Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23B)
October 10, 2021
Text: Mark 10:17-22
“No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18; ESV). So if Jesus is good, He must be more than simply a “Good Teacher” (v. 17). From the rich young man’s own mouth comes the unwitting confession. Jesus is good. Therefore Jesus is God. Not simply a teacher of ethics and moral philosophy. Not simply an example of how to live your life, in every situation asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” No mere prophet or religious guru. He is God. Therefore, He alone is good.
But the rich young man thinks he may be a candidate for the title, as well. When he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17), he is really looking for an endorsement from Jesus that he is good enough to have merited his way to heaven and resurrection. Never mind the absurdity of earning an inheritance. The rich man asks a Law question, so Jesus gives him a Law answer. You want to be a good person by your own efforts and merit? You know the Commandments. Let’s start with the so-called “easy” ones, the Second Table of the Law, the Commandments in relation to the neighbor (v. 19). “Do not murder.” Okay, got it. Haven’t killed anyone lately. “Do not commit adultery.” No problem. Cheating on my wife would be unthinkable. “Do not steal.” Check. I always pay for everything. “Do not bear false witness.” Truth is my number one virtue. “Do not defraud.” Alright, I expected Him to say “Do not Covet,” but I suppose defrauding is the outward manifestation of coveting, and it is important to be honest in all our business dealings. Which I am. Check. “Honor your father and mother.” Listed last for emphasis. No problem. Sure, I had my rebellious thoughts as a teenager, but I never acted on them. And yes, when I had a chance to give some corban, money dedicated to God, I took what I might have given my parents for their support and care, and gave it instead to a holier cause, but surely they understand, and, after all, God will take care of them if they, like me, are holy enough, and surely God is more impressed with my pious offering than He would be with more mundane parental care. But I always treat Mom and Dad with deference and respect. Very important. Check. “Teacher, all these I’ve kept from my youth” (10:20), from the time of my bar mitzvah at the beginning of my teenage years, when I became, literally, a Son of the Commandments, and God began to hold me responsible for my own holiness.
Now, you Lutherans need to give this young man a break with your Lutheranism. You’ve heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), and you’ve attended a Lutheran Catechism class, so you know the problem with the young man’s self-righteous assertions. Keeping the Commandments is not just a matter of outward behavior, but of the heart. He who even hates his brother, or wishes or does any harm, is guilty of murder, whether he kills him or not. He who merely looks at a woman with lustful intent has committed adultery with her in his heart, whether he acts on it or not. Thus the Commandments are broken, and we all do it. All true enough. You’re absolutely right. Good job. You pass your Catechism exam.
But the young man does have a point. He has outwardly, and scrupulously, kept these Commandments of the Second Table. And that is a good thing. And as a result, everyone says of him, that he is a good man. We speak the same way about people who live up to high moral principles. And we should, humanly speaking, because it encourages people to do what is right, and not do what is wrong, and that benefits us all.
The young man has every reason to believe, or so he thinks, that he has also kept the First Table of the Law, the Commandments in relation to God. He only worships the God of Israel. Idols are abhorrent to him. He doesn’t misuse God’s Name, because he doesn’t even say it. When he is reading the Scriptures, where the text says “YHWH,” I AM, he substitutes “Adonai,” LORD. And the Sabbath. Never, ever, for any reason, does he do any work. He attends synagogue service, and then goes home and eats what has been prepared the night before.
But Jesus is good, and therefore God, and therefore knows what the young man does not know about himself. For all his abhorrence for idols fashioned of wood and stone, the young man has an idol made of silver and gold and the trappings of comfort and luxury. His wealth. His possessions. His stuff. Mammon.
So looking at him with intense, divine, saving love, Jesus essentially says to him: “If you want to be good by keeping the Commandments, I’ll grant you that you’ve kept all those we’ve talked about from the Second Table (though you may want to read my comments in the forthcoming Gospel of Matthew when that book is released, wherein I will show you that you really haven’t kept those Commandments to God’s standard, from your heart). What I really want to get at now is a matter of the First Commandment. ‘You shall have no other gods.’ You should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. But you, my dear child, love and trust something else. And it must be dealt with. The idol must be toppled and excised from your life. So ‘go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Mark 10:21).”
The issue is not that the young man hadn’t been generous to God and to the poor previous to this. I’m sure he had. He’s just the kind of person who would put large sums of money into the Temple treasury (Luke 21:1), and toss a few more spare coins to the beggars on the street (Matt. 6:1 ff). The issue isn’t what he’s given. The issue is what he’s kept. And why he’s kept it. Because he loves it for what it does for him. He trusts it to provide for all his needs and desires. And above all, he fears losing it. Because then he would be destitute. And that is why he goes away sad. He cannot do it. He cannot give up his god. As it turns out, he is not good. So when it comes to his own doing, he has no hope of gaining eternal life.
So also with your doing. You know you cannot gain eternal life by it. You know the Commandments. And you know that, even if you have kept them outwardly, keeping them really is a matter of the heart, and you know the disposition of your heart in light of all those Commandments. And really, the Word of Christ in our text hits you, also, right where it hit the young man. It is not that it is wrong to have money or possessions. More on wealth next week. But for now, suffice it to say, Abraham and David were both rich men for their time and place, and yet Abraham was a friend of God, and David was a man after God’s own heart. Money, itself, is a good gift of God, as are many of the things money can buy, and more importantly, the good things money can do for your neighbor. It is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evils (1 Tim. 6:10). In any case, Jesus has not commanded you to sell all you have and give it all away to the poor. But then, what if he did? Could you do it? And if you did, isn’t it true that you would still walk away sad, like the rich young man? You love and trust your money, too, the pernicious idol, Mammon. And you fear losing it as much as the rich young man did. So you, also, are not good. And even if you keep a pristine outward moral life, you will never inherit eternal life by your doing of the Law.
But the Gospel has been implicit from Jesus’ first words in this text. Let’s make it explicit. “No one is good except God alone.” Jesus is God. Jesus is good. And it is by His goodness that you inherit eternal life. He knows the Commandments. He never murdered, never hurt or harmed his neighbor in his body, but helped and supported him in every physical need, healing the sick and injured, feeding the hungry, raising the dead. He never committed adultery, but lived a sexually pure and decent life in all that He said and did. And ever faithful to His Bride, the Church, He restored adulterers and prostitutes, sinners and the unclean to Communion with God, eating and drinking with them, as He does to this very day at the holy Altar. He did not steal. As a carpenter, He would have always been at the improving and protecting His neighbor’s possessions and income. And He is the gracious Giver of all that you have. He did not bear false witness, but always spoke truthfully. He did not defraud anyone. And as to His parents, we know that the Boy Jesus was submissive to them as He increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:51-52).
With regard to the First Table, Jesus feared, loved, and trusted His Father above all things, ever seeking to fulfill the Father’s will to save us. He did not misuse the Name of God. He bore it and revealed it for our salvation. And He not only fulfilled, the Sabbath, He is the Sabbath’s fulfillment. He is our Sabbath rest from the endless striving to win salvation and eternal life by our goodness, by our fulfilling the Law. He is our forgiveness and redemption.
And all of His keeping of God’s Law, He did not for His own benefit. He who gave us the Law, was made subject to the Law, for our sakes, and for our salvation. He fulfilled it. He did it for us. We are baptized into Christ. And all His perfect keeping of the Law, outwardly and inwardly, is credited to our account. And all of our breaking of the Law, outwardly and inwardly, has been atoned for in His flesh, in His blood and death on the cross. And all of His perfect righteousness is given to us as a gift in the Gospel and Sacraments. Our sins are forgiven.
And that is how we inherit eternal life. Not by our doing, but by His. Ask a Law question, and you get a Law answer. This is what you must do, and do perfectly, to merit eternal life. And you haven’t, so you can’t. You’re doomed. But Jesus has a better way, the Gospel way, His way. As Martin Luther wrote, “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace,” that is, the Gospel, “says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 26, LW 31:41).
We have a good God, who became man, taking on our flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus is the One who gave up all He had and bestowed it on us poor, miserable sinners, who have nothing of our own. He looks upon us with intense, divine, saving love. He has done all in our place, and given us His goodness, His righteousness, as a gift. He died for our sins. He is risen from the dead. This is grace, God’s unmerited favor bestowed upon us for Christ’s sake. Believe in this, and you will not only inherit eternal life… you have it already. Now, resting in this, that Jesus has done all for you, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, go love your neighbor by keeping the Commandments, because that is what your neighbor needs. And look not to Mammon, to your works, or to any other god to provide for you. Jesus is good. He is the one true God, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit. And He alone will do it. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.