The question came as Jesus was beginning His last journey to Jerusalem. It came as He was heading toward His most heart-rending task, as He was starting the long descent toward death: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
We all know the story. A young, rich, religious man calls Jesus good and then asks Him how to achieve eternal life. Jesus first scolds him for calling anyone “good” but God. Then, feeling genuine love for the man, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments and proceeds to list several of them.
The man defends himself. “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young,” he says. But Jesus informs him that there is still something he hasn’t done – namely, to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The man’s face falls when he hears this, and he goes away sad, for he was a very wealthy man.
I’d always glossed over this incident, thinking it might not apply to me. (I’d also neglected to notice until now that it occurred just before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time.) But this month as I again worked my way through the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, it suddenly struck me: the story of the rich, young ruler is my story.
“I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young” — once upon a time I said those words out loud, too. I’d just been confronted by my own sin, and I was shocked. I remember protesting, “But I’ve spent my whole life trying to follow God!” My statement was just another version of the rich, young man’s statement; it was just another version of pride.
And like the man, my face fell too. When I saw my attitude for what it was — sin — I did an abrupt U-turn. I interpreted my sin as the worst of all sins and became very depressed. My sin wasn’t a sin that could be forgiven, you see. A sin like mine didn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. Where before I had thought I was better than others, I now thought I was worse.
I rolled around in my sorrow and self-pity until a friend gently pointed out that I was exhibiting reverse pride: the kind of pride that says my sins are so bad they can’t be forgiven. I had flipped from the regular old pride of thinking I was a good person to the insidious, upside-down version of pride that said I could never deserve God’s forgiveness.
But my goodness was never good enough anyway, and reverse pride is a sin to repent of, too. So Jesus basically said the same thing to me that He said to the young man: “There is something you still lack.” That something was a humble awareness of grace. Because in the end, Jesus didn’t ask me to give up all my possessions. (Moving to Asia isn’t the same thing.)
What Jesus has asked me to give up is the idea of myself as someone who has done good things. He’s asked me to give up the idea that I’ve followed the commands well. Because I haven’t. And He’s asked me to give up the idea that any sin is beyond His reach, including the prideful belief that I have no (or very small) sins.
As Jesus watched the man in this story walk away, He explained to His disciples how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of heaven. His announcement left the disciples wondering who in the world could be saved – because to a certain extent, we all trust in both riches and our own good works.
But here is where the story gets good, because Jesus told His disciples that “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” And He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the impossible, possible. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to make the man’s question irrelevant. He kept walking toward Jerusalem to demonstrate His genuine love for us and to give a very un-good humanity the goodness that belongs to God alone.
Whether we’ve done “all these things” since our youth or not.