So one day a rich young man falls on his knees before Jesus and asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.
“Well, you know the commandments,” says Jesus before listing them.
Only that’s the interesting thing. He doesn’t list all of them. After all, everyone knows there are Ten Commandments, so why does Jesus only list six?
This story is as much about what’s left unsaid. Go to Exodus 20 where the Ten Commandments first appear and there, partially, is Jesus’s list. However, he seems to have replaced “do not covet your neighbour’s possessions” with “do not defraud people” (which is a key part of the Jewish Law, but not one of the Ten).
Effectively, once we untangle Jesus’s list, the rich young man has actually only kept five of the commandments. One of them we’ve touched upon – do not covet. Maybe this guy’s wealth has been getting in the way of that one. Maybe he’s been looking around at his fellow socialites and power-brokers, seen their fancy houses, their fine clothes…
It seems a shame to think this way – the fact is, when he begs to know what he needs to do to get eternal life, he seems 100% sincere. Jesus doesn’t verbally smack him down like he does hypocritical Pharisees, he respects this young man enough to make his point fairly subtly, for now at least. But something’s wrong here, the young man is missing the point fairly spectacularly.
That point is seen in the four commandments Jesus omitted – Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t misuse the name of God, observe the Sabbath. In short, all the Commandments covering how humanity should relate to God. Jesus seems to be implying that the man’s relationship with God isn’t what it should be.
The young man doesn’t pick up on this – “I’ve kept all those since I was a little boy!”
“Okay,” says Jesus, “Now you need to sell everything and give it to the poor.”
Boom. This is the nuclear option. Because this is the line that makes the young man walk away, leaving both him and Jesus saddened. His relationship with God isn’t what it should be because his money and possessions are getting in the way, to the point that they’re making him break the Commandments about idolatry. His money has become his god and he hasn’t even realised it.
That’s challenging. It’s fairly easy to not bow down in front of a golden calf. It’s stuff like money and career and power that are more insidious, pushing God off his throne without us even noticing. It’s scary stuff.
And it’s not only scary because of that, although that’s bad enough. It’s scary because, when the young man and Jesus talk about eternal life, they’re not talking about what happens when we die, we’re talking about what happens when God’s kingdom comes and is established on Earth. The young man was seeing that as some future event, but that’s not how Jesus saw it – his ministry and his imminent death on the cross were already inaugerating that kingdom. It was already there and it’s already here – not fully consolidated, sure, but here all the same. God’s work, God’s power are breaking through, changing lives, bringing resurrection in a whole variety of situations. Part of that involved feeding the hungry and making sure the poor were looked after.
The young man wanted to inherit eternal life by entering God’s kingdom at some point. What he didn’t realise that this wasn’t going to be in the future, this was now, and so him selling his possessions and giving to the poor would have been him helping to inaugerate the kingdom there and then. There were poor people in his community who needed that help.
And yet he couldn’t do it. He may well have seen his money as a reward from God for all his years of trying to keep the Law, but he’d missed the point. He was blessed to be a blessing, but his part in this chain had fallen apart.
Jesus goes on to talk about how wealth and power can get in the way of us entering the kingdom, but let’s watch the young man walk away. He thought he’d been keeping the Law, loyally following God for years. And yet he hadn’t. Judging by Jesus’s list he’d barely managed 50%. We all fall short of the glory.
And that’s something that God understands – that’s why grace is so important. But we need to acknowledge we need that grace, to realise that, no matter how sorted we seem to be, there’s always the possibility that something’s creeping in between us and God.
I like to think the rich young man looked at himself in a mirror and changed his ways after this encounter (I know someone who has a theory he might have been St. Paul…), but we never find out. We leave him walking away from Jesus, sad looks all round and an unspoken challenge for us all in every retreating footstep.