Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Jesus One on One

This is the third post in a series that examines Jesus' encounters with individuals and what they reveal. To start at the beginning, click here.

The rich young man who balked at a futures investment strategy of great return.

The Matthew's gospel has the next one on one encounter:

Now a man came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” 

He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 

“Which ones?” he asked. 

Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these things. What do I still lack?” 

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 

But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.” The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for man, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26, The Net Bible)

There at least three things wrong with the way this young man approached Jesus:

  1. "Teacher" -- Jesus was more than a teacher. The fact that the young man referred to Him as such tells us that he has not paid much attention to Jesus' teachings or claims.
  2. "What good thing." -- Note the singular noun. He wanted one "good thing." The young man sought the proverbial "silver bullet." Why complicate things by asking for more than one good act.
  3. "Gain eternal life." -- Here we must note that the young man's desire was for his current life and status to continue forever in a much improved condition. There is a strong core of self-interest here. 

Jesus' response requires some careful parsing as well.

  1. "Why do you ask me about what is good?" -- Since you haven't taken the time to listen to my teachings and learn who I am, why bother me with this question?
  2. "There is only one who is good?" -- This "only one who is good" would be God. Jesus was already beginning to shift the conversational direction to the essential truths this man needed to here. He wanted information about a "good thing" and Jesus was telling him that he needed a the good Person.
  3. "If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." -- Jesus did not say "eternal life" here. The young man needed to get a life that was worth keeping forever. That life needed to be based on a better understanding of the nature of Torah.

The young man asked, "Which ones?" Note the relationship to the singular "what good thing." The young man had now acknowledged that maybe he had multiple responsibilities. However, the young man was just haggling for the best price. It did not occur to him that perhaps all the commandments were important.

Jesus set a trap for him by quoting from the ten commandments, in which the young man apparently had confidence, and an obscure verse in Leviticus (19:18). Perhaps you would fare well with the first commandments that Jesus listed. You and I might think that murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and dishonor were far from us. But Jesus tagged the list with "love your neighbor as yourself." 

I can know that I have murdered, or stolen, or committed adultery. I may have more difficulty knowing whether I have honored my father and mother, but the young man might not have faced the test of aging parents yet. But how do you know when you have loved your neighbor enough? Our legalistic minds dwell on the commandments of measure. By this, I mean clear unambiguous and often negatively stated commands. As I like to put it, "Legalism likes the tithe and hates the corners of the field." There is a command to set aside one-tenth of our livelihood. It is easy to know whether I have done so or not. There is another command to not harvest to the corners of the field so that the poor may have food. (Leviticus 19:9). How much of a corner can you leave? Can you count it as part of your tithe? Leviticus 19:9 and 19:18 are about generosity and character and heart. They are open-ended commands, because you can always leave more and love more.  The legalist and the rich young man are about performance and gain.

The young man said, "All these I have kept..." This was a brash statement and showed little reflection. At another time, when Jesus quoted this verse, a Jewish leader had the presence of mind to ask, "Who is my neighbor?" That leader understood the difficulty of such a command and sought to constrain it by a narrow definition of neighbor. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan greatly expanded the definition of neighbor instead. As you can see, this young man is was in trouble.

So Jesus sprung his trap, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus directly challenges the young man's obedience to "love you neighbor as yourself," as if fulfillment of such a command was even measurable. Jesus purposely set the bar higher than the young man could reach. Jesus said, in effect, "You have loved your neighbor enough when you have made him better off than yourself." He also said, in effect, "You will need treasure for your eternal life. It's time to invest now."

And then Jesus answered the young man's original question, "What good thing..." He was to come and follow Jesus. This is completely sensible. Eternal life is entirely about knowing God, glorifying Him, and enjoying Him forever. To follow Jesus is to begin to taste eternal life now.

But the young man left. Did Jesus fail? His dialog with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman came out well. Where did this dialog go wrong? There are several things to note here:

  1. The young man left, but he left sorrowfully. He did not get what he expected, but he did not leave in angry cynicism. Jesus connected with him at some level. The seed was planted.
  2. Consequently, the young man's story does not necessarily end here. 
  3. According to Mark's account, Jesus loved this man (Mark 10:21)
  4. And Jesus would say about this situation, "For God, all things are possible."

So I think the young man found His Lord and gained eternal life. He needed time for the conversation with Jesus to sink in and grow. He needed to come to know that it is God who is good and his greatest treasure. 

Whom do I have in heaven but you? I desire no one but you on earth. (Psalm 73:25)

So it is my hope that this young man came to the insight that Paul had when he wrote,  "More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I might gain Christ, (Philippians 3:8)" 

Tomorrow: The fisherman who got caught in his own net and became a shepherd.

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

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