Text: Mark 10:17-22
Date: Pentecost XX + Proper 23 + 10/11/15
Today’s Gospel is about God’s love for the whole world of sinners and His desire that all should come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Tim 2:4). That truth is the necessity of understanding the difference between the idea that a person can be saved by works of the law on the one hand and salvation by God’s grace, by repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ on the other.
The Gospels of Matthew [Mat 19] and Luke [Luke 18] also include this event which we traditionally call The Rich Young Man. In Mark’s Gospel there is less evidence that this man was necessarily very young. It is reported at the end, however, that “he had great possessions.”
The fact that this man ran to Jesus on the road kneeling before Him suggests he was at least open to Jesus’ teaching. How many are like that today? I’m sure you will agree that it is an increasing rarity today that many are running to seek Jesus at all but are more likely to be running away from God as quickly and constantly as possible. It is St. Luke who tells us he was a synagogue ruler and therefore at least familiar with the Old Testament scriptures. We Christians may forget how completely ignorant is the general public these days of what is in the Bible much less its central message. This man knew the Ten Commandments. But he knew them only as some sort of blueprint or divine plan that by living as closely as possible in obedience to the Law a person could hope to be saved, or as the man said it, “to inherit eternal life.” This is the key to understanding what is behind Jesus’ conversation with this man.
First Jesus meets and greets him “where he is,” that is at his level of spiritual ignorance. “Good Teacher” he calls Jesus. So our Lord challenges his choice of words and asks, “Why do you call me good?” Think about it. Is it out of some sort of respect for Jesus as a godly teacher? Or is it just a way to flatter Him into doing something for him? “No one is good except God alone.” This is Jesus’ first hint of the truth. This man may call Jesus “good” but only if and when he discovers and believes that Jesus is God incarnate in human flesh.
The man asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s the universal, natural, “knee jerk” question of all fallen spiritually blind man. When it comes to attempting to be saved, to inherit eternal life by means of doing good works the answer is clear and simple. “You know the commandments.” You may notice that Jesus lists only the commandments from the second table of the law and then seemingly out of order. Again, I’ve run in to this confusion especially when teaching children. They seem to know instinctively that the Ten Commandments are rules forbidding certain behaviors; you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, etc. This is how many people think of the Church, a holy club of people who follow the rules. This misunderstanding usually reveals itself when the child tries to say the first commandment beginning, “You shall not…have no other gods before me.” Jesus leaves the only “you shall” commandment for the end, “Honor your father and mother.”
Of course this man presumes that he knows the way of the law and says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” You Lutherans know instinctively what was wrong with that statement. For sin has so corrupted us and all human beings so as to make it impossible to keep God’s law at all, much less perfectly.
At this admission St. Mark reveals our Lord’s understanding of this man and of us all saying, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” He Loved Him! He didn’t love him for his ignorance but because of it. You can imagine Jesus hesitating and smiling at the man out of a certain love of sympathy, understanding his real need. Can you imagine Jesus hesitating with an understanding smile when you say, “we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean”? Yes you can. Remember the words of our Lord, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7).
“You lack one thing” Jesus says. “Oh, good!” he may have thought. For there was some awareness that there is still something missing in his spiritual life and this is what he hoped Jesus could tell him.
“Okay, what is it?”
“Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Did Jesus really mean this, to go and sell all your possessions? Some throughout history believe this and take for themselves what is called the vow of poverty. But then that is to turn Jesus’ loving challenge into the way of the Law once again. No, being well off or rich in itself doesn’t disqualify you for entrance into God’s kingdom, as neither does being poor automatically swing open the doors of heaven to you. It isn’t the riches but your dependence on them for the highest good in your life, which is idolatry. Jesus opened this man’s awareness to his real need, to repent of any and all reliance on his own works or possessions. The result? “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful.” Was he only saddened or was he a little bit angry at Jesus? That happens, you know, especially when the truth of your real need, that is, your real sin is uncovered.
Well, don’t miss Jesus’ final word, the only word that can save him or any of us; “and come, follow me.” “Come, follow me.” Words of invitation, Gospel-invitation. For only following Jesus, by faith in Jesus will a person inherit eternal life. And why is that?
Only Jesus could and did keep the Ten Commandments and all of God’s Law perfectly. And He did that for us; for you. Then only Jesus had the holiness with which, by His vicarious suffering and death, would defeat and conquer death and the devil for us, for you. Only Jesus can bring about repentance and faith, faith in Him, by which we are born anew from above and are made inheritors of heaven.
What must we do in order to inherit eternal life? In Jesus Christ alone, as St. Paul said, “we have obtained an inheritance…so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:11-18).
“Good Teacher?” You bet. For He is our Lord and God who loves you and opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers.