Repent and Follow Jesus

Text: Mark 10:17-22
Date: Pentecost XIX (Proper 23) + 10/11/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

For the rich young man who came to Jesus, when he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he showed that it wasn’t his riches that was the problem. He was seeking to be justified on the basis of his own, outward keeping of the Law of God, the Ten Commandments. Jesus knew that the Law of God had not yet done its complete and proper work in this young man’s heart. For the proper work of the Law is not to “straighten you out,” but to make a man despair not only of earthly possessions and money but of the Law itself! That is, to realize and face the impossibility of being saved by means of works of the Law. It means to make us despair in order that we may flee for mercy to God’s grace alone as the only hope. So Jesus challenged him, saying, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The key, of course, was not in the “selling all you have,” but in the “follow me” part. But then, what do we see? We then read that the young man was disheartened and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. He didn’t “get it.” He did not follow Jesus. For him the answer Jesus gave was too much. For him that price of inheriting eternal life was too high. And he went away sorrowful.

It’s too bad; too bad the young man couldn’t have waited a few centuries. For, at various times in history (like ours today) Jesus’ followers would tend to be a little more lenient. Jesus didn’t really mean this as a requirement for everyone, did He? that everyone must sell everything they have and give to the poor? I mean, that’s not how a person gains heaven, is it? What happened to Ephesians 2:8-9, “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”? And Lutherans, of all people, know that a person is not saved by good works, but by faith alone as Martin Luther discovered in Paul’s letter to the Romans, saying, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:28). The entire reformation movement was based on this discovery when the church had been led astray into believing that salvation is something you earn by being good enough and doing deeds that earned God’s favor. We know better, don’t we? And yet to prove it seems at times that we tend to fall into the ditch on the opposite side of the road, doing no good works at all! How did James say it? “Faith without works…?”

But no, we do not find a contradiction here, that Jesus was somehow agreeing with this young man that it is possible for a fallen sinner to earn salvation by doing enough good works. Don’t you think it is interesting that Jesus says, “You know the commandments,” and then speaks only of those of the second table, those commandments having to do only with our relationships with other people—mother and father and other authorities, other people in their physical, personal and earthly well-being? Why does He not list the commands of the first table, those commands having to do with our relationship with God, acknowledging, identifying ourselves with and worshiping only the one, true God? Could it be to draw attention to the fact that you cannot fulfill the second table of the Law apart from first attending to your own spiritual well-being giving God first place in your life?

When the young man admitted that he felt that he had kept the Law of God ever since his bar-mitzvah, St. Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He loved him not because he was an especially impressive young man, which he probably was—handsome, full of potential—or of any other quality in him. No, Jesus looked on him with the same love with which He looks upon you and me and every sinner for whom He died because Jesus knows our real need and He was about to lead this young man to what he was really looking for. The only question was, would he follow Jesus’ lead?

This young man felt that he had done everything, had followed God’s Law as good as, but probably even better than anyone else his age. Yet he felt there was still something missing. That’s the same end result of both putting your trust in riches and possession and of attempting to please God by being good enough: emptiness; something is missing. He heard of and saw Jesus as a young preacher who seemed to have answers, who seemed to know that secret something that he was missing. “Good Teacher, what one thing that I haven’t thought of yet must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Actually, Jesus puts the answer right before him at the beginning as He asks the young man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” This, by the way, is a chief proof passage used by rationalists and Unitarians to claim that Jesus, by His own admission here, is not God. In actuality Jesus is saying exactly the opposite. The man’s otherwise merely polite greeting, “Good Teacher,” while maybe only intended as schmoozing actually tripped on the chief issue with regard to Jesus, namely, that He is God come in the flesh; that He came to live that perfect life thus fulfilling God’s Law for us perfectly and yet also to give Himself up as the only sufficient sacrifice for sin, for us and for our salvation.

The one thing this young man had not yet done, the key to it all, the one thing he felt was missing was true repentance, that is, to despair of his sin and helpless condition, and in that hunger and thirst for relief to come to Jesus Christ the righteous one and Savior Who is the light of the world, the water of eternal life, the bread of life come down from heaven to give eternal life to all. Repentance and faith means self-denial and self-surrender. It means being crucified with Christ, dying to self, renouncing our own achievements and becoming totally dependent upon God’s love in Christ. These things this young man was not ready to do.

But so it is for us. To despair of self, to repent, means to take your eyes and concerns off of self and to fix them on Jesus. That’s what we are saying every Sunday, and again today, as we come to Communion saying, “Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord.” Get your eyes off of yourself. Then, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, we are filled with the vision of the glory of the crucified one, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; the Lamb at whose high feast we shall one day stand and sing and love and worship for eternity.

“Come, follow me,” says Christ our Lord. So let us come now, despairing of self, hearing the Good News of Jesus and receive Him and follow Him.