Chris and I had an interesting discussion last night about the Rich Young Ruler mentioned in Matthew 19:16-22.
In the story, a rich young man comes up to Jesus and essentially asks him what he needs to do to be accepted by God. There is a short exchange between them, during which Jesus summarizes the ten commandments and the golden rule, and the young man says “I’ve done all that my whole life. Is there anything else?”
I can almost imagine the young man impatiently tapping his foot, waiting for the answer he expects. But as usual, Jesus didn’t give him the answer he expected. And most interestingly, before throwing him the mother of all curveballs, the scripture says that Jesus “looked on him with compassion.” And then told him that he needed to give away everything he owned and follow Jesus. The young man walked away saddened.
There are lots of different interpretations of this story, and this is just my opinion, take it for what it’s worth.
I think the rich young man was raised as a legalist. Do this, and don’t do that, and then God will find you acceptable. In other words, he felt like the bar for his behavior was chest high, and he was clearing it. He was just looking to Jesus for confirmation.
But the thing about legalism is, it creates a performance mentality. Whether you’re okay or not depends on what you do, and if what you do changes, then maybe you’re not okay anymore. And what happens if one day you can’t clear the bar? (Which we all know is a certainty, not really an “if”). Most of the time, you start lying to yourself and tell yourself you’re still clearing it anyway, because the alternative is unthinkable. You start nitpicking the finer points of what constitutes “clearing the bar” to ensure you always “clear” it (see: the attorney who wanted to know exactly who was his neighbor).
This is why I think Jesus had compassion on the man. Because he realized that the young man, although he seemed to have it all together, was walking around blind to the reality of his state in God’s eyes. And you can’t fix what you can’t see.
So Jesus did the most compassionate thing he could possibly do: he ripped away the young man’s illusion, showed him where the bar really was, and made him realize he couldn’t possibly clear it. He asked the one thing he knew the man didn’t have in him to do in an effort to earn his way into heaven. Give up all that money.
I think it’s very encouraging that the man walked away sad. He could have walked away angry, clinging to his belief that he was “pretty much okay” and just deciding that Jesus guy didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. But he was sad, which shows that he still believed Jesus had the authority to tell him whether or not he was meeting God’s standard. For the first time in his life probably, he understood that the answer was “No, you’re not even close.”
So if you can’t work your way into heaven, what’s left?
The young man likely didn’t have to wait long to find out. It can’t have been more than a number of months later that Jesus gave him the answer: trust Me to accomplish the work for you.