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The Rich, Young Man Seeking Life
13Then little children were brought to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15When He had placed His hands on them, He went on from there.
16Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”
18“Which ones?” the man inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus ever and always spoke out in support of the lowliest in society. He had just finished speaking in support of the women in that society, forbidding men to divorce them for any and every reason. Here, He speaks up for the children: “Then little children were brought to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ When He had placed His hands on them, He went on from there” (vss. 13–15). The disciples, I suppose, thought that Jesus was doing things too important to be interrupted by mere children. However, bringing people to Jesus should take precedence over everything else. Jesus overruled the “rebuke” that the disciples gave to those who brought the children: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.’”
They are wise parents, who bring their children to Jesus. “Parents of these children brought to Christ were performing the high duty of offering their little ones to God in their infancy; for it is never enough to care only for family’s health, education, and deportment. It is, indeed, an inadequate parent who is concerned merely for children’s physical welfare or worldly success; his supreme duty is to consider their souls” [Griffith Thomas, 280]. So, parents should heed the words of Jesus throughout the childhood of their children: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.” Encourage your children in learning the things of God, and learning about the life and work of Jesus; encourage them in coming to Jesus in prayer; encourage them in the worship of Jesus. Note also, it is un-Christlike to be indifferent to the needs of children.
The children came to Jesus for prayer. Next Matthew relates an episode in which a rich, young man came to Jesus seeking eternal life: “Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’” (vs. 16). “Oh, that more young men would ask a similar question!” [Spurgeon, 266]. This action, coming to Jesus for eternal life, is nothing but commendable. The man has come to the right place! “Salvation is an individual business: every one who wishes to be saved, must have private personal dealings with Christ about his own soul” [Ryle, 237]. “Here is one who in a day of abounding unbelief comes of his own accord to Christ. He comes not to have a sickness healed; he comes not to plead about a child: he comes about his own soul” [Ryle, 237].
Let us note something here: “We see from the case of this young man, that a person may have desires after salvation, and yet not be saved… We must never forget that good feelings alone in religion are not the grace of God. We may know the truth intellectually; we may often feel pricked in conscience; we may have religious affections awakened within us, have many anxieties about our souls, and shed many tears: but all this is not conversion. It is not the genuine saving work of the Holy Spirit… Not only are good feelings alone not grace, but they are even positively dangerous, if we content ourselves with them” [Ryle, 238]
The rich, young man was under the illusion that he could be holy enough through his own good works to earn in the sight of God eternal life. He was not spiritually mature enough to know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). However, he must have felt in his conscience that he fell short of pleasing God, for he felt that he had not attained eternal life, and he felt that he needed to ask the question of Jesus: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “His problem apparently was that, although he had paid strict attention to the commands of God, he still felt that he was coming short in some way” [Morris, 488].
Jesus first replied: “‘Why do you ask me about what is good?’ Jesus replied. ‘There is only One who is good’” (vs. 17). Some find this statement of Jesus troubling. It seems to them that Jesus is denying that He Himself is good. That would be the case if Jesus did not answer the man’s question, and said something like: “I am not qualified to answer that question.” However, Jesus did indeed answer the man’s question, and by doing so, was proclaiming that, yes, He Himself is the “only One who is good.” By asking the man, “Why do you ask me about what is good?”, Jesus was urging the man to reflect on the implications of asking the Son of God such a question. The conclusion the rich, young man should draw is that he had come to right place in asking such a question. Jesus was also imparting to the young man the knowledge that only God is good, and that no man can live up to the standards to attain eternal life, for there is “only One who is good”. Thus, Jesus was preparing the man for the inevitable result: the man would not be able to do “the good thing” that Jesus would ask of him.
Jesus answered the man’s question: “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments” (vs. 17). The only way for a man to attain eternal life on his own is to be perfectly holy in the sight of God, by obeying each and every one of God’s commandments. The rich, young man must have felt that he came up short of obeying all the commandments, for he tried to get Jesus to narrow the task down. The young man asked: “Which ones?”
In answer to “Which ones?”, Jesus listed some of God’s commandments: “Jesus replied, ‘“Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,” and “love your neighbor as yourself”’” (vs. 18–19). Here, Jesus cited commandments concerning behavior to other people, the so-called second table of the law. “He stresses the importance of the ethical” [Morris, 490]. The last commandment He cited, “love your neighbor as yourself”, summarizes all of the commandments concerning dealings with our fellow man. To have obeyed perfectly this commandment is a tall order, and, I would say, impossible for fallen man. “The last-quoted command summarized the rest, and it ought to have opened the questioner’s eyes to his shortcomings; for who has loved his neighbor as himself?” [Spurgeon, 267].
Nevertheless, the young man told Jesus: “‘All these I have kept,’ the young man said. ‘What do I still lack?’” (vs. 20). “We discover something of his spiritual lack when he says that he has kept all these commandments” [Morris, 490]. The young man didn’t recognize his true spiritual state. “Perhaps he spoke the truth, as he understood the law” [Spurgeon, 267]. But his claim of keeping all those commandments came from ignorance: ignorance in understanding God’s law, and ignorance in understanding himself. “So utterly ignorant is he of the spirituality of God’s statutes, that he never doubts that he has perfectly fulfilled them” [Ryle, 239]. “Note, a man may be free from gross sin, and yet come short of grace and glory. His hands may be clean from external pollutions, and yet he may perish eternally in his heart-wickedness” [Henry].
Though the young man believed he kept all of the cited commandments, his conscience told him that he “still lacked” the requisite holiness to enter eternal life. “Despite his misconception about his standing as a keeper of commandments, he was clearly conscious that something was missing” [Morris, 491]. Rather than continue citing commandments (which, no doubt, would have resulted in the man continuously claiming innocence), Jesus chose to show the man that he lacked the holiness required by God: “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (vs. 21). Note, Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect…” Jesus was pointing out that total perfection in the eyes of God is required, if a person wants to attain eternal life by his own works. Such a holy perfection requires one to be one-hundred percent dedicated to God. Jesus apparently sensed that the man’s riches were getting in the way of his dedication to doing the will of God. The man’s love of his riches was causing him to violate the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). “Our Lord brings him to the first table of the law: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’. If he did this, he would be willing, at a divine command, to part with his property, even as Abraham was ready to offer up his son” [Spurgeon, 268].
This request of Jesus’ was not unprecedented. Jesus’ Twelve Disciples were asked to do the same thing. “This is the challenge He had previously made to the fishermen as they were at their nets (see Matt. 4:19) and to Matthew as he sat at his place of work (see Matt. 9:9). They did not have the riches of this young man, it would seem, but they left what they had and followed Jesus. They were prepared to sacrifice everything; that is the path of the service of God” [Morris, 492]. Then also, throughout the Bible, the holy men of God (as the young rich man thought he was) were asked to do similar things. “The principle involved is supreme devotion to Christ. The test of this is different for different people. Some find it harder to renounce hopes of worldly honor and fame for Christ’s sake, than to renounce wealth; and for others the hard trial is to abandon certain gratifications of the various appetites or of taste. Abraham left his native country at God’s command, but became rich and famous. Moses gave up the distinction and refined pleasures of court life, and tried patiently to rule a debased and intractable people. Elisha left his property at the call of God through Elijah. Paul abandoned his ambitious hope of being a great rabbi. All should be willing even to die for Christ (16:24ff), though not many are actually required to do so” [Broadus, 407].
Interestingly, Jesus pointed out to the man that by “selling his possessions”, the man would not really lose his riches, but would just displace them. Jesus promised that he “will have treasure in heaven.” The man apparently did not believe this, or he did not sufficiently value “treasures in heaven” (the only true treasures), for he was quite unwilling to do what Christ asked: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (vs. 22). The young man came to Jesus willing to do whatever Jesus asked, so he thought. One might think that the young man, who thought he was so godly and perfect, might have welcomed such advice. On the contrary, “when he was faced with a really great deed, getting rid of all his wealth, the only thing he could do was go away grieving” [Morris, 492]. “At once the weak point in his character is detected. It turns out that, with all his wishes and desires after eternal life, there was one thing he loved better than his soul, and that was his money” [Ryle, 240]. “Those who have much in the world are in the greatest temptation to love it, and to set their hearts upon it. Such is the bewitching nature of worldly wealth, that those who need it least, desire it most; when riches increase, then is the danger of setting the heart upon them (see Ps. 62:10)” [Henry].
The man’s reaction to Jesus’ advice is full of irony: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Those of the world think that a person cannot be sad and rich at the same time. How wrong they are! This man was young, and he was rich, yet, “he went away sad.” Moreover, it was his riches that made him sad, for “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Far from bringing happiness, often riches prevent one from attaining true happiness. I have no doubt that, had the young man followed Jesus’ advice, he would have lived a blissfully happy, spiritually rich, life.
Nevertheless, though we are to strive always to do the will of God, it is a mistake for us to think that we can attain eternal life through our own works. Asking our Lord the question, “what do I still lack?”, is to invite discovery of our shortcomings. We must come to God seeking mercy, finding eternal life only through His Son. Instead of saying, “what do I still lack?” (for the list will go on forever), we should plead with God: “You supply what I lack, through Your Son, Jesus Christ.”