Answer to the inquiry of the rich young ruler concerning eternal life . ( Mark 10:17-22 ; Luke 18:18-23 .)
If thou wilt ( θε ì λεις ) be perfect. I believe what you tell me. You have led a religious life in the ordinary way; now yon aspire to higher things; you have a noble ambition to serve God more completely; yon have the power, if you have the will, to do so; I will tell you how. To be "perfect" is to be lacking in nothing that is required for life eternal. It is spoken of Noah and Job; it is required of Christ's disciples ( Matthew 5:48 ). Christ is here giving a counsel of perfection, as it is called, not of obligation on all men, but suited to the idiosyncrasy of this particular inquirer, and of others who are capable of such absolute self-surrender and trustfulness. Go and sell that thou hast. Go back to thy home, and sell all thy substance, all thy possessions. This was the counsel which Jesus gave, denoting the stumbling block which lay in the way of the ruler's endeavours after perfection. He was voluntarily to deprive himself of the earthly thing to which he fondly clung, his wealth, and to embrace a life of poverty and hardship. Give to the poor. The money obtained by the sale of his possessions he was to distribute, not to relations and friends, who might make some return, but to the poor, from whom he could expect no recompense. And thou shalt have treasure in heaven ( Matthew 5:12 ; Matthew 6:20 ). Thou shalt obtain that which thou desirest, eternal life. Not that stripping one's self of goods and giving to the poor does necessarily ensure the great reward, but, in this youth's case, such a sacrifice, such a victory over the besetting sin, would be the turning point in his character, and enable him to conquer all lesser temptations, and win the prize of his high calling. Here was to be proved love of man. But there was one more element in the required perfection, viz. love of God. Come and follow me . St Mark adds, "take up the cross." If he would have apostolic perfection, he must embrace the apostolic life. He must give up wealth, position, earthly ties, earthly occupations, must cast in his lot with the despised Jesus, suffer with him, and, if necessary, die with him. The twelve apostles had accepted Christ's call on these terms; from him was demanded the same sacrifice the same test of sincerity. He had wished to be exceptionally good; exceptional conduct was required from him in order to reach this high standard. The condition imposed, severe as it undoubtedly was, exactly suited the case, showed the weak spot in the ruler's character, and, if accepted fully and heartily, would have led him to perfection. Reading these words of our Lord, St. Anthony was so stricken in heart and conscience that he obeyed them literally, stripped himself of everything that he had, distributed to the needy, and went forth poor and naked, trusting to God to provide for him. Many in all ages, inspired by ardent love of life eternal, have done the same. We shall do well to recognize that there are two ways of serving God acceptably—there is the good life required from all religious Christians, and there is the life of perfection to which some, by God's special grace, are called, and which they embrace and fulfil. It was the latter life that Christ put before this young man.
The young ruler.
I. HIS INTERVIEW WITH CHRIST .
1 . His question . Christ was "gone forth into the way" ( Mark 10:17 ); he was leaving Peraea; his ministry there was ended. But there was a young man, a ruler of the synagogue, a man of large possessions and of blameless life, who came running and kneeled to him. Perhaps he had already felt the supreme goodness of Christ, the holiness of his teaching; hut his position, his Jewish prejudices, had hitherto prevented him from becoming a disciple of the Lord. Now the Lord was departing; if he hesitated longer, he would be too late. He had lived an upright, honourable life, but he felt that there was something lacking yet; there was a void in his heart, a yearning which he could not satisfy. Perhaps this great Teacher might help him. There was no time to lose; he hastily made up his mind, and ran after Christ. Thus far he is an example to us. Earthly rank, earthly riches, will not fill the heart; we need something more—we need Christ. We may be late in seeking him; we have wasted much time and lost many opportunities. The Lord is long suffering; he is still near at hand; but it may soon he too late. "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near." Come running, kneeling to him in lowly supplication; he will tarry on his way; he will listen to the suppliant's prayer. So the young ruler came now. "Good Master," he said, "what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" It sounds like the question of the jailor at Philippi, "What must I do to be saved?" But it was not so genuine, so natural, so heart-felt. There was an element of truth, some real desire; but there was something of ostentation, of self-confidence; little of that childlike spirit which the Lord had so highly commended. He thought too much of his past uprightness. He thought, apparently, that eternal life might be earned by some great and noble deed.
2 . The Lord ' s answer . "Why askest thou me concerning that which is good? One there is who is good!" God only is good. Love him; do his holy will; take him for thy Portion. Eternal life is his gift; it is given to them who walk with God, who live in and for God, who keep his commandments. St. Mark and St. Luke have the words which some ancient authorities read in St. Matthew also, "Why callest thou me good? there is none good but One, that is, God." The Lord had forbidden the apostles to tell men that he was the Christ, because the Jews looked for a human Messiah, an earthly king. In the same spirit he would not accept the title "Good" from this ruler, who regarded him simply as a wise Teacher, a great Rabbi. He bade him keep the commandments. The young ruler had been expecting to hear something lofty and extraordinary from so great a Prophet; he was surprised at a direction so simple and commonplace, as he doubtless thought it. He was disappointed again when, in answer to his inquiry, the Lord simply recited five commandments of the Decalogue, adding that general principle in which the whole second table is briefly comprehended, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." The Lord. had indicated the first and great commandment of the Law in his first answer. He now mentions those duties towards our neighbour which flow out of our duty towards our God. He would lead the young man to examine himself, to discover his deficiencies, to see for himself that he had not yet entered on the way that leadeth to eternal life.
3 . The young ruler ' s rejoinder . He had done all this, he said; he knew it all; he wanted something more than elementary teaching. "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" He spoke the truth according to his light. He had been brought up in the narrow school of the rabbis, and, according to the mechanical interpretations of the scribes, was, like Saul the Pharisee, "touching the righteousness which is in the Law, blameless." He had lived all his days a life of external obedience, and he did not understand the spiritual meaning of these commandments as taught by our Lord in his great sermon on the mount. He did not realize the wide range, the deep reach of that second commandment, which became, when illustrated by our Lord's example, the new commandment, the mark and test of Christ's disciples. He had kept the commandments as far as he understood them, as far as he had been taught; but he was conscious of a deficiency. He felt that something, he knew not what, but certainly something higher than this external obedience, was necessary for the attainment of that eternal life which he sought. "What lack I yet?" he said. It was a fine character as far as it went; unspotted moral rectitude joined with aspirations for something better and nobler. The Lord saw the promise of much good. "He beheld him," St. Mark says. It was a deep searching look that read his heart; and he loved him—he regarded him with something of that esteem which any degree of real goodness produces in the good. "Goodness," Bishop Butler says, "implies the love of itself, an affection for goodness. The really good recognize any spark of goodness in others, and cannot fail to love it." This special drawing forth of the Lord's love was a great honour to the young ruler; it showed the natural excellence of his character.
4 . The Lord ' s commandment . "Go, sell that thou hast, and give to the poor." It is not a counsel of perfection, not advice, but a commandment. This self-sacrifice was necessary for the young man—necessary for the attainment of that eternal life which he sought. "One thing thou lackest," the Lord said, according to the report of the conversation given by St. Mark and St. Luke. It must mean that when the Lord read the young man's soul, he saw much that was lovable; but he also saw that the love of money, which is the root of all evil, was poisoning what should have been a very fine and noble character. It was necessary for him to make this great venture of faith. He perilled his salvation by not doing so at the time; he may have done it afterwards. The Lord had a high reward for him—treasure in heaven hereafter, and in this life a place near to himself: "Come, follow me," he said. It may be that the Lord saw in that young ruler the making of an apostle. He might have stood high in the roll of saints; perhaps afterwards he did. Can he have been lost whom the Lord Jesus distinguished with his love? But now he went away. He could not make the sacrifice required of him. He had thought that he might do some great thing, some noble deed, to gain eternal life, and the Lord had taken him at his word; but this was too great, too difficult; he could not bring himself to it. He went away sorrowful, not angry; he felt that the Lord was right. There was something good and noble in his character which responded to the Lord's invitation. He felt the supreme holiness of Christ, the powerful attraction of his gracious love. He owned in his heart that to be near to Christ the Lord, to follow him, to live in close communion with him, was a privilege exceeding precious, a privilege not too dearly bought at the cost of all earthly riches, all earthly comforts. He knew that the Lord had not asked too much; his heart told him so; but he had not the strength, the courage. He could not part with his large possessions; he could not take up the cross ( Mark 10:21 ). He was sad at that saying, "Take up the cross." It was a strange and dreadful word; even the apostles could not reconcile themselves to it. And he went away sorrowful, vexed with himself; he had made the great refusal, and he felt that he done a weak and cowardly thing. He had judged himself unworthy of that eternal life which he had sought, and he despised himself. He knew that those riches for which he had turned away from Christ could not compensate him for the tremendous loss. He was not blinded. He felt the value of the love of Christ, and the unutterable preciousness of eternal life. He knew that these great possessions of his were as nothing in comparison with that priceless treasure which Christ had offered him. He sinned against light, and he was miserable. Perhaps his misery brought him afterwards to a better mind. We hope it was so. We cannot but feel a very deep and real interest in a character so touching, so engaging, in one whom the Lord Jesus Christ loved. We are not all called to make the sacrifice which was required of the young ruler. The Lord did not say the like to Nicodemus or to Joseph of Arimathaea. But all true Christian men must be willing to do so if need be. "Not my will, but thine be done" was the Lord's own prayer in his agony. "Thy will be done" is the Christian's daily, it should be his hourly, prayer. And that prayer pledges us to the spirit of ready self-sacrifice for Christ's sake. We must be ready to give freely, liberally, in proportion to our means, for all holy works. We must be ready to take up our cross; for the Lord says that without the cross we cannot be his disciples. It is not enough to have the word often in our mouths, to have the picture of the cross upon our walls, or to wear the cross for an ornament. The mark of the Christian is the real cross, the inner spiritual cross; and that means self-denial for Christ's sake, self-denial which is real, which is painful, which is hard to bear; even as the cross which the Lord bore for us was hard and heavy and painful exceedingly. But the cross leadeth to the crown. The conditions of eternal life are unvarying; they are the same now, in their real spiritual meaning, as they were when they were presented by the Lord himself to the young ruler in Peraea.
II. THE LORD 'S CONVERSATION WITH THE APOSTLES .
1 . The warning . "A rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven." It is a hard thing, and his temptations are so great; there is so much to draw him to the world. Indeed, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven as a rich man; he must become poor, that he may be rich indeed. He must become poor in spirit, poor in the willingness to consecrate all his wealth to the service of Christ; he must give largely, denying himself in many things that he may give the more; learning to do God's will, not his own; and regarding himself simply as the steward of what really belongs to God. For otherwise his danger is exceeding great. The gate of eternal life is always strait; it becomes like the eye of a needle to the rich man who stands before it, burdened with his riches, like a heavily loaded camel. "They that trust in riches" "cannot enter in;" and it is very hard for a rich man to cast off his trust in his riches. Yet the strait gate shall be thrown open wide to them that overcome—to the poor who are rich in faith, and to the rich who are poor in spirit, true disciples of him who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor.
2 . The amazement of the apostles . They were startled, almost terror stricken; it seemed so hard a saying; it seemed to make salvation so very difficult to attain. Perhaps St. Peter was thinking of it when long afterwards he wrote, "If the righteous scarcely be saved" ( 1 Peter 4:18 ). "Who then can be saved?" they said in their astonishment. All men, they knew, share the like peril; it is not only the rich who are in danger of trusting in riches. The poor often care for money quite as much as the rich. The fault lies, not in the fact of having great possessions, but in the trust reposed in them; and there are poor men who trust in their little store quite as much as some rich men trust in their great wealth. "The love of money is the root of all evil," and that love is a common temptation to all, rich and poor alike. "Who then can be saved?" The Lord saw the perplexity of his apostles; he felt for them in his sacred heart. He looked at them; those holy eyes were fixed upon them with an earnest, loving, sympathizing look—a look full of human tenderness and Divine compassion. "With men this is impossible," he said; "but with God all things are possible." The disciples were right; they might well say, "Who then can be saved?" Man cannot save himself; he is too weak, too sinful. "With men this is impossible"—with all men alike, whether they are rich or poor, whatever may be their advantages or their temptations; they cannot save themselves; the thing is impossible. But it is not impossible with God. And Christ is God; "he is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him." His incarnation, his blessed death upon the cross, has made that possible which was impossible. "With God all things are possible;" he can bring a clean thing out of an unclean; he can cleanse us from all unrighteousness—from the degrading love of money, from the defiling lusts of the flesh, from the subtle temptations of pride and self-righteousness. Only we must trust in him, not in riches, or what seem to be riches, not in our own fancied merits, not in works of righteousness which we have done, but only in the cross. "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."
III. THE REWARD OF THE TRUE DISCIPLE .
1 . St . Peter ' s question . The apostles had done what the young ruler shrank from doing—they had forsaken all. Indeed, they had not so much to give up as he had; but such as it was, it was their all; they had left all, and had followed Christ. The Lord had promised treasure in heaven to his followers. "What shall we have therefore?" Peter said. He was still too eager; there was too much self-assertion; he laid too much stress on the reward that was to come. The highest desire of the soul is to serve Christ for himself.
"Not for the sake of gaining aught,
Not hoping a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord."
Peter knew afterwards that the love of Christ is its own reward ( 1 Peter 1:8 ). Yet he was not wholly wrong; the Lord had promised treasure in heaven; and that blessed hope is an exceeding great help to fainting Christians; it is an anchor of the soul both sure and steadfast. Moses had respect unto the recompense of the reward. St. Paul looked forward to the crown of righteousness laid up in heaven for all who love the appearing of the Lord. Christ himself, our great Example, when he looked back on his perfect life, said, "Now, O Father, glorify thou me." Peter, perhaps, regarded that heavenly blessedness too much in the light of a reward due to self-denial here; our Lord seems to imply this in the parable of Luke 20:1-47 ., though he now repeats his promise and acknowledges the self-sacrifice of his followers.
2 . The Lord ' s answer .
1 . We still ask the same question, "What shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" And still the answer is the same, "Keep the commandments."
2 . Let us not say, "All these have I kept from my youth up." Let us imitate the publican rather than the young ruler: "God be merciful to me a sinner."
3 . "The love of money is the root of all evil;" "Love not the world;" "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God."
4 . "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." It is a difficult work, beyond the strength of man; but we can do all things through him that strengtheneth us.
5 . Let us have respect unto the recompense of the reward; he who by faith discerns the crown may well endure the cross.
The great refusal.
The young man who won the love of Christ by his ardour and enthusiasm, and who grieved our Lord by his refusal to make an unexpected sacrifice, stands before us in vivid portraiture—an example, and yet a warning. Let us consider the successive traits of his character revealed by his conduct.
I. HIS WISE QUESTION . It is much for a man to have a definite object before him; it is more for him to choose a worthy pursuit. Of all personal things the young ruler chose the very best. He had wealth, but that did not satisfy him. He had the means of acquiring pleasure; but he rose above the idea of making worldly amusement the end and aim of existence. He craved the life of God, which is eternal. Surely we may imitate him in this. Moreover, he did well in inquiring of Christ. Jesus is the Way to life, and we can find its source in him, as he told the woman of Samaria ( John 4:14 ). It is right to come to Christ for this boon.
II. HIS MISTAKEN ADDRESS . He called our Lord "Good Master." Jesus takes up the phrase at once, and asks what it means. This was no act of captious criticism. The young man did not really know the deep signification of the word "good." He used language conventionally. There is a great danger for those who are brought up among religious associations that they will employ the greatest words without entering into their true meaning.
III. HIS MORAL CONDUCT . Christ began with the first elements of morality. We cannot go on to perfection until we have mastered these elements. It is impossible to be a thief in the world and a saint in the Church. Yet there is a subtle temptation that dogs the footsteps of those who aspire after superior spiritual attainments—a temptation to fall away from common morality. The young man had avoided this temptation. He was no hollow sentimentalist. His virtue was solid. Yet it was not enough.
IV. HIS NEW DUTY . He is told to renounce his wealth—a hard, a startling requirement. Jesus does not give this commandment to all rich men, though he never encourages the acquisition of wealth. But he saw that the young ruler's snare was his riches. It was necessary, therefore, that the riches should be given up. Now, although it was not his duty before this thus to renounce all he possessed, the word of Christ—if he would become a disciple—made it his duty. Whenever Christ tells any man to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor, that man is under an obligation to obey if he would own the Lordship of Christ. The essential duty is not poverty, but obedience. The duty may take the same form with any of us if we are convinced on good grounds that Christ desires us to make the same sacrifice. But whether absolute poverty be required or not, whatever we own is only ours subject to the bidding of Christ to use it as he directs—and he is not altogether an easy Master to serve.
V. HIS SAD FAILURE . The young ruler could not rise up to the sacrifice. His wealth was his undoing. It was not a golden key opening the kingdom of heaven, but a golden bar holding the gate shut. The young ruler might have become a great Christian leader, saint, or martyr. His refusal dropped him into obscurity. We cannot but pity him, for his was a hard test. Could we stand it? Have we shrunk back from even a milder test?—W.F.A.
The perfection of goodness.
To attain to this should be the aim of every rational being. In quest of it we should be willing to do anything and to sacrifice anything. "Who will show us any good?"
I. CHRIST IS THE IMPERSONATION OF PERFECT GOODNESS .
1 . The ruler, in a sense, discerned this .
2 . But he discerned it falsely .
II. THE LAW OF GOD IS THE RULE OF GOODNESS .
1 . This is expressed in the instruction of Christ .
2 . The ruler observed the commandments in the letter .
3 . He failed to keep them in the spirit .
III. THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST IS THE WAY OF GOODNESS .
1 . It promises eternal life in Christ . "Thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me."
2 . But it exacts an absolute submission .
3 . Those who refuse submission accept sorrow .