A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good,” except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Having heard the story of the rich man all my life, I understood it to be a straightforward warning about the perils of riches. I thought it very curious, though, that Jesus took time to rebuke the man for calling him good. Jesus was and is nothing but good. He is the spotless lamb, the sinless Son of God. Was he rebuking the rich man because he saw it as mere flattery? Did Jesus object to the adjective simply out of humility? That didn’t ring true to me.
Perhaps that initial rebuke might be the key to unlocking a secondary message within the story. It reminded me of the Spirit’s warning to the church in Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich; But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked,” and a similar verse in Isaiah 64:6: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Maybe the wealth the young man needed to relinquish was not just his earthly riches, but the treasure of his own righteousness.
No doubt the young man was proud to be able to say that he had kept all the commandments throughout his entire life. I certainly would be proud to say so, if only it were true! We love to parade in our old rags. And all the while Jesus longs to dress us in his righteousness. It is interesting that righteousness is depicted as something external to us, like clothing that we need to “put on.” (Isaiah 61:10) It is not something that we can generate from within by behaving in a certain way.
We are all works in progress, but we ourselves are not the ones doing the work. It is God who works within us. But taking on the righteousness of God is not a passive process. We must first recognize our need.
Why did the rich man go away sad? Not only did he need to give up his fortune, he needed to give up the idea that he could earn his way to heaven. It is quite presumptuous when you think about it. How can we imagine that anything we might do could even approach the goodness of God?
When we give up on our own righteousness, we open ourselves to receiving an amazing gift from God: the righteousness of Christ himself. He gives us his goodness. This is how to inherit eternal life.
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