Don’t Boast in Your Law Keeping!
Jesus is about to leave Judea and enter Jerusalem with palm branches waving. He is about to begin the most important week of his life. The most important event in history and in our lives is about to take place. And yet, Jesus stops. He finds the time to listen to the young man kneeling before him in Mark 10:17-31.
Jesus is never too busy for any person or for our concerns. He stops. And as he stops, He and his disciples face the one question that all of us face. What must I do to be saved? Or as the Rich Young Ruler says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
Summed up in this question is the idea of meaning and purpose. How can man and woman have a right and fulfilling life with God? This is the question on the Rich Young Ruler’s heart. And this is the question facing us. The existential question of meaning and happiness is summed up in this man’s question.
Thankfully, Jesus took time to answer it. We too should take time to consider it.
And while the answer to the Rich Young Ruler’s question appears rather mundane to our bible-belt ears, we must not lose those radical nature of this command through familiarity. The call to follow Jesus is just as radical to us today as it was to the Rich Young Ruler because God saves. Salvation is a work of God. And yet, we must embrace it. We must follow Jesus with our whole life because God saves.
As we learned not too long ago, heaven is comprised of those who embrace God as little children. To come to Christ as a child, we must not trust in our own works. We must not trust that we can justify ourselves. We must not think that we can get to heaven in our own power and in our own strength.
When the Rich Young Ruler approaches Jesus, he comes humbly. He kneels before Jesus. He address Jesus as “Good Teacher.” The Jews seldom used this title for fear of blaspheming against God. They did not want to call or deem any man good because they knew only one being was good, God. To declare a man good was to declare a man to be God. Jesus even calls the Rich Young Ruler out on his title of choice, asking him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
The man starts off well. He does something that no one else including the disciple has done, he asks what he must do to be saved. On the outset, this man appears to be humbly seeking after Christ.
But in the midst of his sincere actions, great question, and wise declaration, there is a great deal of hidden pride. The Rich Young Ruler wants to get to Christ on his terms. He declares Christ to be good because he thinks that he is good. He thinks that by using the law to make much of himself, he has used the law to make much of Jesus. But he has not. He has missed the whole point of the law.
Jesus says that “No one is good except God alone.” Goodness, the ability to obey God perfectly resides with God. Jesus is trying to clearly draw a distinction between himself and the Rich Young Ruler. He is attempting to communicate that, “I am God, and you are not.”
He does this by asking the man about the commandments. He says, “You know the commands: Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:18-19).
Jesus is using the law as its intended to be used. The law is not supposed to be a tool for self-righteous proclamation. We are not supposed to look at the ten commandments and then reflect on ourselves and then declare ourselves to be good. The law was not given so that we can marvel, boast, and brag about our goodness, saying “Yes I did it. I loved well, I spoke truth well, I obeyed my parents well.”
We were given the law so that we could see the sin in our own hearts and be humbled. The apostle Paul says it this way:
Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had said, “You shall not covet. But sin seizing the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.” – Rom. 7:7b-8
We all covet. We all desire things, feelings, and experiences that are not ours to enjoy and we sin to get them. The law comes in not to reveal that we have never coveted. It comes in to confirm what our consciences already know: coveting is lawlessness. Instead of curbing our desire to sin, the law exasperates. We often want to walk on green grass simply because there is a sign telling us not to walk on the grass. Irronically, the sign makes the grass look all the more appealing. This is what the law does to our hearts. The law does not make us saints. The law reveals our sin and enticed us to keep sinning. We should never boast in the law because the law cannot save.
The correct answer to Jesus’ question should have been, “I have not kept done these laws. I am a sinner. God help me.”
But, the Rich Young Ruler is blinded by his pride and he says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” He proclaims to Christ, I am perfect. The arrogance.
We must not forget that it was Jesus who said, “everyone who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment…[and]..that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:22,28). The law cannot save us. The law condemns even the thoughts and ideas that are never verbalized. The point of Jesus’ questions is that the law cannot be kept. Salvation through good works is impossible.
To make his point clear, Jesus give the young man the ultimate command. He tells him to follow him. In verse 20, we read, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go and sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.”
Now it is important to note here that Jesus is not anti-wealth. Wealthy people can follow Jesus and remain wealthy. We know that Joseph of Arimathea loved Jesus and remained wealthy. To follow Jesus, men and women must not love money, but it is possible to have a large bank account and to love Jesus.
So why did Jesus tell the man to give everything to the poor? Jesus gave the man this command because he loved the Rich Young Ruler. He did not allow the Rich Young Ruler to stay self-deceived. Jesus knew that they young man was self-sufficient. Jesus knew that the Rich Young Ruler loved something more than God. Jesus knew that the pride was covering up an unbelieving heart. Jesus went after it. He told the young man to give up his glory, his wealth, and follow him.
Brothers and sisters, do not miss this. The prideful, boastful heart that looks at the law and declares itself clean has a major problem. That heart loves something more than God. The young man can be tempted to think that his church irrelevant and outdated because he wants to sleep with his girlfriend. He claims he hates the hypocrisy and walks out the door with a large sigh because the homeless have never been helped. But he is using his self-righteous indignation as a cover for his sin. The young married women continually attacks the movies that other kids watch because she does not deal with her pride. She fancies herself the judge so that she can cling to the idol of power and authority and gossip. The grandfather who continually lambastes the younger generation for not showing people the compassion that he shows others does so because he wants to cover up his lack of tithing. All of these people boast in their righteousness in an effort to protect their idols and pet sins. They do not want to confess everything to Christ. They do not want to surrender all. To protect their sinful choices and the rejection of God, they declare themselves righteous. They make a way for themselves to be both spiritual and to love their sins.
Brothers and sisters, do not do this. Do not trust in your own self-righteousness. Do not create morality systems that justify your sins. You cannot save yourself. Only God saves. Only God can redeem. To be right with God, we have to surrender all. We have to give up all our riches, all our pride, all our greed and all of our covetousness and follow Christ. There is no other way. We cannot save ourselves, regardless of our piety and sincerity. Salvation is of God.
Perhaps one of the saddest things is the end of this story. The text says, “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22). Jesus found the man’s idol. He would not surrender it. He clung to it and found sorrow. Friends if we hold idols so dear that we are willing to reject Christ’s teaching we too will miss the kingdom. The God who loves us and calls us to abandon our pride will accept us if we repent and follow him.
He invites us to find truth life. True life and meaning is not found in stuff or experiences or knowledge or in legalistic law keeping. True life is found when we abandon our idols and follow Jesus. True life is this. And it is available to all who will believe. If you will trust Christ to save you by dying on the cross to pay for your sins and if you will repent of your sin, you can have meaning right now at this minute. Pray now and ask God to save you.
But if we refuse, if we say no my idol, my sexual liberty, my stuff is worth more than Christ, then we will miss out on Christ. In our effort to find joy, we will find only sorrow because God saves. Do not trust in your works because God saves.