Our Gospel reading for today is the well-known passage of Jesus and the rich young man (cf Matthew 19:22). We first note the man runs up to Jesus. How attractive the Savior is to everyone who is honest with themselves. Jesus provokes curiosity. The Holy Spirit shines a light on Him. The man clearly perceives there is something he can learn about Jesus, something very important, viz. eternal life. The rich man realizes he does not have it all. This is the first step to humility and repentance. So far, the rich man is on the right track. Many people are attracted to Jesus and run up to Him. The big question is whether or not they will stick around and follow Him.
The rich man asks Jesus what he (the man) must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus then asks a puzzling question “why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone…” Here Jesus is not denying His divinity nor asking a rhetorical question. He is asking this person at this time: why do you call me good? Jesus is asking if the man believes in who Jesus really is. Jesus then points to the Father and the revealed will in the commandments. The man knows what is good, and now has goodness in front of Him. Jesus knows where He will lead the conversation. There will be a choice. He is setting up the choice, leading the man through a sequence of reasoning until finally the ‘barrier sin’ – the sin both the rich man and we don’t want to let go of - is found. Some sins are easier to let go of than others, depending upon how tightly the shackles have become bound to us. But the one sin will keep us from God. And in this passage, we find an example of the one sin that keeps many of us from God. The love of money, the love of self, the love of the world. The love of having things the way we want them. Just so. Many of Jesus’ teachings and recorded conversations leave the participant with a choice: will we choose Him or us?
Jesus seems to take the man’s piety, dubious as it might sound to us, at face value. It is not recorded that Jesus thought anything false about what the man said in terms of following the commandments. Should we doubt Jesus’ assessment? It seems the man followed Torah, and this is at least partly what led him to the feet of Jesus, approaching at a run no less.
Jesus tells the man that he lacks something. Imagine that! The Savior being honest with us, as He always is. What is the thing we lack? We lack Him. We lack the proper ordering of our life. We lack the fulfillment that comes only from knowing God in Christ.
And then, most galling to our sensibilities (if we are honest), Jesus gives the man a command. This is not presented as an optional request. He tells the man to sell everything. Follow me! I do not think that Jesus should be perceived as making an invitation to a birthday party or something else that can be easily brushed aside on pleasantries. Jesus is very serious when He tells us what we lack. And He is equally serious when He tells us how to remedy this lack. For the rich man in the Gospel passage today, the man needed to sell his things and follow Jesus. This was the answer to his original question. There was no life of the age coming for one who gave themselves over to the passions of wealth and idolatry of possessions. After all, they now have and enjoy good things like Dives. They will weep later for lack of repentance.
What we should see in the passage is that many times the most loving this Jesus can do is most dumbfounding to us. Give away wealth?! Leave a lifestyle?! Yes. Sometimes the only cure for a disease is to remove a limb. Better to enter into life without a hand or a foot than not at all. It is easy to underestimate the request of Jesus, upon the rich man and upon ourselves.
Why is it hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? Because they are their own kings and become very reluctant to concede lordship to another. Wealth brings the deadly allure of self-sufficiency. We are manifestly not ultimately self-sufficient. But all things are possible with God. The power of the Gospel to change lives is applicable to every sinner, regardless of circumstance. Without the supernatural grace of God, there would be no possible way for any person to be saved. God is able to make a way to penetrate into even the most hardened of hearts. How this is accomplished is beyond our understanding. The imagination of writers like Dickens and Lewis can provide some clues, but not the whole story. Better to take a lesson from the Gospel and avoid building our own castles that wall us off from the Lord Jesus.