“Teacher, what good thing shall I do so that I may obtain eternal life?” These are the words that start the conversation between the rich young ruler to Jesus in Matthew 19:16 (NASB2020). I’ve read and heard that story hundreds of times in my life. If you’ve been in church for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard it, too.
Here’s the story in full:
And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do so that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not give false testimony; Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to Him, “All these I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them, Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:16-26 (NASB2020)
It was Never about the Money
I love to be generous. I know exactly the moment I knew that generosity would be a feature of my life. (That is a story for another day.)
I started to LOVE the story of the rich young ruler at that point. It felt like I had found some secret shortcut to holiness. I knew I was generous and I knew that I wouldn’t go away sad at that conversation with Jesus.
But I completely missed the point of the story for 26 years. It was never about the money. It was about the heart. Over and over again the Bible shows us that Jesus cares first about the heart and I missed it.
The rich young ruler wasn’t prevented from entering the kingdom because he was rich. It was that he loved his money more than he wanted to enter the kingdom of God. He loved money more than Jesus.
The worst thing I did in reading this passage was miss that it was a conversation between two people. Jesus was having a conversation with the rich young ruler about his salvation.
What do I Love more than Jesus?
I spent a month thinking and praying about how Jesus would answer if I asked him that same question.
“Teacher, what good thing shall I do so that I may obtain eternal life?”
I started by asking myself what is keeping me from having a more full relationship with Christ. And finally I asked the question that opened a flood gate within myself: “What do I love more than Jesus?”
I took an inventory of my life and as I worked my way through the various areas of my life it became clear. I love food more than Jesus.
According to the BMI Chart a few months ago I was “Obese Class II”. Now, I am “Obese Class I”. An improvement, but still not great. I’m not a doctor and there are plenty of websites out there that say all sorts of negative things about the BMI chart.
I don’t need a chart to tell me that I wasn’t eating healthy food or exercising enough. My family has a history of heart related issues and so I have a higher risk level for those same issues. In that moment I knew Jesus wouldn’t look at my heart and tell me that I need to be more generous.
Jesus would look at me and say, “Go, empty your cupboards of junk food, go outside and exercise, treat your body as the Temple of God, and you will have feasts in heaven.”
Who Can Be Saved
After the rich young ruler walks away grieving, Jesus says, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
I never noticed the question that disciples asked: “Then who can be saved?”
The disciples weren’t rich and a majority of the people they ministered to weren’t rich. They had followed Jesus enough to understand that he was talking about the heart of the rich young ruler.
The question is attributed to the group. I imagine they each had the same personal question: “What part of my heart doesn’t belong to Jesus? And what am I supposed to do if I have an area of my life that makes me grieve to think about giving it up?”
An Embarrassment of Riches
The rich young ruler walked away grieving. Obviously he liked his stuff. I have to think that he was embarrassed that everyone standing there saw his secret sin of greed.
The people who receive eternal life are not the people who have achieved perfection. The people who receive eternal life are those who refuse to walk away grieving. When confronted with the sin in their lives; these people open their hearts to God and admit their sin.
My conversation with God uncovered a pattern of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. This pattern is deeper than my physical well-being alone. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “All things are permitted for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12b NASB2020)
I am in some ways “mastered” by food. My relationship with food is keeping me from being in a right relationship with Christ. This has nothing to do with a certain BMI classification. Or that the scale indicates a certain weight. I am not treating my body in a way that honors its role as the temple of the Holy Spirit.
How would Jesus answer if you asked him that question? I don’t know the details of your life, but I know how hard it was to ask that question for me. The answer I got, “Gluttony”, felt embarrassing.
I suspect that might be the case for us all when confronted with our sin. When you ask the question, when you hear the answer, no matter how embarrassed you may feel: