Our souls crave. We crave things like intimacy, truth, and significance. In the Gospels we read about a man in search of significance. Even though none of the three Gospels which record this encounter with Jesus give the man this title we have come to know him as the rich young ruler. He came to Jesus with a question: "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"
Jesus had finished teaching His followers about faith. He told them that these children, who love and trust their parents, are the type of people who will inherit God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom doesn’t belong to the rich and powerful or the moral and the religious, but those who live by love and trust in their heavenly Father.
As if on cue this young man came up to provide a real life illustration to Jesus’ teaching. As you read this account ask yourself: What have I allowed to define my life?
Someone came to Jesus with this question: "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"
"Why ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. But to answer your question—if you want to receive eternal life, keep* the commandments."
"Which ones?" the man asked.
And Jesus replied: "'You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
"I've obeyed all these commandments," the young man replied. "What else must I do?"
Jesus told him, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions (Matthew 19:16-22; NLT)
I want to make three observations from this story:
Observation #1: This young man is a man you would want to be part of your church. He was young (somewhere between 20-40). He was a well-respected community leader. He was morally impeccable and had been raised in a religious family. He was rich and he tithed. This is exactly the type of person pastors drool over. Yet Jesus sent him away empty handed. (Adapted from Encounters with Christ, p. 145, Mark Moore)
This is why following Jesus isn’t about being religious, but it is about faith and trust. This young man did all the right things, but he didn't fully trust God. He was willing to add one more commandment, no matter how big, but he wasn’t willing to give up control of his life.
Here we see the truth of what the writer of Hebrews wrote: And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him (Hebrews 11:6, NLT). It isn’t about what we do, but whether or not we trust God while we do it.
Observation #2: He didn’t accept common Jewish teaching, instead he listened to his cravings. For the most part the Jews didn’t see their sins as a problem, they believed they were saved because they were descendants of Abraham. While they believed they were saved by God's grace their physical heritage, the Law, and the Temple were evidence of God's grace. We see an example of this belief in Matthew 3:9: "Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones." (NLT)
This young man, who had been religious, who was well versed in the doctrines, found in himself a desire that his religion or wealth couldn't satisfy. It also needs to be pointed out that at this time, based on the promises of the Old Testament, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing.
According to Jewish teaching this young man could look at his life and think: “I must be living well because I am a descendant of Abraham, I am respected, and I am blessed.” In spite of all of his blessings this young man found in himself a desire that no experience could satisfy. “What must I do to have eternal life?” he asked Jesus.
Observation #3: He didn’t know the future. It is interesting to note that within this young man’s life time the Romans came with their military might and put down another Jewish Rebellion. This rebellion ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
Granted this young man lived outside of Jerusalem, but I wonder what he thought as he watched the legions of Roman soldiers and the multiple crucifixions. What security and meaning did his wealth give him then? Do you suppose this young man ever came to a point in his life when he remembered what Jesus offered him and how he turned it down.
When the experience of respect and wealth lost their significance did he regret not following Jesus? Time has a way of trashing what we think is so important.