Summary: We can spend our lives full of regrets, or we can devote our lives wholly to Christ and experience the blessings of abundant life.
Missed opportunities. We live our lives saying, “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda.” I “woulda” visited my grandparents more, but it was just such a long drive. I “coulda” done better on that test, but I wanted to hang out with my friends. I “shoulda” devoted more time to service, but I was always so tired after work. Many times our “woulda-coulda-shoulda” moments pass practically unnoticed, but at other times, we go our whole lives regretting one poor decision; something we “woulda” done better, something we “coulda” done better, something we “shoulda” done better.
Today, we hear the story of the rich young ruler. Here is a man who is ready to move through life with no regrets! He wants life and life abundantly, and he wants it for all eternity. So the young ruler runs up to Jesus with a burning question on his mind. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It seems like a simple enough question, and quickly, Jesus gives a simple answer, which basically amounts to “obey the law.” The response of the young man is equally enthusiastic to his question, “I’ve done that since I was a child!” And already, we can see that the rich young ruler is way off the mark. You see, the problem is that the young man is too focused on the word “do.” This tiny little word represents one of the greatest and most persistent failures in religion and ethics. Jesus came so that we might be released from the power of this word and all its crippling effects. Jesus came and did to keep us from having to do! Like the rich young ruler, we miss the mark when we think that salvation, eternal life, is something that can be won by “doing” any one thing, or even any number of things. “We inherit eternal life by being lifted up out of ourselves by a devotion to God so great that it will snap all chains which hold us back” from following Christ in spirit and in act.
So what does devotion that so lifts us toward God look like? For the rich young ruler, devotion meant giving up the greatest pride of his life, that wonderful privilege of riches; selling it, giving the money to the poor, and then following Jesus. Is Jesus’ demand of the rich young ruler about money? Sure it is! Should we do all that we can to give from our abundance to those with nothing? Absolutely! But Mark’s story of the rich young ruler is about more than money; it is about more than any one thing that we can or should do to inherit eternal life. You see, the gospel tells us that it’s never too late for the sinner to come home; it’s never too late to join in the banquet table of grace. But that is cheap grace if not for the fact that every now and then a window opens in life, and there is God present and active in the world; there is our chance to be a part of that work, to be the human we are called to be. But then the window closes and it’s too late. In his words to the rich young ruler, Jesus reminds us that when that window opens, we have to run through just as the young man ran to Jesus. We have to put Christ first. The story of this young man is about an all-out devotion to Christ; being “sold-out” for Christ; putting God above all else in this world.
The rich young ruler thought he had done that. He thought he had it made. When he asked Jesus that question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” he was probably just seeking affirmation. He thought he was in. But Jesus told him otherwise, and he couldn’t handle the truth. So the rich young ruler walked away. You can almost see it in your mind’s eye; head drooped, shoulders sagging, feet dragging; quite the opposite of his rapid entrance a few moments before. And I imagine that years later that man was sitting on his throne feeling empty, unfulfilled, and thinking, “If only I had listened to that man Jesus all those years ago.” Woulda-coulda-shoulda.
I suppose the rich young ruler was a good and decent man; a fair ruler. It would only seem logical considering his self-proclaimed faithful adherence to the Jewish law. But adherence to the law does not gain salvation; only devotion to Christ can do that! And this is precisely what we practice during this season of Lent; purging our lives of those “things” (whatever they may be) that disrupt our devotion to Christ. Our greatest weakness as individuals and as a church community is that fact that we can be upright, decent citizens of society without ever going on to become disciples of Jesus Christ, with his peculiar flavor of love and costly self-giving. We have a choice. We can devote our lives wholly to Christ, putting aside all that hinders our devotion, or we can be “decent citizens,” never quite able to go “all-in.” So we shuffle away; heads drooping, shoulders sagging, and a great chasm opens between us and Christ. Woulda-coulda-shoulda.