Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
I Just Can’t
Some of life’s toughest moments come when someone we love or admire asks for something we’re terrified of. The request can seem minor to them, but it’s monumental to us—as my partner discovered our first time together at an amusement park. Right out of the turnstile, he headed for the biggest roller coaster, not knowing an awful experience as a boy ended my coaster career. He pleaded until I got in line with him. But with each step, I grew tenser and when our turn arrived, I couldn’t do it. Saying, “I just can’t do this” took all I had, making me feel miserable and small. When the request is major and beyond our ability—a request to borrow more than we can loan, for instance—the regret and sorrow are many times greater. Wishing we could but knowing we can’t puts us in an awful spot. How we’d love to say, “Yes, of course!” Having to say no humbles us, but it doesn’t help anyone, either the individual who asks or us.
Mark’s account of the rich young man captures this unfortunate mix of emotions. He publicly kneels before Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10.17) Jesus tells him, “You know the commandments: ‘Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t cheat, and respect your parents.” The wealthy man says he’s abided by them all of his life. At that, Mark tells us Jesus looks at him and loves him. The man’s sincerity moves Him. Yet it also quickens Jesus’s sensitivity to obstacles the young man will need to conquer to remain pure and sincere. So He asks him to do the one thing that terrifies him most: “Sell all your possessions and give the proceeds away. Then follow me.” Mark writes, “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
It’s easy to be troubled by this story. Watching it from the young rich man’s perspective, Jesus’s responses seem patently unfair. The man asks for what Jesus came to give—eternal life. Yet He assigns a price to it: obey the Law. This, too, strikes us as out of character, since He lists six of the Ten Commandments, rather than those He cites as the greatest ones: love God completely and your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22.37-40) When the young man says he’s complied with the Law his entire life, why does Jesus raise the ante? Despite what Mark says, this looks less like love than calculated rejection. Turning the telescope to see the story from Christ’s viewpoint, however, we gain an altogether different understanding of what’s going on.
Jesus knows He’s asking too much. That’s why He asks it. If the man can’t part with his riches now, he’ll never be free of them. Holding on to them will become a bigger hurdle the older he gets, causing his desire to please God to fade. In Matthew 13.22, Jesus explains this syndrome in His parable of a man sowing seed, some of which lands in thorny patches: “The seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” In telling the rich young man to sacrifice his wealth for the good of others, Jesus is really asking him to clear the thorny patch that will destroy his potential for spiritual productivity. The young man doesn’t get it, but if we extend our empathy beyond feeling sorry for his sadness, we understand he and Jesus aren’t on the same page from the start.
Asking What We Need
The rich young man asks to inherit eternal life. Either he’s too proud or self-sufficient to accept it as a gift. In a way, he wants to buy God’s favor with works the same way he buys earthly advantages with money. Jesus shrewdly adopts the man’s mindset and opens the bid at an affordable price. When the young man assumes it’s a done deal, Jesus raises the bid to include the one thing he lacks—spiritual foresight. He tells the man to stop looking at his bank balance here and invest his treasure in Heaven. This demand isn't unique to the rich young man; it's a recurrent theme in Christ's ministry. Very early in the Sermon on the Mount, He warns us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.19-21)
Our hearts lay with our treasures. If what we value most is limited to this life, then we’re not free to follow Jesus as He commands. He asks we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, to love our neighbors with the same mercy and acceptance we ask for us. Anything that prevents us from honoring Christ’s principles—whether actual wealth or relationships, ambitions, attitudes, or habits—will eventually become too thorny for successful growth. It’s hard not to think the rich young man’s heart doesn’t realize Christ wants him to turn his worldview upside down. When we come to Christ, He requires no less of us. We lay our prized possessions before Him to offer Him our hearts. If, like the rich young man, we can’t raise our understanding of why we must do this, we’ll walk away sad. But if we truly desire to lead productive lives, we’ll follow Jesus’s direction. We’ll understand He’s not asking too much. He’s asking what we need.
If what we value most is limited to this life, then we’re not free to follow Jesus as He commands.
(Tomorrow: Dew Point)