Lord and God, thank you for your mercies, which are new every morning. May I never show others less mercy than you have shown me.
While I typically go section by section, based on how the translators of my Bible have sectioned out scripture, today’s an example of a time when just a few verses seem to pack such a punch that I don’t even want to take a whole section—just these few lines. So read Mark 10:17-22 a few times through, reflecting on each word or phrase as you go.
And 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?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 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.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 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.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
(Mark 10:17-22 ESV)
I have heard this story so many times throughout my life. Anyone who grew up in Sunday school has heard this story. There is even a band named after this section. Yet today’s reading just goes to show—again—that you can “know” a passage without really “knowing” it. In some ways, I felt like this morning’s reading turned on some new lights in my own heart. Here’s what I noticed.
This wealthy young man came to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus recited back to him some of the commandments, all of which the young man said he had “kept from my youth.” Then Jesus said he still lacked on thing, and he must go, sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and then he will “have treasure in heaven.” And he must follow Jesus.
Some use this passage to support the claim that everyone who wants to inherit eternal life must sell all that he or she has and give to the poor. But a full reading of the Bible, which affords the whole counsel of scripture to inform any one reading, tells us that this was a unique prescription for this man, not a universal prescription for everyone. This man did not ask “what must a person—any person—do to inherit eternal life?” He asked, “What must I do…?” Jesus knew his heart and his life. His heart, and his life. Rather than a posture of humility and repentance for the sin that he certainly carried around in his heart, this young man was under the impression that he was a fully obedient person. While we can’t know for sure what his attitude was, I suspect that he came to Jesus confident that Jesus would give him a pat on the head for his obedience. I suspect that he only asked Jesus this question because he expected it to warrant him a congratulatory response. “You? You’re a shoo-in! You’ve done everything right, son!” Perhaps he was hoping that Jesus would point to him as an example for others, like he had pointed to children in an earlier instance.
But, as we know, that is not how things rolled out. And I expect he was surprised by Jesus’s response. Well, we know at least that he was “disheartened” and that went away “sorrowful.”
So my first thought is that Jesus’ response was not a universal prescription for everyone, but rather a specific, unique prescription for this man. Compare this scenario with another encounter between Jesus and a rich man: Zacchaeus. In that passage, “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.'”—Luke 19:8-10 ESV. It seems to me, based on both of these scenarios, that Jesus is most concerned with the condition of our hearts. In one case, the rich young man, his heart’s condition was that he was righteous because he had been so obedient. He did not come to Jesus in humility, and he did not embody generosity. So Jesus was trying to do him a favor: to show him his own heart’s condition, so he could see his need for repentance. In Zacchaeus’s case, he was already repentant and humble, eager to change his ways and make things right with everyone he had harmed. In giving up half of his possessions, he was, in fact, giving up his entire heart to Jesus.
Another interesting thing in these two passages is the way each of the men addressed Jesus. The rich young man called him “Good Teacher,” and later, again, “Teacher.” I know many people who have no trouble seeing Jesus as a teacher—a good teacher. But in this passage, we see that it is not enough to acknowledge Jesus as “teacher;” he is Lord. Zacchaeus had it right: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.'” (Luke 19:8 ESV) Jesus tried to help the rich young man along, telling him not only to give his wealth on behalf of the poor, but also to “come, follow me.” But he could not. For “he had great possessions.”
I think the important point of this passage in Mark, understood a bit more through comparison with the passage from Luke, is that we must come to Jesus in humility and repentance, and we must acknowledge him as Lord. Self-righteousness is a barrier to eternal life. And eternal life can only be found by walking the path behind Jesus. And while the specific instruction he gave to the rich young man is not universal—not all will be asked to get rid of all possessions in order to inherit eternal life, and we must not make a doctrine out of that example—the heart of his message is universal to all—we see it repeated throughout the gospels: throw off whatever hinders us from humility, throw off the self-righteousness that blinds us to our need for forgiveness and our need for a savior, and follow Jesus as Lord. Not merely teacher, not merely friend, not merely a holy man or leader, but Lord. The Lord.
I was talking with a woman at my church’s pot luck yesterday, and she made the point that everyone has a unique thing that trips them up in their walk with Christ. She made the point that something that might not hinder my faith is deadly to hers, while something that she has no problem with at all can trip me up every time. (A favorite author of mine, Sara Zarr, wrote a great essay, “Making Rules for Life,” which touches on this idea nicely as well.) What hinders you from walking in humility before Christ? What are things in your life that you’re proud of that could cause an air of self-righteousness to color how you approach Jesus? And in what areas are you reticent to make Jesus “Lord?” Is he Lord of your worship service, but not of your schedule? Lord of your finances, but not Lord of how you treat your body? For each of us, the application will be different—Jesus has a unique prescription for all of us. Let’s take some time to pray and ask God what needs to happen in our own lives so we can gladly and freely experience the fullness of life God has for each of us—and extend that fullness of life to others.