate he was a billionaire of his time. I think we could be pretty sure he kept the law on tithing—10%. He can check the box yet at the same time he can live in extraordinary comfort while men, women and children are starving to death all around him. Sure, he probably has a foundation and gives to charity and has his name on buildings and bridges and such, but deep down when everything gets quiet (which is probably rare because of the pain of it) he knows that he knows that though he has everything he ever wanted he still hasn’t found the life he is looking for. This man is insecure at the core of his being and has given his life to amassing external security only to find it actually produced more internal insecurity. Sure, he will throw the poor a bone yet even that is to make him feel better about himself.
Jesus knows. He sees straight through the religious smoke screen. This man doesn’t have wealth. Wealth has him and it is literally choking the life out of him. (See also soil #3 in the parable of the Sower). Jesus saw the poisoned fruit of his self interested life and he went straight for the roots of the idolatry that had come to define his identity: his wealth.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
In my humble opinion– Jesus said “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor” in the same way he said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus is a master of overstating his case to make his point while never overplaying his hand.
It turns out the “law-keeper”, who was actually a “law-breaker”, found himself kneeling in the presence of the Law Giver who loved him enough to tell him the grace-filled truth. It’s like he was saying to the man, “You will never find Life until you release your death grip on the very thing that’s killing you– your attachment to your wealth. The life you seek will come through following me, and for you it begins right here. Can you let go?
Knowing that Jesus is looking upon us and loving us in these same ways, let’s invite the Holy Spirit to search us out and to give us the grace to let go of what holds us back.
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. Lord Jesus, thank you for loving us enough to tell us the truth—even when it hurts. Reveal the things we cling to; the sources of our false security. Bring me to a place of pure trust in you alone. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use me. For the glory of your name, Jesus. Amen.
On what foundation have we built our life and security and identity? What could we never imagine letting go of? What do we possess that really possesses us? What do we most fear the Lord might ask us to release? Why do we fear that?