Questions are an important part of life. At their best, they demonstrate a vivacious curiosity and engagement with life. My twin brother Danny from an early age demonstrated a tenacious curiosity about things, a trait that has not abated as he and I approach the half-century mark.
As a teacher, you realize that questions search out the heart. What does a student understand, and what is he thinking? Jesus was a master at asking deep, probing questions that must have stung the hearts of those he questioned.
In today’s lesson from Matthew 19, it’s the rich young ruler asks the questions this time. He rightly begins with the most important question: “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” This is a profound question and a great place to start, even though his motive may have been to justify himself.
Jesus, the wise Master, doesn’t tell the rich young ruler everything at once but probes the heart of the young man. Being the Master, his answer surprises some of us. We expect Him to give the pious answer, “Believe in me, and you will have eternal life.” His answer is twofold. The second part of the answer shocks some of us, because the implication is that we must, indeed, do something to inherit eternal life and are not merely passive spectators. Jesus says, “if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
But hidden before this second part of the answer, Jesus wisely plants the seed of directing the rich young ruler toward answering the question of who Jesus is, implying that since He is good and God alone is good, then He, Jesus, must be God. But He doesn’t press the point here but merely plants the rich seed of faith.
The rich young ruler must have been very pleased to hear Jesus’ answer that you must keep the commandments to inherit eternal life because he could honestly say that he had kept these commandments. Or at least the ones Jesus mentions, and at least the letter of the Law.
Jesus, however, doesn’t let the rich young ruler off the hook but instead peers more deeply into his heart. If the rich young ruler were playing the game, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” he might have made it up to the $1,000,000 question. But there’s just one more thing – the Final Answer.
In His first answer, Jesus listed all of the last 6 of the 10 Commandments, the ones that deal with loving your neighbor as yourself. But look again – He has left one out!
The young man – perhaps he was quite earnest – says, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” It takes guts to ask this question. He could have rested on his obedience to 6 of the Commandments, but either through a kind of humility or an incredible pride, wants to go further. And Jesus takes Him further, to the truth. At this point, Jesus has already perceived what is lacking in the rich young ruler, and in an indirect way He comes back to the missing Commandment, the one He had left out earlier: “Thou shalt not covet.”
By asking the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give it to the poor, Jesus smashes the final idol of Mammon, which takes the various forms of greed and covetousness. Although seemingly perfect in other ways, the rich young ruler walks away still rich materially, but spiritually bankrupt. All of the illusions the young man had of his own perfection have been shattered, and he’s left to shuffle off sorrowfully, still clinging to the ball and chain of his great possessions.
Like the rich young ruler, Jesus won’t let you settle for the easy and incomplete
answer, because easy and incomplete answers to the most important question one can ask are danger to your mortal soul.
Let’s look at the meaning of Jesus for each of you.
What this story doesn’t mean is that everyone must sell everything and give it to the poor. Jesus never commands us to do that. What it also doesn’t mean is that therefore the story must be merely figurative. We might try our turn at asking questions and ask, “Did Jesus really mean for the rich young ruler to sell all he had?” Because if He didn’t, then He likely won’t ask us to do anything so difficult either. But to ask such a question is to be deceived by the Satanic kind of question that twists the “Thus says the Lord” into “Did God really say?”
What pointed words, especially after the rich young man has just walked away sadly from Jesus!
And we are all rich, comparatively. Maybe some of us are called be St. Francis of Assisi or St. Bernard of Clairveaux, who gave up their earthly wealth for a life of spiritual wealth.
The story might mean, “Be willing to sell if God asks you.” Of course, it’s very unlikely that God would ask directly, isn’t it? And we wouldn’t even know unless we were seriously willing to entertain the possibility that God was calling us to this.
But what the story must mean is that we must not just be willing to sell all but actually sell all we have to obtain eternal life. Isn’t this the meaning of the pearl of great price and the parable of the buried treasure? This selling of all we have is not literal, just as the cutting off of our hands and eyes to enter the Kingdom is not literal. But it is real, nonetheless.
Whatever stands between you and God, don’t just be willing to get rid of it – DO IT! This was the attitude and action of the original disciples. Just a few verses after the story of the rich young ruler, in verse 27, Peter says, “See, we have left all and followed You.”
This is the cost of discipleship: to forsake all for the sake of Jesus. Jesus asks us to forsake mother and father, if necessary. He asks you to give up all your earthly riches, if necessary. He asks you to offer up your entire self to God as a living sacrifice, because this is necessary.
There are many things in the way of God for some of you. Maybe it is money, in which case, if God is telling you that money is a problem, go and read this passage again – and see what God is calling you to do. He just may be asking you to lighten the burden of your great riches (which many of us would be shown to have, if we weren’t always comparing ourselves to those who are even wealthier).
Maybe it’s your possessions. Does the sheer bulk of your possessions and caring for them crowd out time and room and energy for God? Maybe it’s the comforts of this life. This is one of the greatest riches of living in America – having a comfortable life that doesn’t demand much of us. But are you too comfortable to follow Jesus; are you too comfortable to take up a cross as He did, to give up all and follow Him?
Maybe what Jesus is asking you to give up is the leisure time that you want to have for yourself. If your attitude is that you’re off duty as a servant of the Lord once you finish your day job, then maybe you should re-examine your priorities.
On the other hand, it might be the various “demands” of your lifestyle that Jesus is asking you to give up. If, for example, your giving your child “everything,” such as a good, college prep education, athletics, music lessons, and social events, is crowding out eating family meals together and family devotions, time at church or your youth group, or a life where there are moments of prayer and meditation, then maybe your Lord is asking you to give at least one of these up for Him.
Whatever stands in the way of you and God – and each of you probably has some idea of at least one thing that threatens your relationship with God – sell it! Get rid of it, for the sake of Jesus Christ, for the sake of His kingdom, and for the sake of your eternal soul!
When the Master asks you to do something for Him today, don’t walk away sadly, unwilling to give up that which keeps you from Him. Instead, obey with cheer and joy, knowing your Master is good and desires to bless you.
Prayer: Grant, Almighty God, that I, by Your grace, may today be that which You would have me to be and to do that which You have commanded me to do, listening to the voice of Your Spirit in my life. May I leave no sin unrepented of today, sparing least of all that sin which is costliest for me to give up, that I might come to that greatest treasure, Your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
What might be one thing that Jesus is asking you to give up for Him? How might this thing be an obstacle to greater faith and devotion? What would it take for you to begin, even in a small way, giving this thing up? How might you need to restructure your life to do it?
Resolution: I resolve to give up one thing today in my life that I might see God more clearly and His will for my life.
© 2012 Fr. Charles Erlandson