Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “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.” “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.'” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” 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.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Matthew 19.16-22.
This is often seen as a difficult passage and one to be skimmed quickly over by those who feel it undermines the doctrine of justification through faith. On the face of it, here is a man who wants salvation and Jesus seems to be telling him he can get it by the works of the law. But is that really what is going on here?
For a start, there is the context. Context is always important, but especially so here because this story of the rich young man is placed immediately after the story of Jesus receiving little children, blessing them, then saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19.14). Little children do not have the ability to perform the works of the law but they do have certain other qualities which, says Jesus, if they are shared by people of any age will give those people the salvation that the rich young man is after — life in the kingdom of God, the life of the age to come, “eternal life”. And what are those qualities? Humility, transparency, openness, trust … all things that the rich young man seems to have lacked.
He comes to Jesus asking “what good thing” he must do to gain access to the life of the age to come. In common with many Jews of Jesus’ time, he believed that it was possible to win salvation by some special act of goodness that went beyond the demands of the law, and he wants Jesus to tell him what that special act is. He seems to be in no doubt that he can perform it, whatever it might be. He has supreme confidence in his own ability to earn his place in the kingdom of God.
So the first thing that Jesus does is to disillusion him of the idea that God is looking for any special act of goodness. Goodness lies in doing God’s will which has already been revealed in his commandments. “Which commandments?” the young man asks; so Jesus lists five commands from Exodus 20 but adds “and love your neighbour as yourself”. “Oh, I’ve done all those,” says the young man, with breathtaking arrogance. “What else?” — and quite fails to see that he cannot possibly be loving his neighbour as he loves himself if he is closing his eyes to the abject poverty all around him and continuing to enjoy and cling to his “great wealth”.
So he is not actually keeping the law, despite his claim to be doing so. But then, as a kind of master stroke, Jesus does in fact throw the young man a lifeline of the one “good thing” he came asking about in the first place. A good thing that goes beyond the requirements of the law. A good thing that will ensure that the young man does indeed get the eternal life he is looking for. “Come, follow me,” says Jesus. And he says it knowing that for the young man to accept that invitation will take all the humility, the transparency, the openness and the trust of the little children he had been holding in his arms five minutes earlier — qualities that would ensure that the kingdom of God would be his.
Help me, Lord, always to come to you as a little child. Amen.