Before Jesus left town, a Rich Young Ruler came running to the Man he thought would have an answer (Matthew 19:16-30). He came with an urgent question, one that people all around the world are still asking: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16) After all, God has put eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and we know there is something more than this fragile, broken place.
Jesus’ response caught me off guard. Instead of immediately answering the man’s question, he replied with a question. In a roundabout way, this is the beginning of His answer: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Eternal life begins with the recognition that God alone is good. That means apart from God, we are pure evil. There is nothing good in us.
Stop and think about that. We are absolutely nothing good apart from God.
If we don’t start there, we can’t start. We have to recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt in the eyes of God. We come empty-handed to a God who has every right to punish us for our sins (Romans 3:23, 6:23) When we come to God, we aren’t just asking for an extra dose of goodness; He’s the only chance of goodness we’ve got! Even if we follow the law as closely as we can, we aren’t an ounce of good apart from Him– because God always sees our hearts. You know what He says about them?
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9-10
We are born with desperately sick hearts. And desperately sick hearts desperately need healing. Sometimes we self-medicate, believing our actions will bring us healing, that good deeds will give us a new heart. Does that even make sense? Can a sick heart do sincerely good deeds? Somehow we’ve bought into the lie that appearance is as important as the real thing.
We can actually praise God, pray to God, worship God, do good things for God, and teach in a way that seems God-like, but be very, very far from God [enter the Pharisees].
“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Matthew 15:8-9
The center of who we are is always our heart. So many of us do the things we know we should. We follow all the “Christian” rules (“quiet time,” mid-week small group, accountability partners, prayer meetings, short-term mission trips). But we don’t stop there. We try following the same rules that Jesus shared with the Rich Young Ruler:
You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 19:18-19
Maybe we’ve followed these rules even from our youth, like this man…and yet we’re still empty. We still feel the same void. We ask the same question as the Young Ruler:
What do I still lack? Matthew 19:21
The Rich Young Ruler followed all the commandments that had to do with how he treated other people. These are six of the commandments, and I’m not saying they aren’t important; but, there were four other commandments that preceded these in Exodus 20. In brief: have no other gods before God; don’t create false idols; don’t take God’s name in vain; and, rest on the Sabbath. The very first commandment is the basis for the rest. Even our “goodness” can be a god. We can look at the law and believe that we are okay because we are doing things God asks, but are we doing the first thing? Are we allowing God to be God? Is there anything standing in the way, including our own righteousness?
When we aren’t right with God, we know. It’s kind of like when you see that crooked picture hanging on the wall. You don’t need a level to tell you it’s crooked. You just know it needs to be straightened. The young ruler knew things weren’t right, but he needed Jesus to tell him how to fix it.
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21
This word perfect is defined in Strong’s as “brought to its end; finished; wanting nothing necessary to completeness.” In essence, Jesus said, If you want to stop wanting, “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor…and come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Matthew 19:22
Jesus can’t give us life if we hold onto the things that are killing us — our money, our dreams, our plans, our friendships, our accomplishments, our careers. These things aren’t inherently bad, but when we put them up on a pedestal and worship them as God, we have an issue. The irony is that we actually believe this stuff is what sustains us, when it’s the exact opposite. Our selfish, sinful pursuits rob us of joy instead of allowing us to experience it. The very thing that the Rich Young Ruler built his life upon was the thing keeping him from completion.
Sometimes we have idols that we don’t recognize. For the ruler, it was his wealth. He made a decision that day to walk away because he saw his earthly wealth as more valuable than Jesus. He knew he would have to sacrifice to follow, and to him, it wasn’t worth it.
We can read the story and think, “Well that was stupid,” or, “I wouldn’t have done that.” But would we? When Jesus asks us to give up even the little things, are we willing? Are our hearts so moved by Him that everything else seems worthless? In Philippians 3, Paul writes:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith… (v. 7-10)
The worth of God is infinitely greater than anything we could treasure on this earth. That statement must be evidenced in our lives! Everything else should look like rubbish; it should look absolutely worthless, because in light of eternity it is. Paul willingly suffered loss because he saw the invaluable worth of Christ. If we have the same kind of faith in Christ–faith that believes God is as good and fulfilling as He promises, we will willingly sacrifice to experience more of Him. When we count the cost, He’s always greater. It’s the foundation of an upside down kingdom that will never add up with human eyes.
But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26
To truly gain what we desire, we must give up things that are keeping us from completion. Only then will we find ourselves wholly satisfied and free from wanting.