Stupid kid. I know all our teachers lied to us and told us that there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but…I mean, really? “Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich honor roll student from the suburbs comes up to him with a question. And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the questions of these brown-nosing, hand-raising, helicopter-parented upwardly mobile millenial types. So Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.
‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’
And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus asks him: “Why do you call me good?” And then Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…go, sell everything last thing you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’
They watch the rich young man walk away.
And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s impossible even.’
Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.
And, this is only second place where the Gospels say Jesus loved someone, specifically.
He’s the only person Jesus loved, AND he’s the only person who refused to become a disciple.
Well-heeled people like most of us with our first-world problems always get hung up on the last part of this passage- Jesus’ bit about the 1-humped dromedary and the sewing needle.
But really, if we were paying close biblical attention then the only needle we should have heard was the needle scratching off the record when this stupid kid actually claims to have kept all 613 commandments.
613! As in, 603 more than the ten commandments that I’m willing to bet $10 you can’t even remember and recite.
It’s just not just the Top Ten:
Thou shall have no other gods but me. Thou shall not make for yourself any idol. Thou shall not invoke with malice the name of the Lord, your God. Thou shall not commit murder. Thou shall not commit adultery.Thou shall not steal.
It’s not just the ones we like to etch in granite and hang in courthouses. Maybe we mishear Jesus’ exchange with this stupid rich kid and maybe we hang the commandments near jury boxes because we don’t understand what Jesus and the Apostle Paul both say about the fundamental function of the Law of Moses.
Turns out, finger-wagging fundamentalists would do well to spend less time defending the bible and more time reading the bible because, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the commandments are not meant to elicit positive, public morality.
That’s not their purpose.
I’m going to say that again so you hear me: according to Jesus and the Apostle Paul, the commandments are not rules to regulate our behavior. They’re not a code of conduct.
They’re not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. They’re not the means by which we transform the world. The commandments— they’re not a code of conduct.
The primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John chapter 5 and Paul says in the Book of Romans chapter 3, is to do to us what it apparently failed to do that brown-nosing rich kid in Mark 10.
To accuse us.
Lex semper accusat, the Protestant Reformers said as a sort of shorthand. The Law always accuses.
The mistake in wanting to post the 10 Commandments in public spaces, the mistake in wanting to make Jesus’ own commands in the Sermon on the Mount instructions for us to follow is that, according to Jesus himself, the primary function of the Law is not civil or moral.
The primary function of the Law is theological.
It’s primary purpose is to reveal the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven and meet a holy God, blameless and justified.
But because we’re self-deceiving sinners, we delude ourselves as much as that sniveling brown-noser to whom Jesus prescribes a camel and needle.
And we rationalize- that because we keep 6 out of the 10 without trying and because we’ve got a little bit of faith and because we sing in the choir or because we took a casserole to the sick lady down the street or because we gave that homeless guy a couple of bucks- we deceive ourselves.
And we tell ourselves that we’re good, that we’re righteous, that we’re in the right with God, that we didn’t do what Les Moonves at CBS did.
To keep us from deceiving ourselves, to keep us from measuring our virtue relative to another’s alleged vice, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does to all of us what Jesus does to this rich young ruler. Jesus recapitulates the 10 Commandments and he cranks them up a notch.
To the 6th Commandment, “Do not commit murder,” Jesus adds: “If you’ve even had an angry thought toward your brother, then you’re guilty. Of murder.” To the 7th Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus attaches: “If you’ve even thought dirty about that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Supermodel, then you’ve cheated on your wife.” He didn’t say it exactly like that. I have a friend who put it that way.
And Jesus takes the Greatest Commandment, the Golden Rule- our favorite: “Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself,” and Jesus makes it alot less great by trading out neighbor for enemy. “You have heard it said: ‘You shall love your neighbor.’ But I say to you, you shall love your enemies.”
Whoever breaks even one of these commandments of the Law, Jesus warns, will be called least in my Kingdom. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter Heaven.
Jesus exposes the Law’s true function by moving the Law and its demands from our actions to our intentions.
The righteousness required to acquire heaven, says Jesus, is more than being able to check off the boxes on the code of conduct. Do not commit murder, check. Do not steal, check. Do not covet, check.
I don’t have any girl from high school accusing me of anything, I must be Kingdom material.
The righteousness required to acquire the Kingdom is more than what you do or do not do. That’s what the brown-nosing kid in Mark 10 doesn’t get: the righteousness required for you to acquire heaven— it’s more than keeping the commandments. It’s who you are behind closed doors. It’s who you were before you were famous. It’s who you are backstage in the dressing room. It’s not who you are when you’re shaking hands and popping tic-tacs; it’s who you are on the Access Hollywood bus when you think the mic is turned off.
It’s what’s in your head and in your heart. It’s your intentions not just your actions. That’s what counts to come in to the Kingdom.That’s the necessary measure of righteousness, Jesus says. And then, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, closes his recapitulation of the Decalogue by telling his hearers exactly what God tells Moses at the end of the giving of the Law in Deuteronomy:
“You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”
Preachers like me just love to wag our fingers at folks like you and exhort you from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but seldom do we quote from the climax of his sermon:
You must be perfect.
As perfect as God himself.
If you break even one of these commandments, the Kingdom of Heaven is closed to you.
How’s that going for you?
“Good teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since my youth.”
When it comes to the Law, Christ’s point is that we should not measure ourselves according to those around us. “Why are you calling me good?” Jesus asks him, “No one is good but God.”
Christ’s point is that, when it comes to the Law and our righteousness, we must measure ourselves according to God.
There’s no cutting corners. There’s no A for effort. “I tried my best” will not open the doors to the Kingdom of Heaven for you. It doesn’t matter that you’re “better” than him. It doesn’t matter that you never did what she did.
“Nobody’s perfect” isn’t an excuse because the Father and the Son both say that perfection is actually the obligation.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will NOT enter heaven. You see, Jesus takes the Law given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and on a different mount Jesus exposes the theological function of the Law: You must be perfect.
You must be as perfect as God. You must be perfect across the board, on all counts- perfect in your head and perfect in your heart and perfect in your life. Again— How’s that going for you?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does to all of us what he does to this kid with a camel and a needle. Jesus takes the Law and he ratchets the degree of difficulty all the way up to perfection- it’s not just your public self; an A+ score for your secret self is a Kingdom prerequisite too.
Jesus takes the Law and he cranks its demands all the way up to absolute in order to suck all the self-righteousness out of you. Jesus leaves no leniency in the Law; so that, you and I will understand that before a holy and righteous God, we stand in the dock shoulder-to-shoulder with creeps like Les Moonves and Paul Manafort and, as much as them, we should tremble.
You see, that’s the mistake we make in wanting to post the Law of Moses in courtrooms and public spaces. And it’s the mistake we make in mishearing this passage in Mark 10 as instructions to go and sell everything we own.
Even if we could sell everything we own and gave the money to the poor to follow Jesus—
we’d still fall far short of Jesus’ righteousness.
Even if we could do it, we’d still fall short.
The primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.The commandments are not principles by which you live an upright life. The commandments are the means by which God brings you down to your knees.
By telling him to give away all his stuff and then come follow, Jesus is doing to this rich young brown-noser what Jesus does to all of us in his sermon on the mount. Giving us no other out, no other hope, but to throw ourselves on his mercy.
You might’ve seen the story in the news this week. After a year in exile, having been accused by the #metoo movement, comedian Louis CK did a surprise comedy set on a small stage last week. His first time before audience since his sin was exposed.
In his statement to the NY Times, comedian Louis CK said of his own aberrant and sinful behavior toward women:
“…I wielded my power irresponsibly. I have been remorseful of my actions. And I’ve tried to learn from them. And I’ve tried to run away from them. Now I’m aware of the extent of my actions.”
Louis CK’s apology leaves a lot to be desired.
Nonetheless, what he describes (deceiving himself, then running away from the truth about himself, then being made to see what he had done) is the Law.
The theological function of the Law is stop us in our scrambling tracks and to hold a mirror up to our self-deceiving eyes; so that, we’re forced to reckon with who we are and with what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.
The theological function of the Law is to get you to see yourself with enough clarity that you will ask the question: “How could God love someone like me?”
I certainly don’t keep all 613 commandments, and I’d sure as hell never sell everything I possess, leave my wife and kids destitute, to follow after Jesus. How could God love someone like me?
When the Law brings you to ask that question, you’re close to breaking through to the Gospel.
The Protestant Reformation began 501 years ago next month, and one of the distinctives taught by the first Protestant Reformers was that God has spoken to us and God still speaks to us in two different words: Law and Gospel.
And the Reformers taught the necessary art for every Christian to learn is how to distinguish properly between the first word God speaks, Law, and the second word God speaks, Gospel. Learning how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel is what St. Paul describes in scripture as “rightly dividing the word of truth.” It’s a necessary art for every Christian to learn, the first Protestants said, because if you don’t know how to rightly divide the word, if you don’t know how to distinguish properly between the Law and the Gospel, then you distort the purpose of these two words.
And distorting them- it muddles the Christian message.
Distorting the Law and the Gospel— it muddles Christianity into a burdensome message (Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor) rather than a message that is a life-giving gift (God in Jesus Christ has given away everything for you).
Distinguishing properly between these two words God speaks is necessary because without learning this art you will end up emphasizing one of these words at the expense of the other.
You’ll focus only on the Law: Be perfect. Forgive 70 x 7. Love your enemy. Don’t commit adultery. Give away all your possessions. Feed the hungry.
But to focus only on the first word God speaks, Law, takes the flesh off of Christ and wraps him in judge’s robe.
Focus on Law alone yields a God of exhausting exhortations and oppressive expectations.
The Law always accuses- that’s it’s God-given purpose. So Law alone religion produces religious people who are accusatory and angry, stern and self-righteous and judgmental. And because the Law demands perfection, the Law when it’s not properly distinguished, the Law alone without the Gospel, it cannot produce Christians. It can only produce hypocrites. That’s why none of us should’ve been surprised to discover during election season last fall that the 10 Commandments Judge in Alabama was in fact a white-washed tomb.
On the other hand, a lot of Christians and churches avoid the first word, Law, altogether and preach only the second word, Gospel, which vacates it of its depth and meaning.
Without the first word, Law, God’s second word evaporates into sentimentality. “God loves you” becomes a shallow cliche apart from the Law. Christianity becames sentimental without the Law and its accusation that the world is a dark, dark place and the human heart is dimmer still.
Of course, most of the time, in most churches, from most preachers (and I’m as guilty as the next), you don’t hear one of these words preached to the exclusion of the other.
Nor do you hear them rightly divided.
Most of the time, you instead hear them mashed together into a kind of Glawspel where, yes, Jesus died for you unconditionally but now he’s got so many expectations for you- if you’re honest- it feels like its killing you.
Glawspel takes amazing grace and makes it exhausting. Jesus loves you but here’s what you must do now to show him how much you appreciate his “free” gift. Compared to the Law-alone and Gospel-alone distortions of these two words, Glawspel is the worst because it inoculates you against the message.
Glawspel turns all of us into the rich young ruler in today’s passage, thinking we can get by under the Law with a little bit of help from Jesus.
The point of a Law like “Forgive 70 x 7” is to convince you that you cannot achieve that much forgiveness; so that, you will have no other place to turn but the wounded feet of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness God offers in him.
The point of overwhelming Law like “Love your enemies” is to push you to the grace of him who died for them, his enemies.
The reason it’s necessary to learn how to distinguish properly between these two words God speaks, Law and Gospel, is because the point of the first word is to push you to the second word.
The first word, Law, says “Turn the other cheek” so that you will see just how much you fail to do so and, seeing, hear the promise provided by the second word, Gospel.
The promise of the one who turned the other cheek all the way to a cross.
The reason it’s so necessary to learn how to divide rightly these words that God speaks is because the point of the Law is to produce not frustration or exhaustion but recognition.
The Law is what God uses to provoke repentance in you. The Law is how God drives self-deceiving you to the Gospel. And the Gospel is not Glawspel. The Gospel is not an invitation with strings attached. The Gospel is not a gift with a To Do list written underneath the wrapping paper.If sounds exhausting instead of amazing, it’s not the Gospel of grace. If it asks WWJD?, it’s not the Gospel. The Gospel simply repeats and celebrates the question: WDJD? What DID Jesus do?
He did what you cannot do for yourself.
Because the whole point of the Law is that, on our own, we can’t fulfill even a fraction of it much less sell everything we got. Because behind closed doors, When we think the mic is off, In the backstage dressing room of our minds, And in the secret thoughts of our hearts- Each and every one of us is different in degree but not in kind from Les Moonves and Louis CK and the avalanche of all the others. Each and every one of us is more like them than we are like him, like Jesus Christ.
The point of the Law is to drive you to Jesus Christ not as your teacher and not as your example.
If Christ is just your teacher or example, as Martin Luther said, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven because, let’s face it— his teachings aren’t all that unique and on their own (if he’s just a Teacher or an Example) his teachings just leave us in our sins.
If Christ is just your teacher or example, Luther said, it would’ve been better had he stayed in heaven because the whole point of what Jesus did is that he did what you cannot ever hope to do for yourself.
Be perfect. He took that burden off of you.
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He took that fear from you.
He did what you cannot do for yourself. He alone was obedient to the Law. He alone fulfilled its absolute demands. He alone was perfect as his Father in Heaven is perfect.
His righteousness not only exceeds that of the Pharisees, it overflows to you; so that, now you and I can stand before God justified not by our charity or our character or our contributions to the Kingdom but by the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. His perfection, despite your imperfections, is reckoned to you as your own- no matter what you’ve done or left undone, no matter the bombs that voice inside your head throws down, no matter the dark secrets in your heart- that’s what’s more true about you now.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Here’s what you’re supposed to hear in this question Christ poses to us:
Christianity is an exclusive religion.
It excludes all your sin because all your sin is in him and it stayed stuck in the cross when he was nailed to a tree.
Christianity is an exclusive religion.
It excludes all your goodness because in the Gospel you’re free to admit what the Law accuses: you’re not that good.
Christianity is an exclusive religion.
It excludes all your works of righteousness because they’ll never be enough and they’re not necessary.
Christianity is an exclusive religion.
It is inclusive of nothing else but his perfect work.
And you in it.
The stupid kid- the answer to his question is as obvious as it is elementary. What must I do to inherit eternal life?
You don’t have to do anything.
Just throw yourself on Christ’s mercy.
Trust in his doing for you not your own doing for him.