Matthew 19:16-22 (NIV) Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
This rich young man who came to Jesus was in earnest about wanting to know the way to eternal life. But his expectations about what Jesus would recommend were far from what happened.
The man was actually looking for a single thing that he could do that would buy eternal life for him. Many teachers had taught things like this: a prayer to be said each day, a rhythm of good deeds to do each week, or a specific offering or gift to take to the temple. This man was willing to check off any box of this type that Jesus might recommend.
But Jesus started with a curve ball: just obey the commandments. This panicked the young man. The Pharisees had counted and counted, and had determined that there were 613 discrete commands in the law, and each of them had spent years memorizing them all, as well as all of the commentaries about how they were to be obeyed. Surely Jesus didn’t mean that he would have to become a Pharisee, or dig out all 613 commands on his own and try to obey them! That fear was the source of his question, “Which ones? Which of those 613 commands do I have to obey? What is the smallest number of the most significant commands that I have to obey to achieve eternal life?”
Jesus knew the man’s heart, that no matter how much he wanted eternal life, there was an idol in his life that he would have to let go of before he could receive it. So rather than just jump out with the greatest and second-greatest command (Matthew 22:36-40), he began just listing some of the commands from the 10 commandments, as well as the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself from Leviticus 19. The idea was, if you were going to look to obedience to the law to help you inherit eternal life, you really did have to obey all of them, and do it flawlessly.
The young man was confident that he had all of those commandments down, and likely was a very nice person toward other people, the focus of the commands that Jesus had listed. But his problem was really not in his relationship with others; it was in his relationship with God. The young man was very wealthy, and his devotion to maintaining and increasing his wealth had far outstripped his devotion to God some time before. The young man knew this in his heart of hearts. Even though he was a nice guy, and always treated others fairly, he sensed that there was still a problem between himself and God.
Jesus’ final answer threatened to lance the boil of the man’s idolatry once and for all. He could have eternal life, or he could keep the idol of his wealth, but he could not have both. If he wanted eternal life, he had to give away all of his wealth, and then follow Jesus.
Notice that Jesus’ challenge was also an invitation. In giving up his false god, Jesus invited him into a relationship with the one true God. But it truly was a one-or-the-other choice. No compromise with false gods could ever be allowed in one’s relationship with God.
The man’s decision was reflexive. The threat of the loss of his idol of gold made him clutch it to himself all the tighter, and turn away. He wanted eternal life, but he didn’t want it enough to let go of the one thing that kept him from having it.
Father, this really drives the point home that eternal life actually only exists in relationship with You (John 17:3), and that relationship with You will allow for no other gods, no other top priorities. Help me, Lord, to always ensure that no other god is ever allowed to creep into my heart. And if I find one that is working its way in, help me to deal with it ruthlessly, so that it can never come between me and You. Amen.