What would you do if a respectable young man ran up to you, fell on his knees & genuinely asked; "Good Christian. What must I do to inherit eternal life?" How would you respond? What would you think? What would you say? Well let’s listen to how Jesus responded in an equivalent situation in Mark 10:17-27.
“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.”’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’”
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION
Perhaps if Jesus was a bit more like you or me he would have got distracted with the complement of being a called a “good teacher”. We all like to think we’re good at what we do & it can be encouraging to hear someone else thinks we’re good at what we do. Yet Jesus doesn’t get distracted & by asking what he asks actually shows he is listening attentively to the young man & therefore is able to begin challenging his assumptions about goodness. Jesus asks; "why do you call me good? No one is good but God..."
Being good seemed to be a thing for this young man. In the story he highlights both that Jesus is a good teacher & that he himself is good person (v20). Yet while feeling he is a good person the young man at the same time is still genuinely unsure if he has done enough good to inherit eternal life. He asks Jesus; "What can I do?" Or as Matthew records; "What good thing can I do..." Jesus quickly discerns all this & it is his loving attention on the young man in front of him that enables him to ask the right question which leads to the right conversation.
GET TO THE HEART
Jesus has truly engaged this young man on his level & now he gets to the heart. Yet before he does Mark is careful to record that; "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." The Message paraphrases it this way; "Jesus looked him hard in the eye, and loved him." Before Jesus brought the deepest of challenges the young man knew he had been heard & that he was loved by Jesus. Let's not miss that. Jesus then gets right to his heart when he says; "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then follow me."
Jesus does not make it easy for the young man but he does show willingness to commit him when he invites him to follow him. Jesus uses no canned evangelism technique because he is not after a quick decision but a long term disciple. By saying what he says Jesus identifies the idol the young man is presently trusting in, an idol that has him unsure of where he stands with God. The young man is shocked/disheartened by Jesus words & walks away grieving/distressed & Jesus lets him go. Think of how Jesus could have handled this differently if he'd only done a course on Evangelism 101. He could have just directly told the young man he was a sinner etc but that he was on his way to the cross to die for him & then led him in the magic prayer. Yet he doesn't, he simply stops & let us note this is an example of the Master soul surgeon at work! He knows what he is doing.
KNOW WHEN TO STOP
Jesus doesn't join up all the dots for him; he leaves him with stuff to think about. Jesus dismantles his assumptions & gives him space to consider his words. He leaves him shocked, disheartened & grieving. The young man walks away sad, but not angry. The young man came asking; "What must I do?" Now our reading begins to focus on what only God can do. Now turning to his disciples Jesus begins to challenge their assumptions. Note here that Jesus is not only sensitive to where the young ruler is at in his thinking, he is also conscious of where his disciples are at in theirs. I love the presence of mind that Jesus displays throughout the Gospel’s.
The disciple’s assumptions would have simply reflected those of the time. Why do you think the disciples were so perplexed by Jesus' words & why did they say to one another; "Then who can be saved?" Well an assumption of the time was that riches signified favor with God. So if it was so impossibly hard for this respectable young rich man to enter the kingdom of God then what hope was there for anyone else! That's the assumption behind the disciples question & that is why the rich young ruler went away grieving. Likewise it’s important for us to be aware of the popular assumptions our times if we are to evangelize with the loving consciousness & heart penetrating wisdom of Christ. Wisdom that asks the right question, gets to the heart & knows when to stop.
In his book Learning Evangelism From Jesus Jeream Barrs writes; "We cannot be certain of course, but it is very probable that the [young man] came back to Jesus later. The early church seems to have identified Joseph of Arimathea—the rich man who provided a tomb for Jesus’ body after his crucifixion—as the young man of this encounter with Jesus. We will find out for sure one day, but it seems likely that by revealing the secrets of the young man’s heart, Jesus did begin to draw the young man to his love."
In pondering all this I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7. Paul is writing to a church & not an individual but I think his words are relevant. I'll quote them in The Message;
“I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.
Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.
And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter.”
I believe Christ was hoping for something similar regarding this young man.
In the forward to Randy Newman's book Questioning Evangelism Lee Stobel tells a story which helps underline the power of asking the right question, getting to heart & knowing when to stop. He writes;
"THE EMAIL WAS SNARKY, with decidedly hostile and mocking undertones. At the end, the person—someone I didn’t know—posed a pointed question: “If your God is loving, why does he allow so much pain and suffering in the world?” I wasn’t in a good mood when I read the missive. Part of me wanted to answer in a similarly negative style, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t be the right approach. So I started to write a detailed five-point answer to the pain-and-suffering question—you know, the kind of theologically sound response you learn when you study Christian apologetics. I paused. I deleted what I had written. Instead, I simply typed, “Of all the questions in the universe, why did you choose to ask that one?” I hit “send.” The answer came the next day. This second email had a totally different tone—the anger was gone, and the writer was much more sincere. He described his impressive academic achievements and how he had climbed to success in his career—only to lose his eyesight and health to diabetes. His job evaporated. His friends drifted away. Now he was living on welfare and food stamps. He was suffering from depression, loneliness, bitterness, and fear. My heart went out to him. As for him, he responded that he felt heard and valued. Suddenly, the door was open to a fruitful spiritual conversation."
This is another beautiful example of asking the right question, getting to the heart & knowing when to stop.
John Fitzsimmons, pastor at Amazing Grace Fellowship