In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is nothing so tragic as being devastatingly close to getting something and then losing it at the last minute. It’s the stuff of drama of the highest order. Losing a Super Bowl by last second field goal or extra point or fumble return. Romeo and Juliet missing each other by mere minutes, resulting in the worst of outcomes. Even in our own lives, we can think of times when we were so close—inches away, minutes, days, one more try—but still missed what we wanted more than anything at that moment.
We see this in our reading today. As Jesus is getting ready to leave for Jerusalem, a rich young man runs up and kneels before Him. Now this man had led a very comfortable life. He enjoyed success. He had everything he could need; even more that he could spend. He was seen as pious and respectable by his community. And yet, he realizes he’s missing something. So he goes to Jesus, who’s passing through. He hopes that Jesus can give him the clue to that missing piece. So while on his knees he asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The rich young man is closer than he realizes. Jesus knows this and tries to lead him to the answer that’s literally standing right in front of him, talking to him. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus prods, “No one is good except God alone.” It’s a leading question, meant to lead the rich young man to the right conclusion. It’s like in the Garden of Eden when He asked Adam, “Where are you?” when Adam was hiding. It wasn’t because Adam was that good at hiding. God knew exactly where he was. But He asks Adam in order to lead him out of the shadows and into the light, to confess what he was doing and turn back to his Creator. So here too Jesus asks the rich young man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. If I am truly good, as you say, then that must mean that I am…”
But the rich young man misses it, just barely. He doesn’t quite do the math and reach the right conclusion. So Jesus presses on, trying to get him to see the answer about eternal life from a different angle: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor you father and mother.’” Jesus lays out the commandments—or at least some of them—to show that if the rich young man is really going to attempt this path, he has a difficult, even impossible, path ahead of him in keeping the commandments and earning eternal life. “You know these commandments,” He’s saying, “Have you done all of these perfectly? Completely perfectly? You haven’t done anything to harm anyone, or done something to prevent someone’s harm when you could have? Or objectified someone with your thoughts? You haven’t cheated anyone ever in any way? Better double check that, rich young man. Really, really think about all those.”
But the rich young man doesn’t quite get it. His rich young life has been built on his successes, his victories, his cleverness and acumen and skill. “Teacher, all of these I have kept from my youth,” he replies.
And don’t we have the same Law delusions? “Jesus, I’ve kept the commandments. I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t cheated. I haven’t stolen.” But Jesus wants us to really, really think about it. For the commandments not only have an outward side to them—to keep our hands from stealing or killing or overtly breaking God’s Law. The commandments also have an inward dimension. It’s not only about not doing outward bad things. The Law is also about what goes on in our hearts and minds. So they cut deeper than we want to admit at first. Not only are we supposed to keep from killing, but we’re also supposed to be looking out for our neighbor’s bodily welfare and every physical need. Not only are we supposed to keep our hands from stealing money from someone’s pockets; we’re also supposed to help our neighbor protect and improve his possessions and income. Not only are we supposed to keep ourselves from outright theft; we’re supposed to guard our hearts from those covetous, jealous, and selfish impulses that make us want what God has given to others.
But just as He did with the rich young man, Jesus must break us out of our Law self-deceptions. “Teacher, I’ve kept all these,” we say. And Jesus replies, “You think you’ve kept the letter of the Law? You think you’ve kept the spirit of the Law? How about those really tough parts of the commandments? How are you doing when it comes to that perfect faith in God and sacrificial love for your neighbor?” So he says to the rich young man (and to us), “If you’re really going to seek out perfection through the commandments, there is still one thing you lack. If you’re really going to trust in God for everything and love your neighbor as yourself: Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
The rich young man was crushed, for he had great possessions. And we are crushed. Like him, we want to believe that we’re saved by how good we are, or at least saved because of how bad we’re not. We want to be good enough to win eternal life through our own goodness. So when Jesus points out that we’ve missed it—even if we did get close (which we haven’t)—we still missed it. There’s still one more thing to do, always. Always one more mountain of commandments to climb.
But Jesus gives grace upon grace. That is to say, He gives us His Word. Jesus gives every hint to the rich young man: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” But in perhaps the greatest hint of all, Jesus lets that little, but all-important word stand: inherit. That’s the word the rich young man used, not even knowing how close he was to seeing the answer. And that’s the word Jesus lets stand. He might correct everything else the rich young man says, but He doesn’t correct that word “inherit.”
Why? Because that’s where the ultimate answer is. What must you do to inherit something? Nothing. What must happen though? Someone else has to die. And look at what’s happening at the very beginning of our reading: “As [Jesus] was setting out on His journey…” He was starting His journey to Jerusalem, where He would be betrayed, arrested, tried, mocked, beaten, and killed. He was starting His journey to die. To inherit something, you don’t do anything. Rather, someone else dies and you receive what they earned throughout their life.
And what Jesus earned throughout His life was eternity—eternal life in the presence of God the Father. He earned that through His thoroughly perfect keeping of the commandments—not only the outward keeping from bad things, but the inward keeping of right attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and desires. And then, at His death, when He breathed His last, we inherited everything He had accumulated through His life. It all became ours, transferred to us through His last will and testament, sealed with His body and blood in His Holy Supper, given freely as a gift to the disciples, to the rich young man, and to you. This inheritance was secured and locked in forever when He was raised from the dead to tell you, “Yes, it’s really yours, forever. And because I live, you will live too. Even if you die, even if it looks like everything is taken away from you, even if you lose every cent and everything you have is given to the poor or the violent or the corrupt or whoever, you will still have treasure in heaven. It’s stockpiled for you there. So come, follow me to your inheritance. Follow me through life and cross and death and resurrection. It’s really yours.”
So we kneel. Like the rich young man in our reading, we kneel before our Teacher, the only One who is good because He is God—God in human flesh. We kneel before Him in this place, at the rail, in His true bodily presence. And when go from here, we don’t leave disheartened. We leave joyful. We leave peaceful. We leave forgiven, knowing that we can trust God completely and we can love those around us fearlessly, knowing that with God there’s always more; with our inheritance from Jesus, there’s always more. Eternal life has already been won for us, and so we rejoice. We receive it now from our generous God and Savior. In the name of Jesus, who is Good. Amen.