Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Do not defraud,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
And he answered and said to Him, “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth.”
Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”
But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”
And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?”
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
This Gospel is like a ping-pong match between two extremes with interesting bookends.
It begins with a man acknowledging Jesus as a respected teacher and the source of ultimate truth, that is, one who has information on how to gain eternal life. He kneels before Him. He calls Him “Good Teacher.” This sets up the first bookend, but sadly not for the man’s benefit, but for ours.
Jesus eludes to the path He’s going to take us on when He asks the man, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is God.” In other words, “Do you realize you’re calling Me God?”
In any event, here we begin the one extreme of the ping-pong match. That extreme is: “Gaining eternal life is not in your power. That’s why you’re asking me, God, about it, because only God has the answer. And no one is good, no, not one. So, eternal life must be all God’s work.”
Then Jesus goes to the other extreme, which is: “Eternal life is in fact in your capacity. Just follow the Ten Commandments.” Jesus has spoken this way in other places. It is a truth, follow the Ten Commandments and you will have life. Yet, evidently not hearing what Jesus just said about “No one is good,” the man proceeds to say how he has kept all the commandments since his youth.
To which Jesus adds more. “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” So, again, apparently it is within our capabilities to gain eternal life on our own, if we just follow the Ten Commandments, sell everything we have, give to the poor, take up the cross, and follow Jesus. Sign us all up!
When the rich man goes away saddened, Jesus explains that this man wasn’t suitable for heaven, because he was too bound to his riches. “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.” Jesus issues a stinging judgment that all but closes the door of salvation to this man, this man whom He loved, by the way (for all the “A loving God wouldn’t keep someone from heaven” folks).
So, at this point we’re at the far end of the extreme in our ping-pong match. Gaining eternal life is in our capabilities, if we keep the Ten Commandments, and do as Jesus told the rich man, give up everything, give to the poor, and follow Him. Now things swing the other direction.
The disciples are astonished, realizing by Jesus’ standards, no one can be saved. Jesus has just barred heaven for everyone. If someone who keeps the Ten Commandments can’t make it, and only those who do that, and give up everything to follow Jesus, then effectively, no one is saved. And at this point Jesus adds the other bookend which parallels what He began with. No human can do this, but all things are possible with God. God can do it.
Clearly Jesus is teaching the incarnation here. By asking the man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone,” He’s suggesting something about Himself that the rich man inadvertently recognized. Jesus is the only one Who is good, because He is God. That suggests that insofar as inheriting eternal life has to do with being good, the rich man could have recognized that the answer to his question was standing right before him.
And in fact that’s where Jesus’ discussion takes the rich man. The path to “tapping in” to the one standing before him was to give up everything, give to the poor, take up the cross, and follow Jesus. That indeed is the baptismal path, something we’ll probe more into this week. But for now, we can settle with the truth that doing this is impossible for man, but not God.
Yet, Jesus is God and man. That’s why He in fact did all these things. It was possible for Him to do these things. He did give up everything. He did give to the poor. He did take up the cross. And He did “follow” Himself, because He is Himself. But more sublimely we might say He followed the path of death and resurrection, the path laid out for Him by the Father.
What man cannot do, Jesus does, because He is not just a man, but God.
At this point, many will wipe off their brows and say, “Well that’s good. For a moment there I thought Jesus was serious, like we actually had to give up everything, give to the poor, take up the cross, and follow Him perfectly, when no one can do that.”
Here’s what’s wrong with that way of thinking. The rich man still went away, barred from heaven. So, whatever point Jesus was making, it wasn’t, “The rich man couldn’t have done it anyways; nor can you.” Rather, it’s, “The rich man could have done something, and in fact, you have done something which is right and good.”
As to that last point, let’s look at what comes after this Gospel:
Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time – houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions – and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
The ping-pong match continues! “Yes, Peter, you did do what was right, and how great you shall be rewarded.” And then, lest we side with the “we have the capability” extreme, Jesus ends with, “But many who are first will be last.” Whoa, so maybe Peter will be the last, and a weak Christian who sneaks in will be first? That would highlight God’s grace again.
There’s a lot of tension in this Gospel interwoven with a lot of grace. Kind of like good Law and Gospel preaching, no?