READ : Mark 10:21-22
And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
Mark 10:21-22 rsv
We often call him “the rich young ruler,” but nowhere do we find in the gospels that exact description. Only Matthew tells us he was young. Only Luke lets us know that he was a ruler. The point at which all agree is that he was rich. His encounter with Jesus was poignant and memorable.
Let’s think about it together. Listen. I’m reading from Mark, chapter 10:
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 but God alone. You know the commandments: `Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
A FINE YOUNG MAN
There’s much to admire in this young man. He comes running to Jesus, apparently eager to find Him, happy to be in His presence. And when he comes, he kneels in the dust, expressing great respect, perhaps even reverence. He obviously has a high regard for the man from Nazareth.
Further, he addresses Him as “Good Teacher.” Jesus to this man was a rabbi with wisdom to give instruction. He sees Him also as a person of character, a teacher who lived what He taught, who embodied the good life.
We notice also that He is concerned about important issues. His question was anything but trivial. He wants to know about eternal life, about the future that God has in store for His people. He wants to be able to inherit God’s kingdom. He wants to become a child, an heir of the most high God. That’s a goal eminently worth seeking, isn’t it?
We learn also that he has sought earnestly to keep God’s commandments. When Jesus reminds him of what we call the second table of the law, God’s order for how we treat other people, the man expresses his zeal, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” For as long as he can remember, he has been aware of God’s commandments and earnest about keeping them. Not everyone can say that about the years of childhood and adolescence.
And this is no idle boast for him. Jesus doesn’t contradict the inquirer. Rather, He seems to accept the truth of his claim, saying that he still lacks one thing. We see in this man someone like the apostle Paul in his early years, zealous beyond his peers in fulfilling the law.
And I see one more thing to admire. The ruler was honest. When the cost of discipleship was presented to him, he would not profess a commitment he wasn’t ready to make. He didn’t promise in a careless, superficial way to be a follower. No bravado with him: “Lord, I’ll follow You wherever You go.” This man counted the cost and found it too much to pay. But he didn’t try to serve two masters. He was straightforward enough to know that he couldn’t have it both ways.
What if a fellow like this comes to a church of which you are the pastor. Here he is, eager, reverent, concerned about spiritual things. He tries to keep all of God’s commandments. He won’t compromise his integrity. What more could you want? Can anyone imagine a better candidate for membership? Surely, most congregations would receive him with open arms and even appoint him right away to the church board!
WHAT WAS LACKING?
But along with these impressive credentials, the man shows also some areas of weakness. He seems supremely self-confident, at times unrealistically so. He wants to learn from Jesus how he can inherit eternal life. That’s a worthy quest. But he seems to believe that he can bring this off by something he does. “What shall I do for this to be mine?” Then, when Jesus ticks off the commands, the man claims to have obeyed them universally. We hear from Him no acknowledgement of wrong, no hint of shortcoming. He’s done it all. What room is left for improvement? If it would be too severe to call him arrogant, we have to say at the least that he is naive.
But this is what jars us more about this young man. When Jesus tells him one thing that he needs and invites him, “Come, follow me,” the young man’s face falls. He’s disappointed. He’s feeling down. He goes away gloomy. How could that happen? How could anyone come to Jesus full of questions and good intentions, hear His word and then turn away sad?
Mark tells us it was because the man had “great possessions.” Jesus had said, “Sell all that you have and give to the poor.” That surely wouldn’t have made this man sad if he had been destitute. He would have consented in a moment then, because there would have been nothing to lose. But this young ruler had quite a bit to sell. This would have involved a major give-away. Maybe it was an estate, received from his parents, or maybe the profits of a highly successful business. Whatever the source, this fellow had a fortune, and the thought of giving it all away made him sick.
Shall we call him selfish, greedy? Perhaps, but are we sure we would have reacted differently had we been in his shoes? People of wealth tend to take what they have very seriously. It may have taken a lot of years and a lot of effort to accumulate. The thought of renouncing it all seems irresponsible to them, even intolerable. Wealthy people just don’t do things like that, at least not without a lot of careful consideration. Would you have been willing, right on the spot, to sign it all away? That’s a pretty final thing to do – and scary.
Riches, apparently, represented security for this man. The thought of losing all that seemed terrifying to him. For years he had counted on the fact that he would never have anything to worry about financially. He would always have the power to buy what he needed, to provide for his family, to live well. Jesus’ call sounded like radical insecurity.
And that’s where his greatest problem lay. He had trouble believing what the Lord said, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” According to Jesus, this transaction wouldn’t be a total loss. In fact, out ahead there would be a better kind of riches, something supremely valuable. But the man couldn’t imagine how that could be. He couldn’t bring himself to accept the idea that some future benefit would be valuable enough to warrant letting everything go now, so his heart sank. A great heaviness settled over his spirit. He turned to go away. The zest and eagerness he had shown in coming was long gone. His head was down.
HOW JESUS DEALT WITH HIM
Now notice a few things about the way Jesus dealt with this inquirer. He began by testing him. To the address: “Good Teacher,” Jesus answered, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Some have seen this as a rebuke. On this view, Jesus regards the greeting as flattery and rejects it. Others see Him here denying that He’s ultimately good or that He is one with the father. But both of those ways of explaining Jesus’ words seem unsatisfying to me. He did not take the man’s coming lightly, nor did He want to deny the deep mystery of who He was. Rather, He’s inviting this inquirer to think carefully about what he’s saying. The wisdom to teach and the power to be good ultimately come from God. Jesus wants the man to realize that the answer to his question and search is in God alone.
Then notice how Jesus touched unerringly on the sensitive point in this man’s life. In listing the commandments, Jesus did not include, “Thou shalt not covet.” He seems to have known somehow the heart of this man’s problem. And when he replies that he has kept all these from his youth, Jesus begins to talk about selling what he has and giving to the poor. That was a bull’s eye. Some have argued from this that Jesus wants everyone to sell his or her belongings and give them to the poor, but the Lord apparently did not give this instruction to everyone who offered himself as a follower. Some who were rich were apparently not urged to take this drastic step. This was a personalized call, as the call of Jesus always was. It was to a distinct someone like you and me. In a particular situation, Jesus raised with this man the key issue for him.
Was this the one thing that the man lacked, that he should give away everything? In one sense, yes. In another, that was only a pointer to the one thing. The all-important thing for this man and for us is a single-hearted devotion to God, obedience to the first command. The fact that this man went away with a darkened countenance makes it clear that he had made riches a kind of idol, from which he couldn’t bring himself to part.
That’s how Jesus makes the call personal and specific for us. What is the master you may be tempted to serve? What is the darling idol that threatens to capture your heart? The call of Jesus to you will zero in on that. Maybe it will be wealth, possessions, maybe not. Perhaps for you it could be popularity. Having the good opinion of others means more to you than just about anything you can think of. You’d be willing to keep quiet about your convictions or even go against your conscience to be well thought of by certain important people. Jesus might say to you, “Sell that and follow Me.”
Maybe for you there’s a hobby or a pleasure that has so grown in importance for you that you shape everything else around it. Indulging yourself there takes priority over your vocation or your relationships with your loved ones. Jesus might say to you, “Sell that.” Or maybe you’ve been trusting in your own performance, your own deserving to make you acceptable to God. Your confidence is in your record rather than in His grace. The Lord may be saying to you, “Sell all that and follow Me.”
With Him the command is also a gift. When Jesus said to the man, “Come, follow me,” He was offering Himself. Jesus is the answer to this man’s question, and ours. He is the way to eternal life. To inherit life, to take hold of it, is to receive the gift offered to us in the person of Jesus Christ, to welcome Him as our Savior and our King.
Mark writes that as Jesus looked on the young man and gave him this charge, He loved him. He saw his weakness, knew the idol he was clutching, felt his spiritual peril, but loved him, cared deeply for him, wanted him to have life.
But it was the kind of love that could let him walk away sorrowful. There was no pleading from Jesus, no compromising of the call, no adjusting of the terms. He left the man free and let him live with his decision.
WAS HE READY LATER?
We don’t know what happened after that, but I have a hunch the rich young ruler eventually became a follower of Jesus. You see, the word of the Lord had really reached his heart. He was sad when he turned away, and that inner distress may have later brought him back. Maybe he had to go through that first in order to make a deep, real, lasting commitment.
In the first church I served, I invited a man named Art to a pastor’s class for church membership. At the end of those classes I would customarily ask the persons involved if they were ready now to make a commitment to Christ and His Church. I knew that Art had been listening intently so I was surprised when he gave me his answer: no, he wasn’t ready. He didn’t give me much light on why. Later on I learned. Art had been a man much given to profanity, especially at his work. He knew that that would have to change if he was to live as a Christian. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be different or could be.
One day several weeks after our conversation, someone on the job said, “What’s the matter with you, Art? You don’t talk like you used to.” Somewhere along the line, the profanity had all dropped out of his speech and he hadn’t even been aware of it. That settled it for Art. He came to me and said, “I’m ready now.” And he was. When I visited that congregation recently, almost 30 years later, Art was a key officer in the church, still serving Jesus Christ.
I like to hope it was that way for the rich young ruler. He wasn’t ready at first, but later he realized what real treasure is. But whether that happened for him or not, I hope most of all that it will happen for you, and you’ll find yourself willing to let go whatever may be holding you back and say a great big yes to Jesus Christ. Will you do that – right now? Will you join me in prayer like this: Lord, I hear Your call to me, and whatever it is that I’m holding back, I offer it to You today. I want to be Your follower. I put my trust in You, Lord Jesus. I give my life to You now. Amen.