Setting forth afresh, and now in all likelihood about to pass out of that region, there met Him one who came running- in all eagerness, as anxious not to lose the opportunity, and who kneeled to Him with great reverence as having the most profound respect for Him as a righteous man, and who said, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus might at once and without any preliminary conversation have laid on him the injunction that He did at the last, and this might equally have served the final end that the Lord had in view, but then we should have been left in ignorance as to what kind of a man he was, and how it was that the injunction was at once so needful and appropriate. It is by help of the preparatory treatment that we are enabled to see further than we should otherwise have done into the character of this petitioner. He was young, he was wealthy, he was a ruler of the Jews. Better than this, he was amiable, he was virtuous, had made it from the first a high object of ambition to be just and to be generous, to use the advantages of his position to win in a right way the favor of his fellow-men. But notwithstanding, after all the successful attempts of his past life, there was a restlessness, a dissatisfaction in his heart. He had not reached the goal. He heard Jesus speak of eternal life, something evidently far higher than anything he had yet attained, and he wondered how it was to be got at. Nothing doubting but that it must be along the same track that he had hitherto been pursuing, but by some extra work of extraordinary merit, he comes to Jesus with the question, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may merit eternal life?” Jesus saw at once that he was putting all upon moral goodness, some higher virtue to be reached by his own effort entitling him to the eternal life. He saw that he was so fully possessed with the idea that it regulated even his conception of Christ’s own personal character, whom he was disposed to look upon rather as a pre-eminently virtuous man than one having any peculiar relationship to God. Checking him, therefore, at the very first—taking exception to the very form and manner of his address, he says, “Why callest thou Me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.”
Endeavoring thus to raise his thoughts to the true source of all real goodness, rather than to say anything about His own connection with the Father, which it is no part of His present object to speak about, Jesus takes him first upon his own ground. There need be no talk about any one particular good thing, that behooved to be done, till it was seen whether the common acknowledged precepts of God’s law had all been kept. “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honor thy father and thy mother.” As the easiest instrument of conviction, as the one that lay entirely in the very region to which all this youth’s thoughts and efforts had been confined, Jesus restricted Himself to quoting the precepts of the second table of the law, and says nothing in the meantime about the first. The young man, bearing the challenge, listens to the precepts as they are detailed, and promptly, without apparently a moment’s misgiving, he answers, “All these have I observed from my youth.” There was, no doubt, great ignorance, great self-deception in this reply. He knew but little of any of these precepts in its true significance, in all the strictness, spirituality, and extent of its requirements, who could venture on any such assertion. Yet there was sincerity in the answer, and it pointed to a bygone life of singular external propriety, and that the fruit not so much of restraint as of natural amiableness and conscientiousness. As he gave the answer, Jesus beholding him, loved him. It was new and refreshing to the Savior’s eye to see such a specimen as this of truthfulness and of good report among the rulers of the Jews. Here was no hypocrite, no fanatic, here was one who had not learned to wear the garb of sanctimoniousness as a cover for all kinds of self-indulgence; here was one free from the delusion that the strict observance of certain formulas of devotion would stand instead of the mightier matters of justice and charity; here was one who so far had the contagion of his age and sect, who was not seeking to make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but was really trying to keep himself from all that was wrong, and to be toward his fellow-men all that, as he understood it, God’s law required. Jesus looked upon this man and loved him.
But the very love He bore him prompted Jesus to subject him to a treatment bearing in many respects a likeness to that which He subjected Nicodemus. With not a little, indeed, that was different, there was much that was alike in the two rulers,—the one came to Jesus by night at the beginning of His ministry in Judea; the one who now comes to Him by day at the close of His labors in Persea; both honest, earnest men, seekers after truth, and lovers of it in a fashion, too, but both ignorant and self-deceived; Nicodemus’ error rather one of the head than of the heart, flowing from an entire misconception of the very nature of Christ’s kingdom; the young ruler’s one of the heart rather than of the head, flowing from an inordinate, idolatrous attachment to his worldly possessions. In either case Christ’s treatment was quick, prompt, decisive, laying the axe at once at the root of the evil. Beneath all the pleasing show of outward moralities Christ detected in the young ruler’s breast a lamentable want of true regard to God, any recognition of His supreme and paramount claims. His heart, his trust, his treasure, were in earthly, not in heavenly things. He needed a sharp lesson to teach him this, to lay bare at once the true state of things within. Christ was too kind and too skillful a physician to apply this or that emollient that might have power to allay a symptom or two of the outward irritation. At once He thrusts the probe into the very heart of the wound. “One thing thou lackest: go thy way,” said He, at once assuming His proper place as the representative of God and of His claims,—“go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor; and come take up thy cross and follow Me.” The one thing lacking was not the renunciation of his poverty in bestowing it upon the poor. It was a supreme devotedness to God, to duty—a willingness to give up anything, to give up everything where God required it to be given up, when the holding of it was consistent with fidelity to Him. This was the one thing lacking. And instead of proclaiming his fatal deficiency in this primary requirement, without which there could be no true obedience rendered to any part of the divine law, Christ embodies the claim which He knew the young ruler was unprepared to honor—in that form which struck directly at the idol of his heart, and required its instant and absolute dethronement.
Not for a moment, then, can we imagine that in speaking to him as He did, Jesus was issuing a general command, or laying down a universal condition of the Christian discipleship, or that He was even holding up the relinquishment of earthy possessions as an act of pre-eminent meritoriousness, which all strivers after Christian perfection should set before them as the summit to be reached. There is nothing of all this here. It is a special treatment of a special case. Christ’s object being to frame and to apply a decisive touch-stone or test whereby the condition of that one spirit might be exposed, He suited with admirable skill the test to the condition. Had that condition been other than it was, the test employed would have been different. Had it been the love of pleasure, or the love of power, or the love of fame, instead of the love of money that had been the ruling passion, He would have framed His order so that obedience to it would have demanded the crucifixion of the ruling passion, the renunciation of the one cherished idol. The only one abiding universal rule that we are entitled to extract from the dealing of our Lord with this applicant being this—that in coming to Christ, in taking on the yoke of the Christian discipleship, it must be in the spirit of an entire readiness to part with all that He requires us to relinquish, and to allow no idol to usurp that inward throne, that of right is His.
Christ’s treatment, if otherwise it failed, was in one respect eminently successful. It silenced, it saddened, it sent away. No answer was attempted. No new question was raised. The demand was made in such broad, unmitigated, unambiguous terms, that the young ruler conscious that he had never felt before the extent or pressure of such a demand, and that he was utterly unprepared to meet, turned away disappointed and dissatisfied. Jesus saw him go, let him go, followed him with no importunities, besought him not to return and to consider. It was not the manner of the Savior to be importunate,—you do not find in Him any great urgency or iteration of appeal. When once in any case enough is said or done, the individual dealt with is left to his own will. Gazing after this young ruler as he departed, Jesus then looked around about, and said to His disciples, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God.” The disciples were astonished at these words, as well they might be. What was the ease or the difficulty of entering into the kingdom to be measured by the little or by the more of this world’s goods, that each man possessed? A strange premium this, on poverty, as strange a penalty on wealth. Jesus notices the surprise that His saying had created, and, aware of the false track along which His disciples’ thoughts were running in a way as affectionate as it was instructive, proceeded to explain the real meaning of what He had just said. “Children, how hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God”. It is not the having but the trusting that creates the difficulty. It was not the kind or the quantity of the wealth possessed, but the kind or quantity of the detachment that is lavished upon it. The love of the penny may create as great impediment as the love of the pound. Nor is it our wealth alone that operates in this way, that raises a mighty obstacle in the way of entering the kingdom. It is anything else than God and Christ upon which the supreme effect ion of the spirit is bestowed. A new light dawns upon the disciples’ minds as they listen to and begin to comprehend the explanation that their Master now had given, and see the extent to which that explanation goes. They were astonished at the first, but now the astonishment is more than double; for if it indeed be true, that before any individual of our race can cross the threshold of the kingdom such a shift of the whole trust and confidence of the heart must take place,—if every living earthly creature,—attachment must be subordinated to the love of God and of Jesus Christ His Son, who, then, can be saved? For who can effect this great revolution within his own heart, who can take the dearest idol he has known and cast it down in the dust, who can lay hand upon the usurper and eject him, who can raise the rightful owner of it to the throne? Astonished out of measure, the disciples say among themselves, “Who, then, can be saved?” His reply is, “With man it is impossible, but not with God, for with God all things are possible.”