As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
There’s a perhaps natural tendency to assume that the rich man in this scene is something of a self-righteous punk. First, he engages in what looks like a vain attempt to flatter Jesus. Then he asks the kind of gargantuan religious question that only the super-pious ask: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Finally, after Jesus tells him that all he has to do is keep the commandments, he says that he has. Good grief, we think, rolling our eyes at such pride and insolence.
Except I think this way of reading the scene says as more about us than it does this man. We’ve already reflected that Jesus was probably not rebuking this man as a flatterer but instead setting a standard of goodness that will redirect the conversation from what we can do to what God has done. Moreover, there is an expectation in Judaism that the law is, in fact, do-able. It is not given as a trick or as a trap but rather as a gift. Deuteronomy charges its readers to keep the law and to keep it perfectly, while Psalm 119, the longest Psalm in Scripture, is an extended meditation on the excellence of the law. This man is only to be commended for his diligence.
For this reason, I think that rather than interpret his assertion as a display as of pride, perhaps we should hear it instead as a confession of dismay. That is, he’s not saying, “Good teacher, I am perfect, therefore reward me.” But rather, “Yes, good teacher, I have done all this, and there’s still something missing.”
Keep in mind that he comes to Jesus for a reason. He is, in every respect, a righteous man. He is, as we will soon discover, a very rich man. And yet his life is still somehow lacking. He is aware of a keen hole at the center of his being that has not been filled either by riches or righteousness. He is still searching, still seeking, still hoping against hope that this rabbi can meet his needs or at least point him in the right direction.
He is not pious or self-righteous. He is desperate, even heart sick, longing for something more.
And Jesus loves him for it.
Prayer: Dear God, you will not reject any who come to you in need. Bless us now and always with the assurance of your love, and turn us in compassion to the need of others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.