The picture presented to us in this account is that of a young man in masculine life, confronting Jesus. He was a Ruler, and that means that necessarily he had passed thirty years of age. The fact that he is referred to as a young man, however, proves that he had not long held that office. He was probably about the same age as our Lord Himself at that time.
We are immediately arrested by the contrast. On the one hand a young, virile man, the owner of great possessions; on the other, Jesus, a man of about the same age, having no possessions, being homeless.
As I have been pondering the account again, in my judgment it is one of the most surprising in the series we are following. Indeed, in the reading of it I go through a series of surprises. The first is that there could be any man to whom Jesus could say that he only lacked one thing. The fact that it was so compels closer attention to the man; and the second surprise follows, which is that it could be said that he lacked anything. Then, when following carefully the whole account, I come to the third surprise, and it is a surprise that I was ever surprised; because I see the utmost importance of the thing he lacked.
Looking at the man, and beginning on the lowest level, we remember that he had great possessions. He was a wealthy man. That fact in itself speaks of great opportunity, and grave peril. This is always so. There is no need to argue as to the opportunity created by the possession of wealth. One outstanding word of our Lord will be sufficient in this connection: "Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles." (Luke 16:9)
The Revised Version has accurately rendered the word. It shows how the measurement of the ages that lie beyond the earthly life may be put upon the use of earthly possessions. We are to use our possessions so that when they fail, or it, the mammon fails, they, the friends we have made by the use, shall greet us on the other side of life. The young man's great possessions created great opportunities both here and in the afterlife.
It is equally true that great possessions create grave perils. As we look at him it would appear as though they had not had an evil effect upon him, except in the deepest things of his spiritual life. Wealth is always perilous. To quote again the words of our Lord: "A man's life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." (Luke 12:15)
That great saying of Jesus shows that if a man has great possessions it is not only true that they do not constitute his life, but that they may stifle it, may ruin it. Therefore, this young man had grave perils.
It is evident that he was a man of fine temperament. This is seen in the fact that he was discerning. The people of his class, that is, the rulers, by this time were hostile to Jesus. Quite evidently he had been watching Him, and listening to Him, and in so doing he had seen Goodness. When he approached Him, he addressed Him as "Good Master."
By Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, this account of the young ruler is placed in close connection with the occasion when they brought the children to Jesus. I have often wondered if that had particularly impressed this man. Necessarily I do not know that it was so, but it is at least an acceptable speculation. In the case of that incident he had seen in Jesus two things quite clearly, namely, anger and infinite tenderness. Mark tells us distinctly that when our Lord uttered the words which have become the very commission of child existence, He was moved with indignation. It is best for us to remember this when we read the gracious words. As they were uttered they were vibrant not only with the infinite pathos and tenderness of God towards the child, but with anger against any who could, for a moment, look upon children in such a way as to prevent their reaching Him. This young ruler heard these words, and how they were spoken. Moreover, he saw our Lord take these children in His arms, lay His hands upon them, and bless them.
It was then, as moving on His way, the young ruler ran, and fell at His feet, and said, "Good Master." He was a discerning man.
Moreover, he was courageous. As we have said, the rulers by this time were hostile to Jesus, and it was a daring thing for him thus to go to our Lord, and address Him, as revealing the fact that he was conscious of His goodness.
Yet again, he was characterized by humility. When coming into the presence of the Lord, Whose goodness he had seen, he knelt. It may hurriedly be objected that that is merely the record of the fulfillment by this man of the Eastern custom. It is important for us to remember, however, that it is not now, nor was it then, the custom for rulers to kneel to peasants. He had seen something which brought him to a consciousness of the truth concerning him, and of that superior greatness of goodness which he had seen in Jesus.
When at this point our Lord flashed upon him the six commandments written upon the second table of the Law, quickly, rapidly in condensed form, making to shine upon him the light of the commandments which condition relationships between man and his fellow-men, we hear the young ruler replying: "Master, all these things have I observed from my youth."
Now it is quite true that it has been the habit with some expositors to treat that as an empty boast. It is certainly remarkable that at the point when he had uttered these words, Mark tells us: "Jesus looking upon him loved him."
I pause to say that that should not be misunderstood. If he had broken all the Ten Commandments voluntarily, Jesus would still have loved him. It is nevertheless a significant fact that it was at that moment that the statement is made. The one thing that is definitely proven is that of his perfect honesty, and that implicated the fact that he was a man of clean record. It is important to remember in passing that such a thing is of great value. A depraved condition is not primarily a ground of acceptance with God.
Then we face that which was the utmost thing in the life of this man. Something lacking, and he knew it. He had great possessions, occupied a high position among his people, was a man of fine natural temperament, had a clean record, but was conscious of lack. That is why he came to Jesus. Matthew in his account tells us that as he came, he employed the very word as he said to Jesus, while claiming to have a clean record: "All these things have I observed; what lack I yet?"
Moreover--he had revealed the thing he lacked by using the term "eternal life." He did not say he lacked eternal life, but he had admitted he lacked the secret of it. Hence his question. "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"
Thus in his own thinking he felt that he did not possess life in its fullness. It is most important that we remember the real significance of the phrase, "eternal life." Necessarily when we use the phrase we are inclined to think of life that never ends. Now, whereas that is not inaccurate, eternal life is far more than that. Indeed it is never ending, because of what it is in itself. We might with perfect accuracy render the question of the young man: "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit the life of the ages?" (That You obviously possess.)
Now that is much more than life that continues. It is life that contains, that is, life which in itself belongs to the ages, breathes their atmosphere, and enters into their realizations. It is full-orbed life. Thus this man, with the tremendous advantages that he had, realized that he was not living in the full sense of the word. He wanted life, and wanted it more abundantly.
Though at the moment almost certainly he did not realize it, the cry of his heart was the cry of his spiritual nature after God. He certainly believed in God. He was a ruler, and believed in the Law of God, and had been obedient to that part of it which had affected his relationship with his fellow-men. Nevertheless he knew in the center and core of his personality that he lacked something.
We turn, therefore, to consider carefully what Jesus had to say to such a man. The matter is of commanding interest because we meet this kind of man over and over again, both in the universities and in business, at all places. They are men, it may be of great possessions or not, that is secondary, but men of position, men of fine temperament, men with a clean record. Sometimes we find them inclined to say that because of what they are, they do not need Christ or Christianity. Therefore we watch this account with very keen interest.
Let us notice first that our Lord precipitated a problem in his thinking. He had seen goodness in Jesus, and had confessed it by the way in which he had addressed Him. Immediately our Lord said to him: "Why callest thou Me good? None is good save one, even God."
Here let us for a few moments dispossess our minds of everything except that of a cold, logical attention. By that I mean let us ask ourselves what can be the meaning of such a question and statement. The answer is inevitable. We are shut up to a sharp alternative, which we may state bluntly thus. He either meant, I am not good, or, I am God. I repeat, there can be no escape from this alternative. Quite a number of years ago now there was published the Encyclopedia Biblical. In that an article on Jesus Christ by a German scholar, Schmiedel, declared that five sayings of Jesus recorded in the Gospel narratives might be depended upon as accurate. On examination it was found that these five sayings were those in which Schmiedel understood Jesus as denying His divinity, and His sinlessness. Of the five, this saying of Jesus to the young ruler was the one that he specially dealt with, and declared that our Lord meant by it that He was not good, and therefore not God. I am not proposing to argue about it. To do that would involve the consideration of the whole and continued attitude of Jesus, and the claims that He unvarying made. The point at this point is that the question would precipitate as we have said, in the mind of this intellectual man a definite problem. The sequel of the narrative does not suggest that he either understood it, or ever resumed to it. That does not necessarily mean that he did not do so. Personally I think probably he did, but more of that later.
Then our Lord in clear-cut brevity flashed upon him the light of the commandments on the second table of the Decalogue. It is observable that He did not quote the first. As a matter of fact it was in relation to these that he was failing. He quoted the applications on the level of inter-relationship among men, of those four. It was when the light of these six fell upon him, and he had claimed that he had been obedient to them, that he asked, "What lack I yet?" and it was at this point that our Lord definitely said to him, "One thing thou lackest."
This brings us to the point where superficial reading and thinking may lead us astray. The question arising necessarily is as to what this man did lack. With almost monotonous consistency it has been declared that he lacked poverty. That view contradicts everything we find in the teaching of Jesus. He never suggested that poverty was a necessity of life. On the other hand, as we have already seen, He told men to use their wealth in the right way, by putting the measurement of eternity upon the activities of time, and by employing the balances of eternity for the weighing of temporal possessions. (Again, as Jesus did.)
As a matter of fact we stopped too soon in examining our Lord's answer. Let us hear it once more in full. "Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me."
Two distinct words of command were thus uttered, "Go," and "Come." Which was the essential and ultimate word? It is quite evident that it was "Come, follow Me." "Go" was preliminary, and commanded such action as should prepare for the fulfillment of the "Come." He was commanded to go and clear out of the way the things that were hindering him in discovering the secret of life, and so finding it in its eternal value.
He was commanded to sell what he had, and give to the poor, because in his case his possessions were standing in the way of something which was utmost. It is important that we should understand that the command to go has many applications in many differing cases. Everything depends upon that which is, in the person being dealt with, the high hindrance; and that, whatever that may be, and it must at all costs be cleared out of the way, so that there may be obedience to the utmost matter.
What then was the one thing? We may reply with perfect accuracy that it was that of following our Lord, only in doing that if we are not careful, we still miss the high thought. This man was commanded to put his life under control, to submit to authority, to bend the neck, kiss the scepter, and crown the King. The central lack of his life was this very fact of submission to authority. That, moreover, is always the case. However the "Go" may vary, the "Come" remains the same and that because no man is equal to the management of his own personality, without submission to authority external thereto. When the poet said:
"There is a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them as we will,"
It is important that we remember that he revealed the fact of all that man can do, and that is "rough-hew." The whole foolishness of our life is that we continue rough-hewing, and fail to make personal relationship with the Divinity that shapes our ends.
Our Lord is seen, then, standing in front of this young man in the place of, as representing, as actually being God to Whom the human soul must make its submission. He was calling him to submit himself to the only Control to which any man has any right to submit his life, that of God and that of God as revealed in Christ.
We ask, therefore, what is the message of this great account for us? It is first a revelation of the fact that life needs control external to itself if it is to find perfect peace, perfect satisfaction, perfect power and poise. A human life can only be controlled in a Wisdom that knows it perfectly, in a Power that is equal to dealing with it, and by a Love that cannot be called in question. That is what we all absolutely need, and the reason is that of the greatness of personality. Man is too marvelous, too majestic, to be able to arrange for and govern his own being, in order to the full realization of its capacities and possibilities. He needs an authority greater than himself, Whose knowledge is profounder, Whose ability is transcending, and Whose love is certain.
Where shall we find any to whom we may thus submit ourselves? Certainly not on the human level. No man has any right to submit his life completely to the authority of any other human being. Such authority can be found only in God. He alone has perfect knowledge and sufficient power, and equal love to be able to govern.
Naturally the question then arises, how can we find God, and establish such relationship with Him? And here the answer of the account is unequivocal. In Christ God is found, and it is as we obey His "Go," and remove everything that interferes, and then obey His "Come" and submit to Him completely, that we have made the true relation of submission to the supreme authority of God.
The account ends on a sad note, and yet on a note in which, for me, there always shines a gleam of hope. The sadness is found in the statement: "He went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions."
The note of hope is found in that word "sorrowful." Great possessions are not supposed to make a man sorrowful, and indeed, in themselves, they do not do so. But when a man is called upon to put them against life itself, they certainly do so.
Watts' picture, at the beginning of this article, of the young ruler is a very remarkable revelation. Watts dared to give us nothing more than a portrait of his back. We cannot see his face. We do get a glimpse of a profile, but it is the back turned on Jesus that he has represented. Nevertheless Watts has put into that back everything that speaks of dejection. He is seen, magnificently robed, the turban round his head sparkling with jewels, and his hand hanging listlessly by his side.In that sorrowfulness there is hope. If he had gone away angry we might have wondered and been hopeless. But he went away sorrowful. We have no record of the ultimate result. We may be certain of the alternative. Either he went back to his wealth, and at that point perhaps persuaded himself that he very nearly had done a foolish thing, until finally he might be able to laugh at his foolishness; or else, going home, he pondered further his meeting with Jesus, until the moment came when rising he obeyed completely the "Go" as he dispossessed himself of the things that hindered; and the "Come" as he submitted himself to the full authority of his Lord.