THE RICH YOUNG RULER (MATTHEW 19:16-26 NLT)
16 Someone came to Jesus with this question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
17 “Why ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. But to answer your question—if you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” the man asked.
And Jesus replied: “‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. 19 Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “I’ve obeyed all these commandments,” the young man replied. “What else must I do?”
21 Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 24 I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
25 The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
26 Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”
I’m sure we’ve all heard the statement, “There is no such thing as a bad question,” many times. Our teachers may have told us this to reduce our fear that our questions might make us look foolish before our peers, only to discover that’s exactly what happened. Perhaps you’ve also experienced how good questions can get you into heaps of trouble, especially within closed groups that are uptight about staying on script. And then there are ‘leading questions,’ which are not about discovering someone else’s opinion but are obvious prompts toward a specific, desired answer. One of my pet peeves is any question that starts with “Don’t you think…?” that tell me what to think.
In this Gospel text, the rich young ruler asks another kind of bad question: one that smuggles in a badly mistaken assumption. “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Can you see the poorly hidden premise of his question? He imagines that eternal life can be attained by some good deed he can do. Is that true? There is no doubt that God calls us to do good deeds. And there even awaits a judgment according to our deeds. BUT is eternal life earned by performing an abundance of good deeds? Sorry, that was a leading question. Let’s see how Jesus responded.
If good deeds are not paving stones into the age to come, Jesus could have simply said, “That’s not how it works” and then reminded him of the gospel message he had already been preaching: “The kingdom of God is at hand, turn around and believe the Good News!” But he doesn’t. As the Master Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth knows that the rich young ruler’s premise is rooted deeply in self-righteousness and needs to be taken to its logical and ludicrous conclusion.
ONLY GOD IS GOOD
Jesus’ first response, “There is only One who is good,” is not a denial of his own divine nature. He is, instead, reframing “the Good Deed,” shifting it away from the young man over to God. Salvation comes, not by our own moral achievements or compliance with God’s good commandments. The Good Deed that saves flows from the “only One who is good.” It is an act of God. An act of grace.
But knowing this fellow has already missed the point, Jesus plays out the mistaken premise to its fruitless end. Jesus begins, “If you want to receive eternal life, keep the commandments.” Is that true? “Which commandments?” this would-be disciple wants to know. He wants to make sure he’s on track.
Jesus complies (I’m paraphrasing): “Oh, you know. The basics: No killing, no sleeping around, no stealing. Don’t lie, honor your parents, love your neighbor.”
What a relief! “I’ve kept them all! Every one of them! So I’m good, right? Okay, just to be sure… anything else? I wouldn’t want to miss any.”
Wait, what? “I’ve kept them ALL”? Seriously? This poor fellow must have had a very shallow view of the Law (both its heart and its rigor) and some grandiose delusions about his own obedience. He’s like the fellow at a southern church where a friend of mine was raised. Their church had an annual New Years’ service where people could confess their sins. Every year, the man in question would announce that he hadn’t sinned once in the past year. One year, he finally confessed, “I haven’t sinned this year, but the Lord told me that if I stay here, I will.” He left and they never saw him again!
Well, the wealthy young buck had the same kind of confidence. “I’ve obeyed all these commandments.” Seeing this, Jesus commences with deconstruction in earnest.
ONLY ONE DEED IS PERFECT
Jesus (paraphrased): “Actually… if we’re going with eternal life through law-keeping, you’ll need to be perfect.” Uh oh. Because really, who is PERFECT? If only God is good, then how much more is God alone perfect? (That’s a rhetorical question). If eternal life is about the Good Deed and the Perfect Deed, then eternal life can only rest in the Good and Perfect God.
Now here is some important foreshadowing, some insider information, unsealed only after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: that word “PERFECT” (telos) is not, in the end (also telos) about scrupulous obedience to the Law. It is a loaded term that speaks of maturity, fulfillment, completion, accomplishment, and/or the End/summation. Most importantly, it is the word spoken from the Cross when Jesus says, “It is finished.”
That’s right, the Good and Perfect Deed that results in eternal life is accomplished only by the Good and Perfect God… when? where? The Good Deed was done (complete, perfected) when on the Cross, God in Christ reconciled the world to himself, not counting their bad deeds against them or their good deeds for them.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. Neither the young man nor Jesus’ audience could know that he had just slipped in a teaser for his Passion. So what did want them to perceive? He’s showing them that if our salvation required OUR own personal (and communal) perfection, we may as well try to climb all the way to the sun using a 32-foot ladder. And all it takes is for Jesus to reveal just one intractable imperfection in our lives and the impossibility of overcoming it ourselves. In this case:
“Alright, young man, it sounds like you’re ALMOST there. Now all you need to do to be PERFECT is… the one thing you and I know you can’t possibly do. Just sell everything and give it to the poor. Then the treasures of heaven are yours! THEN, come follow me.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE DEED
Now, some people, taking Jesus literally, have actually sold everything they have, given away the proceeds, and assumed they had outdone this young gun and fulfilled the one Good Deed necessary for their heavenly reward. But no. Because for them, that’s not the impossible thing that’s missing in their case. It would always be something else. It would have to be impossible. The good deed WE do to be perfect is impossible because only God is good and perfect. The Good Deed that brings eternal life can only be done by God. And it was.
The rich man goes away sad. Because he was not ready to let go of his possessions. More importantly, he was not ready to let go of his good deed. He was not ready to follow the only Good and Perfect One who would freely give him eternal life through HIS Good Deed on the Cross.
The punchline is repeated again at the end of the passage, where we have Jesus’ analysis of eternal life and how it comes to us: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” That’s right: we can’t climb to the SUN, but the SUN of righteousness shone down on us in the life, death, and resurrection of SON, who alone is the radiance of his Good and Perfect Father, and who alone fulfilled (perfected) the Good Deed that saves.
P.S. As I write this, I’m also preparing to share it tomorrow at the monastery where I sometimes preach. Prior to my preparation, I didn’t quite understand why the Eastern lectionaries would pair up the Gospel reading (the rich young ruler) with an Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, which summarizes the gospel story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What’s the connection?
Now I think I see it: if the question raised in the Gospel text is actually, “What is the Good Deed that brings eternal life?” then Paul provides the answer:
15 Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then, and you still stand firm in it. 2 It is this Good News that saves you if you continue to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
3 I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. 4 He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said.
That’s it. The Good News is that Jesus saves us through the Good Deed of his self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love, perfectly revealed and fully accomplished through his death and resurrection.