17As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
This story is told in Matthew and in Luke as well. Matthew tells us the man is young; Luke calls him a ruler. Mark says only that he has many possessions. Jesus is about to leave on his journey, a journey that will lead him to the cross, when a man runs up and kneels before him – and, addressing him as “Good Teacher”, asks what he must do to “inherit eternal life.” Jesus responds first to the address – “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus challenges the man, first of all, for his elaborate greeting – but subtly, Jesus’ comparison to the goodness of God is also a challenge to the man and to those around to think in terms of the comparison. The man’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is indicative that he does not understand what he is asking. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “eternal life” refers to what is called the “Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven” in the other gospels. But belonging to the kingdom, or eternal life (in the now, not just in the future), is dependent, not so much on what one does, as on where one’s heart and loyalties lie. To be a part of the kingdom requires yielding one’s heart and loyalty to the king, who is Christ.
Jesus then tells the man, essentially, to obey the commandments – he lists a number of them, although “do not defraud” is not one of the Ten Commandments. Certainly, defrauding is a form of stealing, and would be out of tune with the Ten. But its specific listing here, along with the others, makes me wonder – did Jesus know something about this young man that we do not? Was he letting him know that he knew – had the man gained at least a portion of his wealth by defrauding others? Jesus knows those things that we think are hidden deeply behind walls in our hearts. But if this is the case with this man, he doesn’t admit it – he responds that he has obeyed all those laws from his youth. Interestingly, Jesus leaves out the first law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and the one that he says elsewhere is second to it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But it is to these that he then holds the young man accountable. What is his first love? Jesus looks at the man and loves him – isn’t that interesting that Mark tells us Jesus looks at him and loves him? Because he loves him, Jesus offers him a way to show his love for God, a way to become one of his disciples. He tells him to sell his stock, and liquidate his assets, and give all that to the poor; and then come follow him. But the man is not willing to give up his wealth; he shows that that is what he really loves – he has “many possessions” and he is not willing to accept the life of a disciple following a wandering rabbi. This is a calling story – but unlike the fishermen who leave their nets and follow Jesus, this man values his possessions too highly. He goes away sorrowful, and we never know his name.