The rich young man in Mark 10 approached Jesus with the most important question imaginable: What must I do to inherit eternal life? With so many in our modern world caught up in fleeting pleasures and superficial pursuits, this man’s question is refreshing. This guy knows what’s important in life and he’s looking to the right source to find the answer!
But take a closer look. Perhaps this young man isn’t on the right track after all. He approaches Jesus as the “Good Teacher.” He has a theological question to discuss, and he approaches Jesus as a noted theologian.
Jesus’ first step is to correct the young man’s view of him. Jesus is indeed a teacher, but he is not interested in merely satisfying theological curiosities. Jesus points to his deity (“only God is good”) and in doing so draws attention to his right to make demands of this young man. He lets the man know that he can teach him the truth, but he will also call him to follow. This is more than the rich young man bargained for.
Jesus points out that the answer to the man’s question is simple: “You know the commandments.” What this man needs is not further instruction. He needs to obey. He needs to follow. “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Jesus statement here might seem odd. Is he calling this man to perform a good work and thereby obtain salvation? Of course not. Jesus is cutting directly to the heart. This man is not ready for salvation. One thing is lacking. And it has nothing to do with knowledge. It has everything to do with his allegiance.
Jesus effectively points to this man’s wealth as his god. If you want eternal life, it comes from only one source. So get rid of those things that tie you to the false god, and follow me instead.
The rich young man’s response shows that he was not ready to follow Jesus. He knew he wasn’t ready—that’s why he walked away disheartened and sorrowful. But before we take too harsh a view of this young man, we have to look at the response of Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus explained that it is very difficult for the rich to change their allegiance from their wealth and power to follow instead the humble Jesus. We might be tempted to ask how wealthy a person has to be before he falls into this category. But the disciples understood what Jesus was saying. They were “amazed at his words” and “exceedingly astonished.” They asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”
They didn’t ask why the rich couldn’t be saved or which rich people he was referring to. They saw the broad implications: who can be saved? The disciples felt the sting in Jesus’ words.
Our churches are filled with the rich young man. We are all the rich young man. If the one thing this man lacked was an absolute devotion to following a Person rather than intellectual agreement with theological beliefs, then we can all identify with him, regardless of our assets. We all find it impossible to let go our commitment to our goals, commitment to our dreams, commitment to ourselves.
But Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question gives us hope: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
If Jesus were to walk up to you today and tell you, “You lack one thing,” how would he finish that sentence? If Jesus looked beyond your intellectual fascination with Christianity and pointed to that one thing (or those many things) that hold you back from following him—not in intellectual curiosity but in actual obedience—what would he be pointing at? And would you be ready to let go and follow?