Summary: Don’t Try This At Home! (or anywhere else)1) Don’t overestimate your goodness. 2) Don’t underestimate your God.
A man cannonballs from the top of his garage into his neighbor’s pool. A skateboarder grabs on to the back of a speeding car and zips down Main Street. A motorcyclist skids under an 18-wheeler and pops up on the other side. You’ve all seen these stunts in the movies. And you’ve also heard the warning: “Don’t try this at home!” Still, there are always a handful of daredevils who think they can safely copy what they see the professional stuntman do. What usually follows is a clip worth sending into Funniest Home Videos – that is if the amateur stuntman didn’t get hurt too badly.
In our Gospel lesson today we meet a young man who thought he could do the impossible. He thought he could earn his way into heaven. “Don’t try that at home, or anywhere else,” says the Holy Spirit to us this morning. Overestimate your goodness, or underestimate your God and you’ll be in for an eternal world of hurt.
The thing about stunts like jumping off a building or hopping between moving cars is that the professionals make it look so easy. When the young man in our text considered God’s commands he thought these were easy too. And so he approached Jesus looking for more of a challenge – something he could do to guarantee his place in heaven. In spite of his false presumption there is something likeable about this young man. He doesn’t saunter up to Jesus with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He runs to Jesus and falls on his knees before him. Would that we sought Jesus with the same energy and humility! Instead we often find it more desirable to run to the computer after dinner to check email than to dive into God’s Word for a quiet ten-minute devotion. Or if we do open his Word, we’re hardly on our knees in eager anticipation of what pearls will pour forth.
However, there is something about this young man that we don’t want to copy – namely the way he overestimated his goodness. When Jesus told him that he should not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not give false testimony, not cheat, but honor his father and mother, the young man replied with a straight face: “All these I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20).
Have you ever made a claim like that? Many people do. When I ask the question: “If you were to die tonight, and God should ask: ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’” The answer I often get is “Well I’ve been a good person. I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t cheated anyone. I’ve tried my best to be a good father…” This response is really no different than the one the young man gave Jesus. We too tend to overestimate our goodness. We overestimate our goodness because we underestimate the precision with which God wants all of his commands obeyed. We forget that being good in God’s eyes means always responding to hurtful comments with loving words. It means speaking well of your neighbor even when his dog yaps all day long. It means respecting your parents even when they don’t let you hang out with your friends. It means protecting your neighbor’s investment of a new lawn by weeding out all the dandelions in your yard. It even means praying for those who burn down your church. There is no way we obey God with such precision, and neither had the young man in our text. All have sinned, says the Bible.
So what was Jesus to do with this young man? You’d think he’d let out an exasperated sigh, roll his eyes, and rip the kid to shreds. That would have been easy for Jesus to do. After all he is God. He knew everything about that young man. He knew about the dirty thoughts the young man had perhaps entertained earlier that day about the girl who lived down the street. He knew how the young man was refusing to forgive his father for having beaten him, and how he had scoffed at the seeming silliness of his village elders. Jesus really could have put the man in his place. Instead Mark records these astonishing words: “Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mark 10:21a). Wow! Far from being irritated, as you and I are when someone is slow to catch on to simple directions, Jesus consciously loved the man. How did he show that love? Jesus said: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b).
Huh? How was that a demonstration of Jesus’ love? Like the doctor who orders a MRI in addition to the CAT scan he’s already performed to convince a skeptical patient of his illness, Jesus used this command to bring to light the fact that the young man wasn’t as good as he supposed. That became clear when his face fell at Jesus’ words. You see, the young man loved “stuff.” Give it up to follow Jesus? That was too much to ask. He admired Jesus but clearly he didn’t adore him.