As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” – Mark 10:17 (WEB)
I’ve been journeying through the Gospel of Mark this year, spending about 3 weeks a chapter before moving on. I’m now in chapter 10, and have been camped out in the passage about the rich young ruler. Over the last few weeks, I’ve looked at the commentaries and listened to a bunch of sermons on this passage. I’m not quite sure why I’ve fixated on it the way I have but a few things come to mind.
There is perhaps no greater question that a human being can ask than the one that this young man asks of Jesus here. He was obviously someone who took great care in many things of his life and you can probably imagine him having a quite orderly way about him. He knew the Scriptures, being quick to answer Jesus that regarding the commandments, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth” (10:20). Unlike some of the comments and sermons I’ve seen and heard on this verse, I picture this young man being in earnest when he said this, rather than boastful or arrogant. Jesus Himself saw something different in this young man, as we are told in the next verse, “Jesus looking at him loved him”. I can picture a faint smile on Jesus’ face when hearing this reply. But Jesus saw in him what He sees in so many of us. There is often something (and often more than one thing) that is so part of our identity that we can’t see ourselves living without it. In this man’s case, it was his wealth for sure, and quite possibly also his ruling status. It’s speculated that at that time he was a ruler in the synagogue. One of the first things we are asked when we meet someone new is “What do you do?” This answer appeared to have meant everything to this man. And he simply wasn’t ready yet to let it go.
In his Confessions, Augustine famously said in prayer to God, “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.” I think in the back of his mind, this young man was thinking along these lines. He cared enough about his soul that he sought Jesus out to ask him, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” But Jesus, sensing that this was another who was “not far from the kingdom of God”, saw the last stranglehold on the man’s life would be his toughest to let go, “…and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions” (10:22).
The Bible is silent on what ultimately happened to this man. I see glimpses of hope that this man came to the end of himself eventually and placed his trust in Christ later on. We can’t know for sure of course. But regardless, this story is one that is worth our deep reflection. In Luke 5, we read the accounts of Peter, James, John, and Levi, as they encounter Jesus in the flesh as this man did. Their response, however, was different – “… they left everything, and followed him” (v. 11 & 28).
God knows there are things in my life that are so ingrained that it will take nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit to purge them for good. At times, they feel like a death grip. I’ve asked, as the rich young ruler did, “what shall I do?” and yet, like him, have not always liked the answer that God has given me. But Jesus does not settle for rearranging the furniture of our lives. He levels the structure and builds in His own way. This is unsettling. However, for those of us who, by His grace, have been called to Him, can be confident that He also looks at us and loves us. He is patient with us, not wishing that any should perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).