It is the story of an encounter with Jesus in the Gospels that is so puzzling and even confusing.  A certain rich man (we don’t know his name or much else about him) comes running to Jesus, falls on his knees, and asks “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The more you think about it the more radical and even shocking is the way Jesus takes the conversation from there. 

You can read more about what happens in three of the four gospels. Each provides a different perspective on the same encounter. (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30).

It seems like a great question to ask and in terms of who you ask the question to, I think you would be hard pressed to suggest anyone else who would have a better handle on knowing what it takes to inherit eternal life. This young man has achieved a lot in terms of worldly success and significance. You have to commend him for hungering and thirsting for wanting something of more lasting value in his life than his apparent success and achievements……….

At first glance Jesus’ response is puzzling. He says, “Why do you call me good? No-one is good – except God alone.” He almost seems to be pushing him away by questioning what does this young man mean by calling Jesus good and then getting him to focus on some of the 10 commandments.

The rich young man says he has kept them all since he was a boy. Jesus then gives what seems to be the killer punch by telling him if that really is the case to then sell everything he has and give to the poor!

We’re told that on hearing this “the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Everyone is amazed as Jesus says how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Its where that famous saying of getting a camel through the eye of a needle comes from – something that is ridiculously impossible.

The disciples are shocked and confused. If this rich man with his exemplary record of doing good cannot be good enough for eternal life then what chance does anybody else have?

This is where Jesus’ reply “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” is loaded with so much deeper meaning.

Trying to please God through human effort is always doomed to failure, no matter how good and commendable that effort may seem. It is so hard for us to see that. Jesus hints at that earlier in his conversation when he tells the young man to keep the 10 commandments, gives examples but seems to deliberately omit the omit the ones about having other gods and not coveting. The young man holds onto his exemplary record as the way to reach God and get eternal life. And that is his major problem.

Its rather like trying to swim the Atlantic Ocean by your own efforts. Some people can be great swimmers and manage a few hundred miles. Others may only be able to do a few yards or metres. But no one can manage the 5,500 miles. With human effort it is impossible.

That is why we all need mercy and grace.

Now I can’t prove it, but I wonder if this rich young man rather than walking away downcast, if he had looked for mercy and grace things would have been very different. If he had thrown himself at Jesus feet and said something like,  “Jesus I can’t do this. I know you are truly good – that you are the perfect holy one of God. But I am enslaved by my good deeds and my great wealth. I am trapped – rescue me!”

I can’t prove it, but from the rest of what we know about Jesus, I’m pretty confident that if had done that, thrown himself at the mercy of Christ, then the outcome would have been completely different.

But this young man’s focus was on his physical treasure and not the treasure that is Jesus. Having said that Jesus’ mercy and grace did not come cheaply or easily.  In Mark’s account only a few verses later in 10:33-34 Jesus says:

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles,  who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

(For more on this see A Day That Changed The World and What Is So Good About Good Friday?)

Here is how the famous writer C. S. Lewis put it:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.”

You may also find of interest:

Podcast #011 Money

Podcast #007: Religion

For the story of another rich man who had a very different encounter with Jesus also see Podcast #014: Filthy Rich

Podcast #028: The God I Don’t Understand