Sell everything; without love day to day, insanity’s king

– Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia

One of the saddest exchanges Jesus has during his earthly ministry is with the acted out parable of the rich young ruler. A close reading of any of the Gospel accounts of the conversation shows lots of emotion in a few sentences. Throughout the Bible we see the collective love of God for all mankind, but we see how individual and personal that love is through this specific conversation. Jesus shows a one-on-one concern for this young man. Further, we see the young man’s emotion. He was sad and sorrowful.

This is a kind of parable of judgment that captures the present reality of the hell of our life right now vs. the alternative freedom of heaven. It is the theology of glory vs. the theology of the cross. Unfortunately, from the outset the young man asks Jesus the wrong question. A question that I’ve asked, you’ve asked, and likely everyone has asked.

“Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” 

Through that simple question the young ruler has brought eternal life and salvation down to works righteousness. This question reveals that he believes he has something to offer and some measure of control over his eternal life. Salvation is like any other transaction for him and he thinks he can bargain his way into eternal life through his merit. 

Jesus begins his retort by correcting his concept of who is good, which is no one except God. This young man is not good and no amount of doing good will make him good. Jesus then gives him the Law in the form of some of the Ten Commandments and the young man has the nerve to tell Jesus that he has kept them all. With that statement he breaks a law Jesus didn’t mention: lying.

Let me be frank with you about this guy. Based on his resume, I’d say he has experienced success amongst our worldly and religious standards. He has money, he’s young, he’s powerful, and his religious scorecard is a lot better than mine. He is probably a respectable and admirable person. Unfortunately for the young man, none of that is going to cut the mustard with regard to eternal life. That is good news for him and all of us.

He completely misses the point of Jesus’ definition of righteousness. When Jesus starts rattling off commandments the young man starts checking off the boxes. Jesus is not trying to give him a morality boost or encourage him in his pursuit of righteous law keeping. He is showing him the impossibility of eternal life through morality. In my mind Jesus kind of says it like this:

Hey man, nobody and I mean nobody is good but God. Dude, haven’t you read the commandments? There is no one that can keep these things, and that is why there is only one that is good. Doing this is impossible for you!

Later on, when the disciples ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” I believe they ask it because they too see they can’t keep these rules, rich or poor. You, the rich man, the disciples, and myself are in a bad spot when it comes to eternal life through works. With God all things are possible.

Back to the conversation. The young ruler then asks an important question in light of his delusion of moral one-upmanship: What do I lack? Or, said differently, What is left for me to do now? Jesus replies:

One thing you lack; Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up your cross, and follow Me.

And the young ruler walks away.

He has placed his faith in his religious performance to obtain eternal life, and he’s extremely attached to his possessions. He is blind to the fact that his possessions and success are useless when He is all you need. Everything he has worked so hard for has now been reduced to filthy rags. He can’t fathom that with Jesus there is no lack, but an overflowing cup. For my money, this is the hell of trusting in your own ability. A salvation by works creates a present weeping and gnashing of teeth that doesn’t cease until you die to it.

Jesus has compassion on him because He knows the law is a tormentor. He is offering Himself, the great door out of performance and into freedom. The answer to the question was standing in front of him. Eternal life was looking right at him.

But, what about all the talk of selling everything and giving it away? Is this a lesson in generosity? Perhaps it could be, but the one thing he lacked wasn’t being generous or not having possessions. The one thing he lacked was Jesus. When you have Him, you have an awareness that nothing else is necessary. Selling everything is not so much about generosity, but about faith, and maybe some logistics. To join Jesus and the disciples on their bohemian journey doesn’t allow for accoutrements. Packing light is essential, and when you’re with the shepherd, you shall not want. 

As Robert Farrar Capon has said about the young man’s situation (and ours):

If it is not financial success that keeps us from the saving emptiness of Jesus on the cross, it is moral success, intellectual success, emotional success, or spiritual success. We simply will not lose; and without losing, we will never, ever, win.