This is an interesting story for many reasons. It’s illustrative of some major issues about evangelism, about the Law, and about the character of our Savior. Each of the Synoptic Gospels has a version of this story, so apparently it’s pretty important. From the other two writers we learn that this man was young and a “ruler,” which probably meant in the sense of running a synagogue. Let’s examine the story a little further, shall we?
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Jesus would've made a horrible evangelist by the standards of some preachers today. Some guys are so caught up with numbers that they want to count every half-hearted convert who walks down an aisle and says a prayer. They definitely would've looked at this rich young ruler and blurted out today’s title. The man came to Jesus on his own (no hunting him down) and fell at Jesus’ feet, a sign of submission. He asked how to get saved and sounded ready to do anything to get it. Like the old saying goes, “Like shooting fish in a barrel.” Any evangelist dreams of meeting prospects like this.
But there were some underlying issues that needed to be resolved before this could go any further. And because there’s a subtext here, it’s easy to read this and come away with some confusion. Keep in mind, however, that Mark’s Gospel is not all we have of God’s word. Using that magic word—“context”—we can bypass some nonsense.
The man called Jesus “good,” and it seemed like the Master denied it. Why? Not because Jesus didn’t consider himself good, obviously. But this young man needed to take a closer look at what he meant by “good.” He possibly threw that term around like a cliché. But if only God is truly good, then he needs to think harder about applying that term to the Teacher in front of him. This is a hint to the man that there’s more to Jesus than meets the eye.
And of course you might have noticed the exact wording that the man used: “What must I do in order to inherit eternal life?” He was undoubtedly sincere, but in the context here, his very question seems to presuppose a faulty understanding, that there's something we need to do in order to be in a right relationship with God. Jesus countered this misunderstanding in greater detail elsewhere.
Then Jesus immediately went into a monologue about exactly how to get saved. What, no? He didn’t do that? No, he brought in the Law of Moses. What?! Why'd he do that? You’ll see in a moment.
You can almost hear the impatience in the man’s reply: “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” As Spurgeon put it, a more honest and self-aware answer would've been “All these I have broken since I was a boy.” Paul too once thought he was flawless concerning the Law until an encounter with Christ corrected him on this.
That’s how we can interpret what Jesus said next. I love Mark’s little side-note here—“Jesus looked at him and loved him.” He loved him too much to flatter him and let him stay in the dark about how far he was falling short of God’s standards.
Instead of going into a theological monologue on the impossibility of actually keeping God’s law and standards, the Master put his finger on the man’s most pressing problem. Once more, based on the rest of the Bible, Christ was not saying that we get into heaven based on either poverty or philanthropy. It’s like Jesus was saying “OK, if you think you’ve actually been keeping God’s law, then here’s a little test.”
And as you can see, the man flunked the first question. If he was claiming to be keeping God’s Ten Commandments, then what about the very first one? “No other gods before [or besides] me” is the foundation of everything else. This man had another god besides the true One, namely money.
This clears up a lot, doesn’t it? You can’t get someone saved before you get them lost. If they don’t have some grasp of their need for salvation, then you’ll never make any headway with them until they get over that hump.
We can see just how accurate Jesus’ diagnosis was by the man’s reaction. “At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Apparently not sad enough to reconsider his response.
Once more we're reminded that repentance—surrender to the authority of Christ—is part of the Good News. It’s not an optional thing. As long as the man had another god in his life, he wasn’t ready to follow Christ.
Lord Jesus, it’s obvious that you’re looking for fully sold-out followers and have no time for fence-sitters. Which one am I?