A rich man came to Jesus with a great question, one we all would be wise to ask: “What must I do to have eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-27) Jesus gave the man three simple yet impossible-sounding steps: Sell everything. Give to the poor. Come, follow me. The man went away sad. Jesus’ list sounded impossible to him, because he was very much attached to his wealth. He was right—at least so far as it was up to him, Jesus asked the impossible. But all things are possible with God!
Can you relate?
You know the type of guy. In today’s world, he’d be an upstanding citizen. He’d follow the laws and would be involved in the community. He’d have a well-paying job with good benefits. He’d be faithful to his family, to his friends. His parents would undoubtedly be proud of him, and his kids would for sure adore him. Sure, he wouldn’t be perfect, but he’d be pretty close. After all, he would’ve been raised in a good home and learned how to be a good person.
I’m going to guess you, too, are a good citizen. Maybe you aren’t rich, but you make ends meet. Or if not, you’re at least trying. Sure, your family isn’t perfect, but it certainly could be worse. And yeah, you are doing your best to be the good person you were raised to be. So, when Jesus told that rich, young ruler to give up everything he had, part of you might stop and wonder, “But why? He was a pretty decent guy, and he genuinely just wanted to know how to get to heaven. What does selling his stuff have to do with that?”
That’s an important question.
What was Jesus’ point in asking this of the man? Why not just tell the man to follow him? Why did the man have to give up everything first in order to go to heaven? Is that what God wants from us, also—to sell everything we have?
Jesus’ point wasn’t to get the man to sell everything he had, but rather to have the man face just how much he didn’t want to. The man’s wealth wasn’t the issue. The issue was when his wealth took precedence, when his net worth took first place atop his priority list, when his love of money overtook his love of God. The man had spent years checking off the boxes that he thought made him a good person, willing to do whatever it took to earn eternal life and prove his worth before God… until his worth hinged on whether or not he’d be willing to forfeit his wealth.
At that point, all the man’s success, good standing, and net worth wasn’t worth a single thing. Because of all the commandments, the man failed to keep even the first: You shall have no other gods. And upon realizing it, he left Jesus, quiet and distressed, as the good life he thought he’d lived was pulled out from under him, as he saw just how much living a perfect life was like a camel passing through the eye of a needle: Completely impossible.
Can you relate?
Maybe it’s money. Your job. Your social life. Your family. Your health. Or just doing your best to be a good person. Which of these has become your false god, sitting atop your priority list and taking precedence in your life? In the worst of times, what have you loved more than God? This is the struggle each of us faces.
But you and I both know there’s more. Why do we struggle and turn away from all God has given us, even though we know we shouldn’t? Why do we slip into the same sins, over and over again? Why do we try to hide our nastiness and shamefulness and sheer sinfulness? Why is it so difficult to keep God as the first priority and so very easy to make life about me, myself, and I?
You know the answer.
It’s at the heart and core of every single one of us, without exception. It’s that dark stain of fallen humanity, that sickening disaster of a broken creation. It’s that collusion of the Old Adam and that whispering, dejected angel of darkness, that father of lies who’s convinced us that if we at the very least try at being perfect, we’ll succeed, or if we don’t, then it’s good enough. Because the lie that we’ve believed since Adam and Eve stood deceived beneath the Tree is that we can be just like God, that we can be our own first priority.
But, let’s be honest, when we start to compare ourselves and the filthy rags we call our good works—when we start to compare those to God’s own high bar of perfection—that’s when we get quiet and distressed and ask the question: how can I possibly even attempt to be truly good and to live a perfect life? And we get the same answer as the rich, young ruler and the disciples. It’s like a camel passing through the eye of a needle: Completely impossible. So, what’s the point? We echo the disciples:
“Who then can be saved?”
Brothers and sisters, these questions—What must I do? How can I possibly be perfect? Who can be saved by what they do?—do you know what’s wrong with them? They’re all asking the wrong thing, because they all assume we can do something about the problem of our sin. What did Jesus say? “With man this is impossible.” Left to ourselves, we can’t do a single thing about all the ways in which we fail and fall short and miss the mark and disappoint and hurt and lie and put down and let down, no matter how hard we try to be the good people we were raised to be. So, what’s the point?
Possible with God.
Jesus hears our question of “How?” and answers, “You can’t. By yourself, you are completely incapable. Who alone is capable?” Jesus says, “I am. With man this is impossible. But not with God; all things are possible with God.” A camel passing through the eye of a needle? Possible with God. The Red Sea parting to the left and to the right before the fleeing Israelites? Possible with God. Men surviving the heat and torture of a blistering, fiery furnace? Possible with God. Water to wine? Wind dying with a word? A boy’s lunch feeding thousands? A leper made clean? A brother raised from death to life? Possible with God.
A baby come to save us? A man living the perfect life expected from all of us? A man bearing the weight of the world’s imperfection, enduring the wrath of his Father’s righteous judgment, dying on a cross to defeat death itself, and resurrected to life to prove the greatest victory in holy history? Possible with God.
A spiritually dead sinner washed clean of his sinfulness in the waters of baptism and made alive through faith? Possible with God.
Why would God make all of this possible for us?
Why would the perfect God save such imperfect sinners, and in such a way? Remember how Jesus looked at the rich, young ruler, that spiritually lost and misguided sinner that all of us see in ourselves. “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Call it mercy, call it grace, call it agape… Jesus looked at him, and looked at the undeserving world, and made it and all of us his very first priority as he loved us to the point of death.
Now, it is possible for you and me. Living a life that truly pleases God? Possible, because when God looks at you and me, he sees his Son, his robe of righteousness wrapped around us. He sees the new man, this new creation that wants to keep God as our first priority, to love him above all things, to worship him as the one, true God.
True, the Old Adam still clings to us on this side of heaven; the Devil still tries to get us to doubt, dismay, and despair; our sinful flesh still attempts to turn us away from the light of the gospel that has lit our lives. Yet Christians, believers, citizens of God’s kingdom, realize this: Such enemies have no power over us anymore. For now, we look to the cross and the victory that was accomplished there. We look to God and his Word for strength, guidance, comfort, peace, and reassurance. We cherish it in faith, and we sing out in chorus with the psalmist: “I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
This is the truth of the gospel in our lives every day.
It’s the encouragement we have day in and day out to stave off the false gods of our own making—those worldly motivations and those personal aspirations, those things that we let become our idols—and instead keep the God who loves us atop our pedestal of priorities, first in our lives. This is possible only with God.
Unlike the rich, young ruler who left Jesus, quiet and distressed, bogged down by the realization of his own failure, we leave our time in God’s Word knowing that he’ll never leave us, that even when we fail and we fall, he picks us up, he looks at us, and he loves us all the same. He freely offers us the forgiveness for which he paid so dearly. And he says, “Come, follow me.” May God give us the strength, the boldness, the confidence in faith to seek first in our lives the God who sought us first, who made each of us his own dear child. May he daily remind us that we have entered the kingdom of God.
On our own? Impossible. Possible only with God.
Nathan is driven by a desire to share the good news of Jesus both personally and publicly. Although he grew up in Arizona, Nathan has been in the Midwest since 2010, studying for the public ministry. Last year, he completed his vicar year (a sort of residency during which a vicar shadows a pastor for a full year) in Sharpsburg, Georgia, serving under Rev. Jon Schroeder. Now, he is in his eighth and final year of pastoral training at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, and serves as the senior assistant at Atonement Lutheran Church. Outside of his studies and work, Nathan enjoys spending time with his friends, reading, drawing, and watching football.