Our Lord is on His way to Jerusalem, on a journey to His Cross and Passion. He is on His way to fulfilling the purpose for which He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, namely, that He should suffer under Pontius Pilate, be crucified, put to death, and buried in the dust of the earth. For though He was rich beyond measure, yet, for your sake He made Himself poor in every way, that you might inherit all the riches, wealth, and treasures of the Kingdom of God in Him.
He is on His way to the Cross, on the heals of His blessing of the little children. His journey and His purpose are defined by such as these, who receive in Him the Kingdom of God with childlike faith. He has come, not for proud and self-sufficient adults, but for the helpless babes and infants, and for those who become like little children. Not for the self-righteous, but for sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. Not for those secure in their own wealth, but for the poor in spirit.
And on the way, the Lord Jesus is approached by a rich young man, the ruler of a local synagogue, who poses a significant question. He humbles himself before Jesus — he kneels at His feet — and he speaks to Him with sincere respect: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
There are various ways to interpret such a question. As a Christian you might well be asking what it looks like to be and to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. How should you be living as a child of God? And what are you to do with your life in this world? Those are questions prompted by the Holy Spirit working in your heart, so that you desire to know and to do the Will of God.
But the question of the rich young man might also be posed as a way of asking what it will take to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God. What must you do to get your foot in the door? Not that the good and gracious Will of God be done, but that you might obtain salvation for yourself.
As a sinful son or daughter of Adam, the fact is that you are more concerned with your own will than with the Will of God. You pray when you find yourself in trouble or want something. You do a good deed or go to church for the sake of appearances and to cover all the bases, just in case. And when it comes to your eternal destiny, to the extent that you think about it, you’re willing to do and to pay whatever it takes to secure your place in heaven, in order to avoid the alternative.
With the rich young man, therefore, you pose a question of the Law, in the expectation of the Law. After all, a list of rules and regulations seems simple enough, and easy enough. It might take some work and effort and sacrifice, but you do what you gotta do to get ‘er done, and then you rest easy, as though you’ve paid your dues and earned your reward.
Such attitudes are entirely wrong in supposing that the Law of God is easily kept and satisfied, in thinking that you have managed to do pretty well so far, and in picturing the Law as a means to some other end, rather than a description of the life that is lived by the grace of God in Christ.
With your lips you confess that you are sinful and unclean, and that you have sinned against the Lord in your thoughts, words, and deeds, by what you have done, and by what you have not done. But in your heart, you’re normally not so sure that you’re really all that bad. You do your best to keep your nose clean, and to keep your sins relatively small and quiet, or at least well hidden. And here you are in church again this morning. So you’re clearly doing better than so-n-so who’s not.
In this respect, according to your flesh, your thinking is like that of the rich young man. But as far as that goes, his evident knowledge and sincerity, his exemplary life, and his humble respect for Jesus, rather put you to shame. Outwardly speaking, his life and his behavior were everything that yours ought to be, by the standards of the Law. So, if you surmise that you are looking pretty good compared to others who have fallen short, yet, you do not measure up in comparison to this guy.
But consider how Jesus responds to the question at hand. He does not refute or set aside the Law, but He plumbs the real depths of what the Lord requires and demands in terms of faith and love.
He begins with the Commandments pertaining to your relationship with other people, including your parents and your spouse, your neighbor and his household. You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder, steal, or cheat; but you must honor your father and your mother.
On the surface of these Commandments, it may seem possible to claim that you have kept them all for as long as you have known well enough to do so. But in response to that claim, the Lord Jesus digs beneath the surface to uncover the heart of your fear, love, and trust. He is aiming, not so much at your behavior or your wealth, but at your god and at the worship of your god.
“Go and sell all that you have,” Jesus says. “Give all the proceeds to the poor. And as for you, take up the Cross and follow Me.” So much for tithing! The Lord demands your entire body and life.
Now, understand that riches and possessions are by no means evil or sinful in themselves. All that you possess is a blessing from God, which you are given to receive with thanksgiving to the glory of His Name and for the benefit of your neighbors. It is all sanctified by His Word and Prayer, and it is rightly put to use in love for others. That is to the point. Not that you must live in a constant state of economic poverty, but that you recognize and use whatever you have as the charity of God.
So, too, what the Law of God requires is not only that you refrain from doing what is evil, but that you would actively do what is good and right. To keep the Law is thus to live in love for others.
You keep the Fifth Commandment by helping and supporting your neighbor in every physical need; and when you fail to do what you can, you become an accessory to his murder. Likewise, you keep the Sixth Commandment by leading a pure and decent life in all that you say and do, and by showing love and honor to your wife or husband. And you keep the Seventh Commandment by helping your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income. And you keep the Eighth Commandment by defending your neighbor, speaking well of him, and describing his life in the kindest possible way. In each case, when you fail to do good, then you have done wrong.
These are the high and holy expectations and standards that God requires of you and commands you to obey, according to the righteousness of His Law. And if you were going to gain eternal life by the keeping of His Law, then nothing less than divine perfection would do it. There is no room for holding back or slipping up or getting lax at any point. In which case, you are altogether lost. For the bottom line, as Jesus clearly states up front, is that no one is good except for God alone.
It is time, therefore, to hear the answer of the Gospel to the question at hand, as the Lord Jesus has previously given. “How is it that you enter the Kingdom of God?” You must become like a little child. You must be reduced to childish dependence on the care and provision of God in Christ.
“What must you do?” You must do nothing. You must become nothing. You must let go of all that you have, your efforts and striving, your pride and self-sufficiency, and rely on Christ alone.
That is not to say that, by selling everything you own and giving it away, you could buy your way into heaven. Even if you were to liquidate everything and give it to the poor, it would only be on account of Christ and His Gospel that such an extreme act of charity would have any bearing on the Kingdom of God — and even then, not as a cause but as a consequence of your inheritance.
But, no, it is not you, nor anyone else, but Christ Jesus alone who has kept and fulfilled the entire Law in its perfect righteousness, in holy faith and holy love. As He is the one true Bridegroom, who has been faithful in all things even toward His adulterous Bride, so is He the truly wealthy Man, who has nevertheless sold all that He had to make you wealthy by way of His poverty.
Which is to say that, not only does Jesus answer the question of the rich young man, but Christ Jesus Himself has actually become the only real Answer to that question, since He has become the Way of Life for you and for all people, rich and poor alike. His perfect keeping of the Law on your behalf — suffering the punishment of your sins, but also serving you as His neighbor in love — that is the Gospel by which you inherit eternal life and the righteousness by which you are saved.
The one thing that matters, therefore, is not your keeping of the Law, but your following of this One who is good — because He is true God in the flesh and the one true and perfect Man — this one Lord, Jesus Christ, who has journeyed to the Cross for you and your salvation. Your life and your salvation hinge and depend upon your attachment to Him alone. He is the One Thing that the rich young man was lacking, and the One Thing that makes all the difference for you, as well.
He does call you to repentance and faith, to take up the Cross and follow Him, to die with Him and rise with Him, to live a new life in and with Him. But of course, none of that is anything that you could ever do by your own resolve or willpower. Left to your own wherewithal, you would only end up turning around and walking away from Jesus with a crestfallen face and a sorrowful heart. Your flesh is not able to let go of your reliance on your stuff and on your own accomplishments.
Nor would you ever realize that the purpose of the Commandments is not that you should save yourself, but that you should glorify the Lord your God and serve your neighbor in holy love.
Becoming like a little child, and living by faith as a child of God in Christ Jesus, that is a divine work which the Lord accomplishes in you by the preaching of His Word. He exposes the self-righteousness and selfishness of your sinful heart, and He destroys all your self-confidence and self-reliance, with the impossible demands of His Law. Not that He would cast you away from His presence, but that He would gather you into His arms as a beloved child of His God and Father. He would have you die to yourself, that you might rise and live unto righteousness in Him alone.
So it is that, when all hope in yourself is lost, He looks upon you in love, and He gives to you the only Hope that any of the sons and daughters of Adam have. He gives nothing less than Himself.
With that in mind, it is intriguing to consider the possibility that the rich young man was actually John Mark, otherwise known as the very St. Mark who has written this Holy Gospel. There’s no way to conclude that possibility for certain, but there are some indications that it might be so. I’d like to believe it myself, if only because it makes for a much happier ending to the story at hand.
In any event, there is another “young man” who appears later in this Holy Gospel, who is likewise thought (with somewhat more confidence) to be St. Mark himself. That young man did follow the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He was arrested and taken away; and wearing nothing but a simple outer garment, that young man ran away naked when they tried to grab him, too.
So, from the young man who went away sad because he could not let go of his many possessions, we come to the young man who is stripped of absolutely everything, right down to the nakedness of a newborn infant, as the Lord Jesus Christ continues on His journey to His Cross and Passion.
And so it is that you, also, by the Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, have been stripped naked of all that was yours, in order to be crucified, put to death, and buried with Christ Jesus; that you should lose your life in this world, in order to inherit eternal life in the Kingdom of God; that you should be clothed, not in the perishing wealth and riches of this dying world, but in the righteousness and holiness, innocence and blessedness, of Christ Himself.
Born again as a child of God in Christ Jesus, you are a wealthy young man or woman by His grace. For all that belongs to Him is now given to you as your inheritance in the Ministry of His Gospel. No longer do you cling to your perishing possessions or rely upon your own works and efforts, as though to achieve some kind of life for yourself. No longer are you driven by doubt and fear, by pride or presumption, but you live by faith in Christ and bear His Cross in love for God and man, in the hope and promise of the Resurrection. Instead of going away sad, you live in peace and joy.
The inheritance of eternal life with God in Christ is not a commodity to be purchased or a prize to be won, but a free gift to be received through faith in the Gospel. Not by your doing, but by dying to yourself, to the world and all its wealth, you are raised up to live forever in body and soul with Christ Jesus. Today, as you hear His voice, do not harden your heart against Him in despair, but rest yourself in His Body given and His Blood poured out for you, and so rejoice in His salvation.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.