“The Good Teacher's Loving Law”
I was reading something on the internet the other evening about people who've had encounters with celebrities. Sometimes they would find them to be rude, sometimes nice, sometimes just normal people. Oprah didn't leave a tip, but signed a napkin. Will Wheaton wouldn't talk to fans. Someone saw Ed Sheerhan and said, “I don't want to bother you” and he said, “Like you're doing now?”
I wonder if you and I were in the position of this rich young man who had a brief audience with Jesus – how might we act? What might we say? Would we gush over him? Call him “good teacher” or “Lord” or something else? And what would you ask Jesus if you had that one small chance? His autograph? Probably not. A Me-n-Jesus selfie? Hope not. Maybe a question for curiosity or reassurance? Maybe you wouldn't even know what to say.
The rich young man had a burning question, and it is kind of a strange one when you look at it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Putting aside for a moment the whole thing about him calling Jesus “good teacher”, it's a strange question on its own merits. What must I do to inherit? Under normal circumstances, in a situation of an earthly inheritance, there really is nothing to do to gain an inheritance. You simply wait until your Father dies. You can't change the inheritance – it's not based on how hard you work, what you do or don't do, or anything like that. It's the decision of the person giving you their stuff. At it only happens when that person finally dies.
That's the normal way, anyway. That's why it was so strange – and really scandalous – for the younger son in Jesus' famous parable to ask his father for his inheritance – NOW! It was like an insult, saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!”. But even stranger is that the father actually gives it to him!
No, this man is using the word “inherit” but what he really means is “earn”. He's looking for a deal, a roadmap, an end-of-the-bargain to hold up and to receive eternal life by his works. He thinks there is something he can do – and though he's done a lot – he knows somehow something is missing. What's that one cherry on the sundae that will seal the deal, Jesus? What's that one above-and-beyond good work you're looking for? What must I do? What a question of law. Not “what can I do to serve my neighbor?” Not “how can I ever repay God's love to me?” No, just crass do the work, get the paycheck salvation.
So Jesus humors him, at least for a bit. For after all, if someone could actually keep the law – well, that is one way to be saved. So he rehearses the commandments for him – the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, the 4th. Notice these are all from the Second Table of the Law – which deal with how we treat our neighbor. And without much thought or reflection, the man nods along and agrees that he's kept all of these – even from his youth! Quite an achievement! If it were only true. But like many today, he must have had a checklist mentality about the commandments, and a very shallow one at that.
Perhaps Jesus was looking for a little self-reflection here, a little more honesty about what the law really demands and how the young man really didn't measure up. And Jesus could have rightly pressed the point on each of these commands and taken the man to task... really? You've really kept them all? But Jesus shows the wisdom of a teacher – he knows how to best make his point.
So rather than argue each point with the man, rather than get sidetracked or bogged down, Jesus knows just what to do.
Of the parallel accounts here, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, only here in Mark do we have this little comment, that Jesus looked at him and “loved him”. He loved him. But the way Jesus showed that love here, was by telling him a hard truth. He told him something the young man didn't want to hear. Sell all your stuff. It was tough love. And love sometimes is just that, as any parent can tell you. Love isn't just an emotion, it's doing what's best for someone else, even if they don't know it, or can't see it. And sometimes love means the tough word of the law, even the law that kills. God speaks that law to you, too. But not to leave you in the law. The love of God speaks that law to prepare you for the love of the Gospel. But the law does its work first...
Jesus hits the young man where it hurts. He moves now to the first table of the law, and really, the First Commandment. He clobbers the young man square in the face of his idolatry. Jesus pulls out his law-laser and zaps the man's main idol, the one he clings to, the place of his ultimate fear, love and trust. He says, “sell all your stuff, and follow me instead”. Ouch.
Now, this is not Jesus telling us to sell all of our stuff. You've got plenty of people in the Bible who are wealthy AND faithful. Oh it's not easy, mind you, tell that to the camel going through the eye of the needle. But with God all things are possible. So it was possible for this man to see his idolatry and repent of it, it was possible that he turned and lived and believed in Christ. But it doesn't seem that was so. He hung his head and went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions. And it didn't seem like he was ready to let them go, or to embrace the true treasure.
But this is Jesus telling you to give up your idols! This is Jesus telling you to put aside your gods, whatever they are, and follow the only one who is Good, the Good Teacher, that is, God alone. Follow his Son, the Savior. The one who brings true treasure. The one who dies for all sins. The one who generously gives of himself, gives his blood, more precious than gold or silver, and his body, a perfect sacrifice. Jesus gave everything – everything – for you. Repent, and believe in Christ!
What's your idol? What's your self-made god? What's your pet sin? What is your particular struggle? Is it lust or anger or pride? Is it covetousness or gossip or gluttony? Is it pride? There's plenty of law to go around. There's plenty of ammunition to blast away any sin you would cling to. Are you going to go away like the young man, head hung low, because you won't, you can't give it up? Or are you willing to sell all, give all, even die to the sin that has you tangled up, and follow Jesus?
Sure I've never physically murdered someone. But I've had plenty of hate in my heart. Sure I've never cheated on my wife – except with my eyes, and in my head. Sure I never lied under oath, but I've dragged my neighbor's good name through the mud and back on a regular basis. And other gods – too many to count, to mention, to know. Christians, I hope you never take a shallow and careless view of God's law. Rather, let its light shine even into the deepest darkest corners of your sin, and as the sins try to scurry away, squash them instead with confession and absolution. Let Christ clean house. And be at peace.
And Jesus gives you an inheritance. That's the wild thing here. You can't earn it or deserve it – you can't even ask for it. You can't decide or will it. You can only receive the inheritance in faith. You can only come by eternal life as a gift – and you only get it when the one who gives it dies. Jesus does just that – all of that – for you. Would that the rich young man could see it, hear it, believe it.
If you keep seeing salvation as something to earn – then you'll never deserve it enough, you'll always doubt – and you should! For an inheritance that depends on you – your worthiness, your merit, your deserving it – is no inheritance at all. That's an imagined IOU. It's worthless. But an inheritance that is a promise. An inheritance that is a guarantee. An inheritance that rests on the sure and certain word of the Good Teacher and the true God. That's worth trusting and believing. That's worth selling everything. That's worth more than your life.
Even if this man did sell everything and follow Jesus – it wouldn't have earned a thing with God. But it would have shown his heart set right. It would have been a very stark outward expression of a deep inward change. A way of confessing his sin, and receiving Christ's forgiveness.
Today, Jesus calls you to receive your inheritance – that is what he gives you by his death. His body and his blood, given and shed for you, so that you may be forgiven and that you will inherit eternal life. Here at his altar, the Good Teacher gives you the goods, which you could never earn or deserve. But that's what makes him so good. He gives his everything to you, for you, for your eternal salvation. It's not a matter of “what must I do” but “what Christ has done”, and what Christ is doing.
The young man went away sorrowful. The Greek suggests he had a look on his face as dark as a storm cloud. It was, for him, a far from a happy ending. But, today, you get to depart in peace, sins forgiven.
The young man went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions, and couldn't let these idols go. You, now, go in joy, for you have the greatest possession in the Gospel, the greatest treasure in Jesus Christ, and an inheritance that will never fade or falter – eternal life with God.