The compliment was more telling than the question. The young man asked,
Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Since he was a boy he had worked so hard to follow all the rules. He did everything he was supposed to do. After a lifetime of such great performance, if ever there was a good man surely it was he. Who else would the keys to Heaven go to if not to him?
The compliment was no good. The teacher replied,
Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. The teacher wasn’t being rude by his reproval, rather he was simply answering the young man’s question. The teacher knew him better than he knew himself. In fact, he knew him so well that it was as if he knew what the student was going to say next. The teacher told him the obvious: Follow the rules. This was good news to the young man as he assured the teacher that he had followed all the rules from his youth. However, in saying this it became all too apparent that the lesson had gone completely over the young man’s head.
You lack one thing, said the teacher,
go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.
It was devastating. This was not what he expected to hear. The young man was sure he had kept every jot and tittle and that the teacher was going to say
Well done! Eternal life is yours! Or maybe the teacher was going to tell him to just tidy up some loose ends that he might have overlooked. What’s worse, the rich young man still had to give up all of his wonderful possessions and follow this bearer of bad news. This was a blow to the ego. Surely he had it all figured out. The very thought of giving up everything was depressing. He thought to himself,
Impossible! as he walked away.
Truly Jesus loved this rich young man, yet in choosing his possessions over Jesus the young man had violated the greatest commandment of them all:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. The young man was prideful. Because of his works he thought he thought he was good. He reasoned that if he followed the rules he could be as good as God is. But this is an infinitely low view of God as only God is good. Jesus Christ is the only one who lived in perfect obedience and it is only in him that we can be worthy to inherit eternal life. For Christ is eternal life itself.
Still, while we know that we could not live in perfect obedience, is it possible to be worthy if one is obedient? Jesus answers the question this way:
Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field,Come at once and recline at table? Will he not rather say to him,Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say,We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.
We’re expected to obey the Commandments. It’s our duty. Yet who has even gone a day without breaking many of them? In this alone we are far from worthy. Apart from Christ we are all unworthy servants who might only do what is our duty at best. While we aren’t perfect, we obey and do good works not because they justify us but because he justified us. The rich young man went away sorrowful because to him the Gospel wasn’t good news. His works and worldly possessions were the object of his joy. For the Christian joy is Christ himself. We humbly do what we are commanded because of this joy and the promise of the life lived now and the one to come.