Looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, “You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But he was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions. (CSB – Read the chapter)
My oldest son learned about figurative language this year in school. I know that because, thanks to Covid, most of his lessons about it happened over my shoulder in my office. He learned about and has gotten pretty good at identifying oxymorons, idioms, similes, metaphors, and the like. One of the items that didn’t make his list is the paradox. A paradox is a statement that seems totally absurd, but proves true upon further examination. Of all the paradoxes there have ever been, this man seeking the source of eternal life from Jesus discovers one of the most challenging of the bunch.
In yesterday’s sermon, we took a look at a passage from Romans in which Paul lays out the simple message of salvation. At the beginning of that passage, though, Paul starts out by talking about his passion to see the Jewish people of his day – his own brothers and sisters – come to faith in Christ. Their problem, he says, is one of knowledge, not passion. They are passionate about God, they just don’t know Him or His ways as well as they think they do. The young man who came to Jesus seeking eternal life is a perfect example of this.
He came to Jesus full of confidence and excitement. I don’t think this was some mere passing fancy of a request from him. I am convinced that he was genuinely seeking a path to eternal life and a right relationship with God. And he thought he knew how to do it. Yes, we talked last week about the fact that there was something inside that told him there may be more than he knew which is why he was coming to Jesus to seek His input in the first place, but that was a fairly small part of him. When Jesus listed off the various commands of the Law, the man was getting more and more excited. He had been on the right track all along!
Then came the punchline.
The man was obviously passionate about God. He sincerely desired a relationship with Him. He was committed to a life of obedience even when it was inconvenient to his personal aims. He had almost everything he needed in place. There was just one more thing he needed, Jesus said. The man leaned in a little more (as did everyone in the crowd around them). Go…
And at this point they all expected Jesus to send him to do something like make a sacrifice. Probably something big and elaborate. Go and offer twelve bulls, two dozen sheep, and three dozen goats. Make sure they are all without blemish. Then, commit to coming to the temple to pray and give alms daily and you’ll be set. The man was ready to make it happen. Eternal life was going to be his.
Then Jesus finished the sentence. Go, sell all you have and give to the poor. You could probably almost hear the air whistling out of the man’s deflated hopes. That was not what he was expecting. At all. In even the remotest sense. Not only was that not what he was expecting to hear, that’s not what he wanted to hear. It was the furthest thing imaginable from what he wanted to hear. This represented a bridge too far. Of all the things he may have been willing to do to lay his hands on the prize of eternal life, this sat squarely at the top of the list of things he wasn’t willing to do. Why? Because he was filthy stinky rich and the thought of being poor was anathema to him. And to do all of that only to turn around and follow Jesus? No way. There had to be more. This was at one and the same time far too simple and far too costly for him to be able to accept.
This brought this thoroughly disappointed young man face to face with the greatest paradox there is. It is the central paradox of the Christian faith. The cost of following Jesus is high. It is incredibly, disturbingly high. At the same time, it is totally and completely free. The poorest person in the world is absolutely able to follow Jesus in just the same way as the richest person in the world. There is no difference between the two in this regard. And yet, the cost will be more than either can afford on their own. Following Jesus is totally free, but it will cost us everything.
Now, some folks over the years have argued that Jesus was doing something prescriptive here. For anyone to follow Jesus, they must sell off all of their possessions before they can do it. That’s a tempting interpretation for many. I understand why someone might come to such a conclusion. I think it is wrong, though. The cost may be incredibly high, but this man’s cost and another person’s cost will likely not be the same. The truth is that Jesus could see through this man’s armor and spotted the thing that was standing between him and eternal life. In his case, it was his money. With all his physical resources, his great temptation was going to be to rely on those instead of God. Anywhere that happened, eternal life was not something he was going to be able to have. Perhaps the thing standing between you and total dependence on God is money, but it may also be something else. The point is not the thing, but the heart behind it.
When we give our lives to Jesus, we must give them totally and completely to Him. Anywhere we try and hold on to what we had before is a place we are not following Him. The trouble is, following Jesus is an all or nothing game. There’s no way to give it a halfway effort and find the thing we seek. If we aren’t prepared to pay the full cost, we’re better off not to sign up in the first place. This man realized that – something for which we should give him at least a bit of credit; he wasn’t willing to pretend – and turned away grieving. Perhaps at some point he decided to take the plunge, but for now, this was a price he wasn’t willing to pay. Eternal life was not going to be for him right now.
Well, given this, why would anyone bother to sign up for such a journey? That’s a very good question. In fact, it’s the question the disciples asked Jesus as soon as they got Him alone. We’ll talk about His answer over the next couple of days.