Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Mark 10:17–22 17And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
How loose our use of words! Not so with our Lord. When the rich young man shows him due deference and addresses him as “Good Teacher,” Jesus won’t let him get away with it. “Good?” You see, there’s only one way Jesus could be good—if he were the one true God, who alone is good. Is he God in the flesh or not? “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (v 18).
Think how God himself had laid bare exactly what’s in man back in Genesis. You recall these words from before the flood: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil _continually_” (Gen 6:5, emphasis added). Nor is that an isolated Scripture passage. We hear in the Psalms: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps 14:3). Unlike us, who would rather believe that this is a classic instance of Hebrew hyperbole, our Lord knows it to be absolute truth. So anyone coming to him and calling him good had better reckon with the fact that that means he is Yahweh in the flesh.
The very question that the young man put to our Lord shows that he was not ready to ascribe to the truth that all human “goodness” is sin in the eyes of God. He had not taken to heart the words of Is 64:6: “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” He thought he still had some wiggle room, and so the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v 17).
For surely if there is one thing that all religions agree on, it is this: If there is an eternal life, it is given only to a person who is worthy of it, not to a person who is unworthy. So the young man’s question comes down to this: “Just tell me what I need to do.”
Strikingly, our Lord turns to the Second Table of the Law. He runs through the commandments and tells the young man he already knows all these things. And that’s true. The young man had been brought up well. He knew what God commanded in the Law. He knew that he was to love his neighbor as himself. Jesus was holding up a mirror in order for the man to see the truth about himself, but he was so blind that he utterly missed it: “All these,” says he, “I have kept from my youth” (v 20). Note the contrast between the assessment of Genesis and this young man. Genesis says, “the thoughts of his heart [are] only evil continually” but the young man says, “all these I have kept.” And see the supreme irony that the young man is standing in front of the only Son of Adam and Eve who can make that claim and be right. For Jesus truly did keep them all from his youth! But the young man is not ready to see that Jesus stands apart from him in this; that Jesus is “good” in a way that he is not.
Also strikingly, when the answer comes back, “all these I have kept,” Jesus does not scorn or shame the young man. Our text: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (v 21). He pities his great self-deception and in love gives him the gift he needs most. Jesus takes the Law in hand again, this time unpacking the First Commandment: “You lack one thing.” And what was that? You can almost see the young man leaning in, listening, waiting for the one more thing he could do to secure his eternal future. “Just tell me,” his eager face declared. But then the shocking words: “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v 21).
The disappointment and horror are written across the young man’s face. A wealthy young man who had lots and lots of stuff. A man who couldn’t see parting with it all. A reasonable amount given away to the poor, yes. But all? What kind of a person could do that?
Ah, but look upon who it is issuing this invitation. There stands Jesus, the truly wealthy one—and the truly Good One. Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich (cf 2 Cor 8:9). Jesus invites the young man to leave all his stuff behind (stuff he’ll have to leave behind when he dies anyway) and follow along with Jesus as he goes to his cross—where our Lord will give away all that he has to us poor sinners, where he will make his unbroken “yes” to the will of the Father, his inviolable keeping of every commandment, our very own. Where he will gain for himself treasure in heaven—you and me—by suffering and dying to forgive our sins, including our sins of forgetting again and again that he alone is our true and lasting treasure.
All the young man sees in that moment is his own failure. True, he hadn’t kept all these commandments, for he’d not kept even the First Commandment. He’d let his stuff become his god. And seeing only his failure, he walks away sad. That’s how it ends with all who think that what they do is how they inherit eternal life. They end up walking away sad. Because, of course, they can’t inherit life that way, and so they believe that there is no life for them.
But how wrong they are! Eternal life is a gift. It can’t be earned. It can’t be deserved by any sinful human being. Jesus came to give it freely to poor sinners who confess they could never do enough to deserve it, for they have been sinful from their youth. Oh, people loved by God, how utterly unnecessary to walk away sad from Jesus because he shows you you haven’t kept the commandments. Rather fall on your knees before him and beg for his mercy precisely because your heart is sinful from your youth! Admit that you have had other gods and that you are entirely too attached to your stuff, and beg the mercy and forgiveness of your King! How much more blessed to join the wise thief on the cross and say to your King who died to cover all your sins: “We are only getting what we deserve, but you have done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!” Cling, with the thief, to the shocking words of grace: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (cf Lk 23:41–42, 43).
Despite the fact that we could never earn or deserve it, Jesus delights to give eternal life as sheer gift. Trust in His steadfast and sure word. When you come to this communion rail and he puts into your mouth his body and blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins, he gives you right here a foretaste and promised guarantee that eternal life is and will be yours. For…
As the Only Good One, Jesus Delights to Bestow
What Cannot Be Inherited by Any of Our Doing.
And for that, all glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and to the ages of ages! Amen.