17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:17-23 ESV
What happens next provides a perfect juxtaposition to all that Jesus has been trying to teach His disciples. He has been addressing their pride and the unhealthy competitive spirit that had caused them to argue over who among them was spiritually superior. It is likely that Peter, James, and John had bragged about their adventure with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, leaving the other disciples envious of the special treatment these three had received from Jesus. Each of the 12 disciples was trying to earn his way into Jesus’ good graces, hoping to secure a position of prominence in His coming Kingdom. And John had revealed their disdain for anybody outside of their circle who might hone in on their territory and rob them of glory. When he and his fellow disciples had discovered someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus, they had rebuked him, demanding that he cease and desist. But Jesus had surprised John by commending the stranger for His actions, saying, “the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40 ESV).
And in an effort to convict the disciples of their unhealthy obsession with greatness, Jesus had repeatedly used children as a way to illustrate the kind of attitude He was looking for in His followers. When the disciples had tried to send away the parents who were bringing their children to Jesus so that He might bless them, Jesus had declared, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15 NLT).
The disciples had viewed these children as a distraction. From their perspective, children were non-contributors, who required far too much attention, and could provide no real assistance when it came to the work that needed to be done. They had no rights, no money, no skills, and no way of helping Jesus usher in His Kingdom. So, why waste time with them?
And it was at this point that a young man approached Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17 ESV). Matthew adds that the man’s request was focused on what “good deed” he must do to inherit eternal life. From the conversation that followed, it seems clear that the men believed he had already done enough. He was young and rich, and from the perspective of most Jews, he was already blessed by God because of his wealth. He was also a religious man because when Jesus lists six of the Ten Commandments and tells the man to keep them, the man proudly announces, “all these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20 ESV).
This man was looking for confirmation, not a list of things to do. As a faithful Jew, he believed he was a child of Abraham and, therefore, a rightful heir to eternal life. As a descendant of Abraham, he was guaranteed a place in God’s eternal Kingdom. Now, he was asking Jesus to place His Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on his life.
The wording of the man’s question is very specific. He uses the word klēronomeō, which means “to obtain by inheritance.” This reveals that he believed eternal life was already rightfully his, but he wants to know how to he can get his hands on it now. He was not wanting to wait. His attitude is similar to that of the young man in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. In this story, Jesus described another young man from a wealthy family who was destined to inherit his father’s vast riches. But unwilling to wait for his father to die, he demanded that he be given his inheritance right way.
“I want my share of your estate now before you die.” So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. – Luke 15:12 NLT
Finding himself suddenly wealthy beyond belief, that young man ended up spending everything he had on a life of excess and immorality. He had gotten what he wanted but had misused and abused it.
And, in a similar way, the rich young man who kneeled before Jesus was demanding that he be given what was rightfully his: His guaranteed inheritance of eternal life. This man had it all but he wanted more. He coveted the one thing that was missing from his portfolio: Eternal life.
Because of his wealth, social standing, and success at religious rule-keeping, this young man believed himself to be blessed by God. He views himself as a good man who deserved everything that was due to him. And if Jesus could help him get eternal life, he would have it all. But Jesus emphasized that “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19 ESV). As David wrote in his Psalm, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3 ESV).
And while this man could brag about keeping six of the Ten Commandments, Jesus knew the truth about his heart. It is interesting that Jesus only lists five of the commandments and they all had to do with the horizontal relationships between individuals.
“Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” – Mark 10: 19 ESV
And these five commandments bring to mind Jesus’ sermon on the mount. In that message, Jesus stated, ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV).
And Jesus had gone on to explain what it looked like to “relax” one of God’s laws. He put hatred on the same par as murder (Matthew 5:22). He compared lust to adultery.
“…everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:28 ESV
Lust, like adultery, is essentially taking what does not belong to you. It is a form of stealing. And Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29 ESV).
All throughout His sermon on the mount, Jesus painted a radically different picture of what it means to keep God’s law. It wasn’t just about rule-keeping. It was about a change of the heart. Those who hoped to inherit God’s kingdom would have to live sacrificially and selflessly. Their adherence to God’s laws would have to manifest itself in their relationships with others. That’s why Jesus said, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 ESV).
Which brings us back to the rich young man. Jesus turned to him and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21 ESV). This proved to be the deal-breaker. This one “good deed” was more than the man could handle. He was unwilling to part with his wealth. All his law-keeping had cost him nothing. But now Jesus was demanding that he do one thing that would cost him everything. And think about what this man was giving up. He was turning his back on eternal life so that he could keep living the “good life.” Mark sadly reports that the man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22 ESV).
He was possessed by his possessions. He was held captive by the things of this world. His love of material goods and temporal pleasures proved too great. And years later, the apostle John would probably recall this sad scene when he wrote the following words.
Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT
This man had been young and full of life. He was wealthy and blessed by every imaginable earthly pleasure. He was a ruler who wielded tremendous power and responsibility. In other words, He was great. He was all that the disciples hoped to become. When they looked at the rich young ruler, they saw the image of what they aspired to be. And as the disciples stood in stunned silence watching the young man walk away, Jesus further exploded their misconception of greatness.
“How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.