There’s a story about Jesus that gets a lot of attention. It made an appearance in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18). And for centuries it has been one with which we’ve struggled and will probably continue to do so.
I’d like to give my take on the story. It’s about a young man who came to Jesus with a question:
(Matthew) Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?
(Mark and Luke) Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
In all three tellings of the story, Jesus zeroed in on that word good. In Matthew he said, “Why do you ask me about what is good?”
In Mark and Luke he asked, “Why do you call me good?”
In other words, what’s your fascination with being good, and why do you think being good will somehow get you eternal life?
I bet Jesus could have gone on deconstructing the question:
“Why do you think I have the answer you’re looking for?”
“What do you mean by eternal life?”
“Why do you assume there’s one good thing you can do to magically live forever?”
Jesus reminded him about the Law and keeping the commandments, which the young man assured Jesus he has most certainly done. Being good was his fortè. The guy was a Boy Scout, a choir boy, a kid that helped old ladies cross the street and always saved 10% of his allowance for a rainy day. He was a straight-A student, had perfect attendance, and a clean driving record. His hair was perfectly parted and his shirt neatly tucked. There was probably a perfect crease down his cloak.
He learned what it meant to be good and then mastered it.
So why was he worried about making it to heaven?
GOOD AND AFRAID
The Jewish people knew exactly where they stood with God based on how many laws they followed. It was a merit-based system in which the “good people” were rewarded and the “sinners” were punished. The fact that the young man who approached Jesus was, in one telling of the story, “rich” meant everyone would have believed him to be righteous. How else would he have become rich unless it was a reward from God?
Despite mastering the art of being good, despite his wealth that was believed to have come from God, the young man was still afraid that he wasn’t good enough. And Jesus heard the fear behind his question.
That fear is the driving force behind so many good, honest, church-going people. Millions of us “have kept the commands since childhood” but are terrified that our actions won’t be enough to pass through the pearly gates. Or even if we think we’re going to heaven, it’s only because we plan on continuing to do all the good things between now and then.
So we try harder.
And we do more good things.
And we fight against every kind of evil that we fear will jeopardize eternity.
And we huddle ourselves with like-minded do-gooders who are also terrified that they might not make it to heaven and/or trying to keep their status by doing good.
And we cling to any sign that gives us hope that we’re good enough. We have signs like: church attendance, our children’s behavior, success of businesses or creative endeavors, respect of other religious people, number of Jesus Fish on our cars, amount of Christian knick-knacks in our homes, number of Christian t-shirts hanging in our closet or Christian songs on our iPhone, companies we support, companies we boycott, etc.
We like being able to measure our righteousness. The young man who went to Jesus clung to his wealth for assurance of God’s approval.
When our oldest son was little and we’d leave him at preschool or with a babysitter, he would always ask for my watch. He wore it as a sign that I’d be back and that he wasn’t alone. It was the assurance he needed that he was loved and remembered. He doesn’t need it anymore because he’s no longer afraid of his standing with his father. He knows I love him. He knows I’ll do everything in my power to take care of him, and he knows I’ll always come back for him.
For the young man in the story, his wealth was like that watch. It helped him sleep at night, believing he’d done enough to earn both the money and God’s favor. His wealth was evidence that he’d mastered life in a way that would please God.
So Jesus thought for a moment, then said, “If you want to be completely free, get rid of your wealth.”
This is not a condemnation of the rich from Jesus (though he doesn’t exactly have great news for the rich). This is not a universal command that all people should give up their wealth (though it would actually do a lot of good, especially for the wealthy). No, this is Jesus being Jesus, getting to the core of a person’s soul and telling them what they need instead of what they want.
The man needed to give up his wealth – his sense of personal validation before God – if he were ever to be totally free. The problem with clinging to external validation is that it can easily go away, but you’ll still be around. At some point, you have to find peace just by being you, not by proving that you’re good enough. At some point you have to let go of your wealth and just follow Jesus.
The young man couldn’t do it.
All three writers tell us the man went away sad because he had great wealth. It was never about the money; it was always about the fear.
Then Jesus dropped the bombshell:
How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
This was a bombshell because wealth was the socially accepted sign of God’s favor. Jesus, in two sentences, blew up a 3,000-year-old social construct upon which the entire nation of Israel was built. And the people responded accordingly:
Who, then, can be saved?
It was a terrifying notion to think the rich would not enter the Kingdom, because everyone assumed the rich were the elite, God’s favorite children. It would be like Jesus saying, “That Mother Teresa has quite an uphill battle come Judgment Day.”
You’d be like, “What?! What are you talking about, of course Mother Teresa is in! Because if she’s not…what does that mean for the rest of us?”
But this whole encounter wasn’t about going to heaven or not going to heaven, it was about something deeper than that. It was about being good vs. being free. We’re not free if we’re constantly trying to prove that we’re good. And whatever mechanism you use to prove your goodness or to earn your standing with God will eventually break down. It will never give you complete peace about God’s love for you.
The only way to discover that level of peace is to lose whatever you’ve been using to get it.
And then come, follow Jesus.