Summary: The wealthy man is seeking a clear direction, a step-by-step guide to this “new life” he has heard Jesus speaking about. It’s how he operates, and he hasn’t realized yet that Jesus turns everything inside out, even or most basic routines.
Who here likes to be organized? You all have probably figured out that I’m a pretty organized person. Actually, I’m a really organized person; when I was in seminary, and before that while in college and then teaching, I used to make a “To-Do” list for everything. I had lists for what work and household chores needed to be accomplished each week; I had checklists for the homework I needed to complete each day; just about anything you can think of, I had it on a list somewhere. I was so obsessive about those “To-Do” lists that if I happened to do something that wasn’t on a checklist, I would write it down even after I did it, just so I could check it off. It used to be that when I was asked to list my strengths, I would put organization at the top of the list. I don’t do that so much anymore, nor do I keep as many checklists, but I’m still pretty organized.
I imagine that many of you have the same sort of tendencies, though perhaps not quite as extreme as my own. We take checklists to the grocery store with us. We have “routines” that we like to follow every morning or every night, or perhaps at several times throughout the day. If we have a specific goal in mind to be accomplished, we like to have at least an idea of the steps necessary to reach that goal. Simply put, there are just some of us who like order! And I imagine that the young man we encounter in this morning’s gospel reading is just one such person.
Popular tradition has come to identify this man as “the rich young ruler,” though here in Mark’s gospel we are told nothing except that he is a man with considerable wealth. Luke refers to the man as a ruler, and Matthew calls him young; and thus he has come to be known as the “rich young ruler.” Whatever may be his status, though, I think it’s certainly fair to say that this is man who likes clear steps and a good plan. Demonstrating what seems to be a yet tenable faith, the man approaches Jesus, not with the confidence of salvation through Jesus, but with a question, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Rather than receiving the kingdom in complete dependence as a little child, the rich man wants to know what he can do to inherit eternal life. He is seeking a clear direction, a step-by-step guide to this “new life” he has heard Jesus speaking about. It’s how he operates, and he hasn’t realized yet that Jesus turns everything inside out, even or most basic routines.
Now what's interesting is that at first, Jesus kind of goes with the man. He says to the wealthy young ruler, “You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.” It’s a list! Even more, it’s a list the man has known by heart for as long as he can remember. And we can almost imagine the man’s growing excitement with the listing of each additional commandment. He has done these things. He has followed the commandments. He can check every box, he’s been doing all these things since he was a young boy! “I’m set!” he must be thinking, “I’ve earned my ticket to eternal life!” I imagine the man was grinning from ear-to-ear as he completed his mental checklist. But, as we all know, this isn’t the end of this story. For at what was probably the very moment the man was about to bound off happily, on to his next agenda item, Jesus looked at him, and loved him.