One day a certain ruler, probably a ruler in a local synagogue, came to Jesus with a question. This ruler was young (Matthew 19:20), wealthy (Matthew 19:22), and lived a moral life by striving to keep God’s commandments (Matthew 19:17-20). Still, even with all that going for him, he wanted to make certain that he had the “eternal life” box checked off on his life’s to-do list. So, his question to Jesus was, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16, N.K.J.V.).
Jesus responded by first attempting to get the young man to think more deeply about Jesus’ Messiahship and divinity. The young man had called Jesus “Good Master,” but did he truly believe that Jesus was actually God in the flesh? As Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is God” (Matthew 19:17, N.K.J.V.).
Interestingly, though, Jesus didn’t even wait for a response. Instead, He forged right ahead and answered the young man’s question by saying, “But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17, N.K.J.V.). Now the young man’s curiosity was really piqued. He quickly asked, “Which ones?” (Matthew 19:18, N.K.J.V.). Jesus then listed a smattering of the multitude of commandments from the Old Testament law: you shall not murder (Exodus 20:13), you shall not commit adultery (Exodus 20:14), you shall not steal (Exodus 20:15), you shall not bear false witness (Exodus 20:16), honor your father and mother (Exodus 20:12), and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).
Confidently, the young man asserted, “All these things I have kept from my youth” (Matthew 19:20, N.K.J.V.). Did he truly think that his track record was spotless or was he just bragging? The tone of the story suggests that he truly thought his record was spotless. Either way, he then asked Jesus, “What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20, N.K.J.V.).
At that point Jesus didn’t rebuke the young man or say to him, “Uh, no, you haven’t always kept those commandments.” What He did was keep the conversation moving by saying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21, N.K.J.V.). This, as the story soon proves, is the harpoon that Jesus had been loading up since the onset of the conversation.
And oh how that harpoon struck deep into the heart of that young man. Once it landed, he had no more response, no more comebacks, no more questions. The next verse simply says:
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:22, N.K.J.V.)
So much for loving your neighbor as you love yourself! The New Testament doesn’t revisit this story to tell us what became of the young man, which leaves us to wonder if he ever did what Jesus asked of him. (I’ve never heard or read anybody who thought that he did.) What we can say for sure, though, is that Jesus’ command certainly knocked the smugness and overconfidence out of the fellow.
What I want to draw your attention to, however, is the primary lesson this story presents. That lesson is: You will never be the follower of Jesus that He wants you to be as long as anything or anyone stands taller than Him in your life. I’m sure that it wasn’t an oversight that Jesus, in His conversation with the ruler, didn’t list the first of the ten commandments that began the Old Testament law and served as its moral center. That first commandment was: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3, N.K.J.V.). It seems clear that the ruler was worshiping his wealth and possessions. Jesus, of course, always knows what’s really going on with us and what is standing between us and full devotion to Him.
Looking at the young man’s life another way, we can say that not only was his wealth his god, it also gave him his identity. Here, it will help us to remember that the Jews of that day believed that God blessed the righteous by granting them worldly wealth. In the Jewish way of thinking, a wealthy person must be a godly person and a poor person must be cursed of God. Well, since the young ruler thought of himself as someone who kept God’s commandments, it made perfect sense to him that he was wealthy. But what if he lost all his wealth? That would surely be a major blow to his identity.
Let me ask you a very personal question: What is it about you that most gives you your identity? Phrasing the question another way, what are you known for? Okay, whatever it is, are you willing to give it up for Jesus if He asks you to? That’s a question that drags each of us out into the deepest waters of dying to self.
Will the businessman abandon the business world if Jesus asks him to? Will the registered nurse quit being a nurse? Will the athlete give up sports? Will the pastor forego the ministry? Will the writer stop writing? Will the school teacher resign? Will the salesman stop selling? Will the chef stop preparing meals? Will the politician get out of politics? Will the policeman quit the force? Will the fireman quit the company? Will the musician give up music? Will the artist give up art?
Someone might argue, “But Jesus would never ask for such a sacrifice.” Oh really? Tell that to James, John, Peter, and Andrew, four men who gave up their fishing profession to follow Jesus. Tell it to Matthew, who gave up his job as a tax collector. Tell it to Saul of Tarsus, who abandoned his identity as a zealous Jew who persecuted Christians when Jesus floored him with the question, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And tell it to the rich young ruler whom Jesus asked to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Each of these examples offers vivid proof that Jesus does sometimes ask for such a sacrifice.
So, you say that you love Jesus and will do anything and everything that He asks of you? Well, if your assessment of yourself is accurate, good for you. I sincerely hope that your tribe increases. But then again, could it be that Jesus just hasn’t hit you with the right harpoon yet by asking you to give up that one thing from which you draw your identity, that thing that makes you you? I’ll leave that for you to ponder the next time you start thinking of yourself as being such a radically devoted follower of Jesus. For the record, it’s a question that I myself must ponder, and I’ll admit that there are times when I’m not so confident in my answer.