19:16-22 And, look you, a man came to him and said, "Teacher, what good thing am I to do to possess eternal life?" He said to him, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "What kind of commandments?" Jesus said, "'You must not kill; you must not commit adultery; you must not steal; honour your father and your mother.' And, 'You must love your neighbour as yourself.'" The young man said, "I have observed all these things. What am I still lacking?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be complete, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me!" When the young man heard that saying, he went away in sorrow, for he had many possessions.
Here is one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the gospel history. One of the most interesting things about it is the way in which most of us, quite unconsciously, unite different details of it from the different gospels in order to get a complete picture. We usually call it the story of the Rich Young Ruler. All the gospels tell us that this man was rich, for therein is the point of the story. But only Matthew says that he was young ( Matthew 19:20 ); and only Luke says that he was a ruler ( Luke 18:18 ). It is interesting to see how, quite unconsciously, we have created for ourselves a composite picture composed of elements taken from all three gospels ( Matthew 19:16-22 ; Mark 10:17-22 ; Luke 18:18-23 ).
There is another interesting point about this story. Matthew alters the question put to Jesus by this man. Both Mark and Luke say that the question was: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" ( Mark 10:18 ; Luke 18:19 ). Matthew says that the question was: "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good" ( Matthew 19:17 ). (The text of the King James Version is in error here, as reference to any of the newer and more correct translations will show.) Matthew's is the latest of the first three gospels, and his reverence for Jesus is such that he cannot bear to show Jesus asking the question: "Why do you call me good?" That almost sounds to him as if Jesus was refusing to be called good, so he alters it into: "Why do you ask me about what is good?" in order to avoid the seeming irreverence.
This story teaches one of the deepest of all lessons for it has within it the whole basis of the difference between the right and the wrong idea of what religion is.
The man who came to Jesus was seeking for what he called eternal life. He was seeking for happiness, for satisfaction, for peace with God. But his very way of phrasing his question betrays him. He asks, "What must I do?" He is thinking in terms of actions. He is like the Pharisees; thinking in terms of keeping rules and regulations. He is thinking of piling up a credit balance-sheet with God by keeping the works of the law. He clearly knows nothing of a religion of grace. So Jesus tries to lead him on to a correct view.
Jesus answers him in his own terms. He tells him to keep the commandments. The young man asks what kind of commandments Jesus means. Thereupon Jesus cites five of the ten commandments. Now there are two important things about the commandments which Jesus chooses to cite.
First, they are all commandments from the second half of the decalogue, the half which deals, not with our duty to God, but with our duty to men. They are the commandments which govern our personal relationships, and our attitude to our fellow-men.
Second, Jesus cites one commandment, as it were, out of order. He cites the command to honour parents last, when in point of fact it ought to come first. It is clear that Jesus wishes to lay special stress on that commandment. Why? May it not be that this young man had grown rich and successful in his career, and had then forgotten his parents, who may have been very poor. He may well have risen in the world, and have been half-ashamed of the folks in the old home; and then he may have justified himself perfectly legally by the law of Korban, which Jesus had so unsparingly condemned ( Matthew 15:1-6 ; Mark 7:9-13 ). These passages show that he could well have done that, and still have legally claimed to have obeyed the commandments. In the very commandments which he cites Jesus is asking this young man what his attitude to his fellow-men and to his parents was, asking what his personal relationships were like.
The young man's answer was that he had kept the commandments; and yet there was still something which he knew he ought to have and which he had not got. So Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor and follow him.
It so happens that we have another account of this incident in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which was one of the very early gospels which failed to be included in the New Testament. Its account gives us certain very valuable additional information. Here it is:
"The second of the rich men said to him, 'Master, what good thing
can I do and live?' He said unto him, 'O man, fulfil the law and
the prophets.' He answered him, 'I have kept them.' He said unto
him, 'Go, sell all that thou ownest, and distribute it unto the
poor, and, come, follow me.' But the rich man began to scratch
his head, and it pleased him not. And the Lord said unto him,
'How sayest thou, I have kept the law and the prophets? For it is
written in the law: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; and
lo, many of thy brethren, sons of Abraham, are clad in filth,
dying of hunger, and thine house is full of many good things, and
nought at an goeth out of it unto them.'"
Here is the key to the whole passage. The young man claimed to have kept the law. In the legal sense that might be true; but in the spiritual sense it was not true, because his attitude to his fellow-men was wrong. In the last analysis his attitude was utterly selfish. That is why Jesus confronted him with the challenge to sell all and to give to the poor. This man was so shackled to his possessions that nothing less than surgical excision of them would suffice. If a man looks on his possessions as given to him for nothing but his own comfort and convenience, they are a chain which must be broken; if he looks on his possessions as a means to helping others, they are his crown.
The great truth of this story lies in the way it illumines the meaning of eternal life. Eternal life is life such as God himself lives. The word for eternal is aionios ( Greek #166 ), which does not mean lasting for ever; it means such as befits God, or such as belongs to God, or such as is characteristic of God. The great characteristic of God is that he so loved and he gave. Therefore the essence of eternal life is not a carefully calculated keeping of the commandments and the rules and the regulations; eternal life is based on an attitude of loving and sacrificial generosity to our fellow-men. If we would find eternal life, if we would find happiness, joy, satisfaction, peace of mind and serenity of heart, it shall not be by piling up a credit balance with God through keeping commandments and observing rules and regulations; it shall be through reproducing God's attitude of love and care to our fellow-men. To follow Christ and in grace and generosity to serve the men for whom Christ died are one and the same thing.
In the end the young man turned away in great distress. He refused the challenge, because he had great possessions. His tragedy was that he loved things more than he loved people; and he loved himself more than he loved others. Any man who puts things before people and self before others, must turn his back on Jesus Christ.