Rich Young Ruler

The Wrong Question: What Must I Do?

The Rich Young Ruler
And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then he *said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man *said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.”

Matthew 19:16-30

3 Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 So you will find favor and good success
in the sight of God and man.
5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Proverbs 3:3-6

We talk about the rich young ruler a lot in my house. His problem is not, as is commonly thought, his unwillingness to obey. He came asking the wrong question in the first place. He did not come asking, “How can I inherit eternal life?” He did not ask “How may I be saved?” He came asking, “What must I do that I may obtain eternal life?” He came asking how he could earn eternal life. He did not come seeking a free gift, but a wage. Jesus subsequently showed him that based on the rich young ruler’s conception of the law, God should justify him, but that his conception of the law and God’s conception of the law did not match up. His conception of the law was that he had adhered to a set of surface behaviors. God’s conception of the law was to look at what he honestly loved. He loved his stuff. He was a functional idolater, which is a violation of the first command to love the Lord with all your heart.

But the moral of the story is not, “love the Lord with all your heart!” You don’t and you won’t. You never have. That is precisely why you need a savior. You need one-way love, love that loves you while you are yet a sinner. When the disciples say in astonishment, “then who can be saved?”, Jesus says that with men it is impossible. Let’s repeat that: Jesus says that salvation by men’s efforts and men’s success is impossible. It is only by God’s initiative and intervention that anyone is saved. That is a very familiar message isn’t it?

I love the disciples’ response! In effect, they say, “Hey! Wait a minute! We did what this rich young ruler would not do! We left everything and followed You!” It is as if they hadn’t even realized it up until that moment. They had not focused on what they were doing and how much they were sacrificing so much as they had focused on the amazing ride they were having just following Jesus around. But suddenly, they realized that without aiming to do so, they had fulfilled the true intent of the law. They were yet far from perfection but their faith and their walk and their sacrifice was genuine, because they had done it without thinking because of a higher love.

So the rich young ruler was leaning on his own understanding, and he ended up refusing the gift of salvation. He leaned on his own understanding – a self-aggrandizing version of the law which justified himself while allowing him to continue in his idolatry. He thought the steadfast love and faithfulness were his own deeds – but real steadfast love and faithfulness is not ours to offer, but God’s. So under grace we learn not to trust in ourselves or own understanding, and we do not come to God presenting our own solutions and assuming our own version of the law. We come allowing His word to crush our paltry and limited self-respect so that He can raise us up to have the honor and favor and respect of One who has far greater power and authority than we could ever have. We do not make our own paths straight. He is the way-maker, the savior of impossible people. He is the One who forges our straight paths. It is easy to forsake our self-trust and to place our trust in Him, because our solutions will never prove trustworthy.

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