Summary: Jesus reveals this young man’s idolatry and calls him to turn from easy believism to true conversion.
"The Rich Young Ruler" Rev Dr Robert G Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
A respectable, clean-cut young man comes to Jesus, interested in religion. Mark calls him a ruler, and many Bible scholars think he was a leader in the synagogue, sort of like a deacon or a member of the Board of Trustees! He comes running to Christ, enthusiastic to receive spiritual instruction. Here is an upstanding member of the religious community wanting to know the way of salvation. How many people run up to you asking how to get to heaven?
The Gospel is certainly offered to the vilest of the vile, but not exclusively; it is also for “the religious.” Some people, like this young man, have “churchianity” but lack authentic faith.
Looking at our Lord’s response, it’s surprising to see how Jesus treats this guy. He rebukes him, talks about the Ten Commandments, demands personal sacrifice, then lets him walk away. You’d think Jesus would have asked, “Will you accept Me as your personal Savior?” After hearing Jesus’ response we’re tempted to ask, “Hey—-why are You being so rough with this guy? Give him a break! Don’t let him get away!” Could this possibly be a model for witnessing?
Jesus brings up the Law of Moses because no one can understand their sinful condition if they misunderstand God’s righteous expectations. The Law reveals our inability to please God and leads us to seek His grace. Without knowledge of God’s Law, the cross may draw sympathy but not saving faith from sinners. This young man failed to see the requirements of the Law; he didn’t see himself as a lawbreaker.
Jesus responds negatively to the greeting—it’s almost like He’s trying to give this guy a hard time. However, the words “good teacher” were mere flattery. It was common then—as it is today—to try to butter-up (i.e. manipulate) a teacher.
The young man believed what he was supposed to believe; he was orthodox in his faith; he wasn’t a skeptic. He even asked, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” He wasn’t like the Sadducees who denied life after death. But we see from his greeting that he thought of Jesus as only a human teacher, which is not enough. Jesus is not being petty. He was not merely a rabbi—He was God the Son. Jesus asked His disciples a question of supreme importance: “Who do you say that I am?” -and Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Our position on Who Jesus is, (His Person) is crucial if we are to gain eternal life.
This young man had 2 deep problems that Jesus brings to light—
The first was that he was unaware of his spiritual condition. You can sense that, in spite of his pious question, he already regarded himself as a likely candidate for heaven. Outwardly he was moral and upright. He says so in vs. 20! He figured he could do whatever God required and felt he was good enough to get into heaven.
Mark says in vs 21 that Jesus “loved” him enough to confront him with his condition, with his 2nd and most troubling dilemma:
“There is one thing you lack,” Jesus tells him. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”
Jesus looked through this young man’s facade and into his heart and saw idolatry. First, this man thinks he’s good enough on his own. After encountering Jesus he sees that he’s actually an idolater. There was something between him and God—-his love of wealth. Money isn’t the problem; it’s not even the root of all evil; the love of money is. Jesus doesn’t propose some new commandment; He simply translated the 10th Commandment into a practical test of the young man’s priorities. There’s no indication here or elsewhere that Jesus requires this behavior of any of His followers. What He does require is the thing this fellow lacked-—full surrender to God.
Jesus then tells him, “Follow Me.” Some people think they will sneak into heaven as secret believers. Jesus expects open profession of faith.
This young man had outer piety without true, inner devotion. He kept the letter of the Law, but the Law hadn’t reached his heart. With some outwardly moral people, the motive of their virtue is to earn the respect of society—-a pragmatic, self-aggrandizing incentive rather than a true spiritual motivation.
The test of loyalty to Christ is different for different people. If we were on the road with Jesus perhaps He would have given us different counsel, a different test. This devout, religious man was shocked to learn that he was in actuality an idolater. There exists many forms of idolatry still today—and I’m not referring to pagan lands. We can make idols out of our jobs, cars, clothes, sports, hobbies-—you name it.