We have been looking at one of the most important questions ever asked of Jesus. This question was asked by a man we have come to know throughout history as the Rich Young Ruler (RYR). However, before really exploring his question, we had to take a closer look at Jesus’ response; “Why do you ask me about what is good?” It’s a great, practical question for all of us, and you can read about it by clicking here.
Today, we are going to go back and dig into the life-critical question that the RYR asked Jesus.
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16b)
Notice that the RYR does not ask, “How do I get eternal life?” His question is far more specific. He is asking about a singular, distinct action or “good deed” that will grant him access to eternal life. For me, there are two big questions here. First, why just one deed or act? After all, Moses listed ten times that amount when he left Mount Sinai. And generations later, Judaism would expand that number to 613. So, why is he looking for just one?
Second, and we touched on this last time, what defines the deed as “good?” In fact, this is where Jesus first focuses his attention when he replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good." (Matthew 19:17)
Thankfully, Jesus throws the RYR a lifeline. In a way, Jesus answers his own question by telling our friend that if you want to know what is good then you have to go back to the One who defines it. God. God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4) and God is good (Psalm 73:1, Genesis 1). God, the Creator of the universe, defines and is the definition of good. So, if we want to know what is good, then we need to go to the Source. The RYR’s question points us to a standard that only God can set.
That also means, that since the RYR is asking Jesus to outline this one good deed, he must believe, truly believe, that Jesus has the insight, wisdom and knowledge to authoritatively answer his question. Does the RYR really believe that Jesus can speak on behalf of God? He is not alone here. Do we believe that as well? After all, this is an intensely practical question. If you and I believe:
Jesus has the answers to life’s most critical questions.
Jesus is indeed good as God defines it.
Jesus can truly speak with the authority of God.
Then, we need to actually follow his instructions. When we look for answers to our moral, ethical or spiritual questions, we have to honestly ask ourselves if we are willing to listen to the answers, even if they do not fit our current convictions or behavior. Otherwise, the RYR’s question is simply an exercise in academic futility.
The RYR did not leave after Jesus responded, so it appears that he is interested in hearing what Jesus has to say. But, once again, Jesus does not answer his question directly. Instead, he takes a page out of my mother’s playbook. Growing up in Indiana before the internet, and when phones still had cords, I would often ask my mother how to spell a word or two while working on a paper for school. And, I always received the same reply. “You have a dictionary, use it!” She said that so many times, I really don’t know why I kept asking. She was right. I had a dictionary, and I knew how to use it. I was simply too lazy to lug it off the shelf and flip through all of those thin pages to find the word I was looking for. (Unfortunately, I will never be able to pass along this advice to my kids. As long as we are in the ballpark, our computers simply fix our spelling for us. Oh, for the good ‘ol days…)
Jesus takes the same approach with the RYR. He starts with information that the RYR would already know if he pulled the Torah scrolls off the shelf and looked up the answer.
“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17c-18a)
Moses did not lug those tablets down Sinai to work on his strength training at 80 years old! These are not ten helpful suggestions for success. They are commandments, definitions of what God considers good behavior. Looking them up would have been a pretty good place for the RYR to start.
However, to be fair, there are ten of them, and the RYR was only asking for one. So, he asks Jesus to be more specific. He asks, “Which ones?”
Have you ever wondered what look came across Jesus’ face when he heard this question?
Are you kidding me right now? There are ten…. t-e-n! You are joking right!?
Personally, I would have loved to see a sarcastic response from Jesus. Something like, “Which ones? Oh, just the even ones. The odd ones are optional. Was that not clear when God carved them into stone Himself? Seriously? Did you think God was offering you options?”
Thankfully, that is not how Jesus responds. Instead, He goes with it.
And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 19:18b-20) *
Instead of listing all ten, Jesus offers only six. Seems a bit strange coming from the Son of God. Jesus knows there are ten. And, I highly doubt He forgot four of them. So, why did He not mention the other four? Even the RYR seems to suspect something because after hearing Jesus list these six commandments, he tells Jesus, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”
He knows something is still missing, so he asks about it. But, before we further investigate why Jesus fractionalizes the Ten Commandments, let’s not overlook the RYR’s claim in the first part of his statement. He tells Jesus that he has successfully followed all six of these commandments. If he is being honest with himself and Jesus, this is a big deal! I don’t know about you, but I cannot say that I have even come close to keeping these commandments perfectly. I wish I could. Every time I rolled my eyes when my mother told me to get the dictionary, I broke number five…repeatedly.
Not the RYR. He says that he has kept all six, and wants to know what else he needs to do. And what is even more surprising, Jesus does not fight him on this point.
So which commandments are missing? If we look at the six commandments Jesus listed, they all have a common thread.
Can I bear false witness without someone to lie about?
Can I commit adultery without a spouse?
Can I commit murder or steal without a victim?
Can I honor my mother and father, if they do not exist?
Can I show love without a neighbor?
What do these six commandments share? Another person. They all involve our interaction with those around us; our parents, neighbors, spouse, etc.
The four that Jesus left out, the first four of the Ten Commandments also have a common theme.
We are to have no other gods.
We are not to make or worship idols, or false gods.
We are to honor God’s Name.
We are to keep the Sabbath, a day to rest and recognize what God has done and is doing in the world.
These four are focused on our relationship with God. Seems strange to leave these out when the RYR is asking about an eternal life with God. Why would Jesus intentionally leave God out of the picture, especially if the RYR is looking for what is good?
In short, He doesn’t…
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
Instead of an answer, Jesus gives the RYR:
A choice A crossroad
The RYR is faced with a choice, continue on the way his is heading, riches in hand, or get rid of his possessions, his entanglements and anything else that can get in the way of his relationship with God and follow Jesus. In that moment, Jesus lifted these four commandments from the stone tablets and made them real. What was theological just became intensely practical.
The answer to his question was a choice only he could make. And, a choice only we can make.
“When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Matthew 19:22)
The RYR does not walk away because of his possessions. Having possessions or wealth is not the problem, at least not completely. Jesus had wealthy friends; Lazarus, Zacceaus, and Joseph of Arametha to name a few. This is not a story about wealth. This is a story about what is good.
For the RYR, the good found in giving his possessions to those who needed them was not worth a life with God, even an eternal one. Think of it this way, the RYR had a choice to practically, tangibly love his neighbor, including those he might not even know personally, but instead sides with the god of financial security. This is the choice we all face. How we actually live the final six commandments among those around us, demonstrates how we really feel about the first four.
Can I even keep the last six commandments without obeying the first four? Can I honestly say that I love my neighbors, if I fail to share with them? Can I truly show compassion to those around me, if my motivation is simply to find the most direct route to eternity?
So, how do I know if I am truly keeping the first four? The answer is obvious in how I am living the second six.
* Note from above: The last commandment listed by Jesus, love your neighbor as yourself, can be viewed as a positive version of the tenth commandment from Exodus 20, which instructs us to not covert anything belonging to our neighbor.