The man who fell on his knees at Jesus’ feet seemed to have the perfect recipe for human happiness. Mark tells us he was wealthy. (Mark 10:22) Luke tells us that he was powerful, a ruler. (Luke 18:18) Matthew tells us that he was young. (Matthew 19:20, 22) (Incidentally, the fact that the Holy Spirit had this incident recorded in three of the four Gospels tells us that the lesson taught here is important and worth repeating.) Young, rich, and powerful. That’s what everyone wants because that’s what the world says will make us happy. His wealth and power were likely inherited, because in Jesus’ day you didn’t ordinarily acquire wealth and power at a young age unless you inherited it. And so, the young man’s question makes sense: what must I do to inherit eternal life?
This man has everything you could want in life but he still felt an emptiness, a hollowness, he knew he was lacking something. Something money couldn’t buy and power couldn’t grab. Do you know what it is? An answer to his own mortality; a cure for death. A way to make sense of the harsh reality that you may possess everything this world can offer – but you can’t take any of it with you. It’s no coincidence that what nagged at this young man’s heart nags at the heart of every human being. Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) We all have an inkling that there’s something more, something bigger than us, something beyond our five senses. Everyone understands, sooner or later, that even the best this world can offer eventually vanishes, like a breath of vapor on a cold day. And that’s what brought this rich, young ruler to his knees before Jesus.
Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees who were constantly trying to trip Jesus up, to trap him in his words – this man was sincere. He really wants to know – needs to know – how to get and be sure of eternal life. He has a notion – the same notion we all naturally have: do good. Do enough good and you will have eternal life. Good teacher he says, recognizing that Jesus himself is someone who seems to have an idea about eternal life and is certainly also a doer of good. Jesus throws his flattery back at him. Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone. Jesus means what he says: no one is good. Not one. (Romans 3:10) We are all born with original sin, which means that even the “good” things we do are tainted by sin. (Isaiah 64:6) Only God is pure, unadulterated good. To call Jesus “good,” you must first call him God.
But he’s not looking for God to save him at this point, he’s looking for the one, last, greatest thing he can do to inherit eternal life for himself. Do you see the contradiction? How do you inherit anything? Do you do something? Certainly, you might try to butter up a rich aunt or uncle – you might make sure to call them on their birthday and show up to every family gathering to ensure your place in the will. But in the end, an inheritance requires two things: 1) someone to freely decide to give you their stuff; and 2) that someone to die. No doubt this young man understood this because someone, presumably his father, had died and left him his fortune and position of power.
And yet, he’s still convinced that eternal life is something he can earn. What must I do? The question shapes Jesus’ answer. “Doing” is all about the Law. Ask Jesus a law question and you will get a law answer. You can’t make the Law into Gospel, into good news – even though many try. Jesus obliges him: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother. There is enough good in those commandments to keep anyone occupied for a lifetime.
Teacher…all these I have kept since I was a boy. Does his answer surprise you? Clearly he hadn’t heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or read Luther’s Small Catechism – because if he had, he would understand that murder, lust, theft, false witness, fraud, and insubordination live in every human heart. We all are guilty of all these things – even if we’ve never been convicted in a courtroom. Ignoring a neighbor in need is murder, and so is hatred and wishing someone dead. Adultery is a lustful look at anyone but your spouse. False witness is not just offered in the courtroom, it’s served up at the dinner table and spread on social media. Fraud is “forgetting” to scan an item at the self-checkout or filing a shady tax return. Honoring father and mother includes all other authorities, too – even if we don’t like them.
Jesus’ response is fascinating, isn’t it? Instead of showing this man the spiritual side of the Law, Mark says, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Yes, this is what love looks like. And, for someone who is blind to their sin and boldly speeding down the highway to hell, this is what love sounds like: One thing you lack…go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Jesus aims right at the heart of this rich, young man. He looks into his heart the way only God can – and he sees a heart that is consumed with greed, enslaved by the idol of wealth. He sees someone who has failed to keep the 1st and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods. (Exodus 20:3)
Martin Luther explained the essence of the First Commandment like this: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. An idol is anything and everything we fear, love or trust more than God. The scary thing is that an idol doesn’t have to be a statue or live in a temple; most idols are invisible, they live in our hearts. Are there any idols living in your heart? A good test for idols is to assess your anxiety level. Someone once said that anxiety is the liturgy, the service, the sacrifice we offer to our idols when they inevitably fail to deliver. We fear the loss of youth, we love our riches, we trust our power to control not only our lives but the lives of others as well. And when they fail, we worry, we get anxious. And, in the sharp reversal that always comes from idolatry, the blame ends up falling on us instead of the idols. We fear death and so we worship the idol that promises the cure named Youth or Health. It involves religious devotion to exercise, to eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones!), to following doctor’s orders without question. But no matter how devoted we are – our bodies always end up breaking down and we all end up getting sick. And who’s to blame: you are! You didn’t serve your idol with the right diet, enough exercise, etc. We love Money because money seems to be able to buy happiness. But then we realize that the more stuff we have the more problems come with it or that we never have enough money to get what we want. And whose fault is it? Money doesn’t take the blame. It’s you. You didn’t buy the right thing, save enough, work hard enough. One of the most prevalent idols in our world is named Power. We strive for power and when we have it we think we can control our lives and the lives of those around us. But then we try it. Especially as parents and grandparents, we try to use our power to convince our families to do the right thing; for example, making worship a priority. But they ignore our pleas. They stubbornly despise the means of grace. And Power says that the problem is that you weren’t persuasive, passionate or convincing enough. It leaves us anxious and filled with worry. It exposes the idol living in our hearts.
Jesus loved this young man. He wanted to give him the one thing he lacked. What did he lack? It was not obedience or poverty or humility. What he lacked was faith. What he was missing was Jesus. What got in the way was his wealth and his power. And so Jesus comes up with the only possible cure: give it all away. Live up to the true spirit of the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31) by giving your wealth to those who need it more than you do. And understand, Jesus wasn’t saying that if he did, he would have earned eternal life for himself. No, Jesus used specific law to show this man that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He was trying to lead this man to repentance – the surgical method that God uses to cut idols out of our hearts – because then he would be ready for the real answer.
Did you catch the real answer? It’s easy to miss. It’s just two words: follow me. The young man did. All he heard was Jesus’ command to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor – another commandment, more law – this time, law he hadn’t and couldn’t keep. But because his heart was still captive to greed, he missed the answer. I doubt that anyone here doesn’t realize that there is more to life than youth, power and riches. But sometimes we still miss the answer to life’s most important question, don’t we? There are still things that get in the way of hearing and heeding Jesus’ invitation to follow him to eternal life. What is it for you? Your pride? Your stuff? Your sin? Your personal convenience? Your job? What would Jesus say to you? What would he tell you to get rid of? Don’t doubt that Jesus loves you just as much as he loved that young man – what would he see in your heart that prevents you from following him? It could be anything. Our hearts are perfectly capable of turning anything, any good gift from God, into an idol. Whatever it is, don’t wait, repent; because no idol is worth sacrificing eternal life for.
Mark ends by telling us that the young man went away sad. Did he hear and believe? Did he go home and do what Jesus said? Did he look at all his stuff and say, “This isn’t worth it” and give it all away? Did he eventually repent and come back to Jesus and follow him all the way to the cross and the tomb to receive the inheritance of eternal life? We don’t know. And that’s a good thing, because it forces us to step into that young man’s sandals and ask “what would I do?”
To be clear, the lesson is not that money is evil or that rich people can’t be saved. The point is that no one, not even rich, young, powerful people – can earn eternal life. What that young man hopefully realized what that it wasn’t really his wealth but his determination to earn his way into heaven that was preventing him from getting there. The real good news is that while we can’t earn eternal life – Jesus can and Jesus did – and he wants to give it to us for free. Jesus calls to us, just as he did to that young man, to follow him to the cross, to the tomb, to his resurrection to receive the gift of eternal life he has earned for us. He issued that invitation first to us in his Baptism and he does it daily through his Word. And remember that to follow Jesus does not mean to keep his rules, to follow his example, to ask what would Jesus do – and then do it. To follow Jesus means to trust that he has kept all the rules for you, that he has satisfied his Father’s demand for a perfectly good life, that he has suffered the punishment for your idolatry and greed so that you never will, that he died so that you might have eternal life.
In the end, the young man was so close to eternal life. He was right: eternal life is an inheritance. It can’t be earned, it can only be freely given. And an heir is exactly what God made you in baptism. (Romans 8:17) A down payment on your heavenly inheritance – Jesus’ own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins – are exactly what is distributed to you from this altar. (Matthew 26:17-29) The narrow path through this world of idols to eternal life is what is mapped out for you in the Word of God – whenever you hear it, read it and meditate on it. Don’t ask what you can or must do to earn eternal life, instead believe that it is yours by grace (a gift) through faith (not by your doing) for Jesus’ sake. And anything that gets in the way of you receiving it – no matter what it is – simply has to go. Compared to the riches of heaven Jesus died to earn for you no idol is worth serving for even a minute. Don’t take my word for it, just ask that sad young man – or even better, ask Jesus and then follow him to life. Amen.