On 15 June 2013, sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch of Burleson, Texas, killed four people while driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. He was intoxicated, driving on a restricted license, and speeding in a residential area when he lost control, colliding with a group of people assisting another driver with a disabled SUV. Four were killed and a total of nine injured.
Couch was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter. Rightly so.
The court case became infamous for what his lawyers argued in his defence. They claimed that he suffered from “affluenza” and therefore needed rehabilitation rather than prison, stating that he didn’t know boundaries because his rich parents didn’t give him any.
A psychologist argued that Couch was unable to make the connection between his actions and its consequences because his parents had taught him that wealth buys privileges. Though the designation, “affluenza” was first coined in 1954, it has now become a well-known diagnosis.
Incredibly, the judge bought this ridiculous argument, sentenced Couch to ten years’ probation, and ordered him to therapy at a long-term in-patient facility.
Shortly after this, Couch and his mother violated his probation, fled to Mexico, and were eventually captured. He was then sentenced to two years in prison. I guess neither of them was cured.
In the story before us, we are introduced to another young man, except, in this case, he appears to be a very honourable young man, the kind of person you would love to have as a neighbour. But he too suffered from a kind of affluenza—what we might call “spiritual affluenza.” As tragic as the consequences of Ethan Couch’s affluenza were, the consequences of spiritual affluenza, as we see in the text before, are even more eternally tragic.
A young man (Matthew 19:20), with a lot of wealth, came to Jesus to ask a most important question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was concerned about his life after death. It seems like a wonderful opportunity for Jesus to both increase the number of faithful followers and to increase funding for his ministry. This scene reminds me of the Philippian jailer, who asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
What a wonderful gospel opportunity! I would relish the opportunity to share the gospel with someone so prepared by God. This seems to be low hanging fruit just waiting to be picked. In fact, there is no other time in Mark where receptivity to Jesus seems as strong. His popularity was on the rise. When you consider Luke’s account, which tells us that he was some kind of a “ruler” (18:19), we might think that such a convert would add credibility to his ministry. But, alas, it was not to be, for this rich, young ruler suffered from spiritual affluenza.
As noted, he was not the kind of young man who would get drunk and drive. In fact, he probably was not even likely to get drunk at all. Nevertheless, if Ethan Couch does not repent, and if this young man did not repent, they will share the same tragic, unending separation from God. Affluenza killed four people in a car crash. Spiritual affluenza cuts off millions of people from inheriting eternal life. Do you have it? How can you overcome it? Is there any inoculation against it? If you don’t overcome it, what will happen? These questions rise from the text before us.
The Context and the Point
From the beginning of Mark 10, there has been an underlying theme: that of status and the kingdom of God. Jesus has been instructing concerning the upside down values of the kingdom of God.
In the opening twelve verses Jesus defends the dignity of women in his defence of biblical marriage. The Pharisees’ question about divorce was not merely a legal wrangle; it was fundamentally about their disregard for the value and dignity of women. Misogyny is the word that we would perhaps use today. Jesus set them straight.
In the next passage, Jesus defends the dignity and value of children. Here, the disciples revealed their hardness of heart towards the little ones. They tried to shoo the children away so they would not bother busy and important Jesus. Of course, he was busy and important but he came to save children as well as adults. He made it clear that only those with the disposition of helpless dependence, like children, will enter the kingdom of God, for only those with such a disposition are able to receive the kingdom. It must be received, for it is a gift. Jesus pointed to the children and told his adult disciples, “Learn from them.” He then further illustrated his affection for and acceptance of children by taking them up in his arms and repeatedly blessing them.
It is against this contextual backdrop that the next scene unfolds. This context is significant.
Again, the disciples were being trained concerning life in the kingdom of God. So far, the penny had been slowly dropping but clearly, as this scene shows, there was a long way to go.
After Jesus’ interaction with this rich, young ruler, the disciples were befuddled. They were astonished—twice (vv. 24, 26). And the reason is because they had so soon forgotten the lesson Jesus had just taught them (vv. 12–16). They were still hung up by the values of their religious world—a religious world that Jesus characterised as an adulterous, sinful, and faithless generation (8:38; 9:19).
When Jesus called the Twelve, he called them to repent and to follow him into a new way to live. He called them to a new value system. He called them away from a corrupt and even reprobate value system to a radical value system—the radical value system where grace, rather than entitlement, reigned. This episode was meant to drive home this point. And the closing verse summarises the lesson they so desperately needed to learn—that is, in the kingdom of God, the “first will be last, and the last will be first.” When it comes to salvation, status is irrelevant.
The Man’s Request
The rich, young ruler came to Jesus with a serious question. “And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (v. 17).
In the past, I was pretty rough on this young man. I questioned his motives and assumed that he was simply seeking to add a religious category to his already rather impressive CV. Being young, rich, and a ruler of some description, he had a lot going for him. I concluded that he simply, and nonchalantly, wanted to sort out the religious part of his life, especially since he knew that one day he would die. I think I was wrong. This young man, it seems, was clearly serious and sincere about his question.
The ruler “ran up and knelt before him.” For a person of such status to kneel to one who was poor and rejected by the elite in society testifies to his sincerity. He took Jesus and his teaching seriously. He was willing to humble himself before Jesus and to ask a very important question. Though he would make a disappointing decision in response to Jesus, nevertheless we have no grounds to sneer at him.
The young man addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.” There is apparently nothing in Hebrew history that parallels such an appellation. This man recognised something honourable in Jesus. He saw the difference between Jesus and the rest of the religious teachers of the day. He respected Jesus and, to a large extent, trusted him enough to enquire about the future state of his soul. We see this in his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question clearly concerned his life after death. Again, though not an exact parallel, it was akin to the Philippian jailer when he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
The word translated “inherit” speaks of something that is obtained or received as a gift—something received at the hand of God (see Matthew 5:5; 25:34).
Some have said that his question hints at a sense of entitlement—that is, that this man was saying, “To add to my privileges, what must I do to be entitled to eternal life?” I would suggest that a judgement of charity calls for us to commend him for his concern. In fact, it seems that this man realised that, though he had so much, yet he did not have it all. He realised that something is missing. He had provision for this life, but perhaps he realised that he had not made provision for the next.
Would to God that more people in our day would give such thought to this matter. Would to God that more people would run up and kneel before Jesus to enquire about such matters. Would to God that some reading this would do so. If, on this day, you are doing just that, listen carefully.
Before moving on, we should pause at his question, “What must I do?” This young man was a success. I assume that he had done a lot of things to get where he was. I don’t have the impression that he was a passive kind of guy. Rather, he did what he needed to do in order to obtain. That is a great quality. When I think of my father, I have this mental image of sweat dripping off his nose. He was a hard worker, who accomplished a lot. That is a great quality. But when it comes to receiving and entering the kingdom of God, there are no great exploits called for. There will be plenty to do after you enter, but the only way to enter is for someone to do something for you. This young man would be confronted with this.
We must face this question seriously and pursue it sincerely. But, most important, we must do so submissively. That is, whatever Jesus says, we must do to have eternal life. But his answer will likely surprise us, as it did this man.
In response (vv. 18–22), Jesus confronted the man with three essential things with which everyone who will be saved must be confronted.
Confronted by Our God
Jesus’ initial response appears strange: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone’” (v. 18). These words have befuddled Bible readers, commentators, and preachers for centuries. Though I will not claim to settle all the debate concerning all that Jesus meant, it is clear that Jesus is pointing this serious enquirer to God.
What did Jesus mean by his response? Was Jesus denying goodness? If he was, we are hopeless of ever inheriting eternal life.
It could very well be that, rather than denying goodness, he was claiming deity. Perhaps he was indicating that he is not merely a good teacher but rather is God.
Throughout Mark, it appears that Jesus had sought to guard himself from the messianic limelight and therefore his claim to be God might be out of step with that. Perhaps. Yet perhaps Jesus was seeking to awaken this man to the reality that he was asking about eternal life to the one who defines eternal life (John 17:1-3). As Lewis once pointed out, you can identify Jesus as a liar, a lunatic, or Lord, but the idea that he was merely a “good teacher” is not an option left to us. But I don’t believe that this fully explains Jesus’ answer.
I think that, fundamentally, Jesus was making a deeply important point: For all of this man’s religiosity, he did not know God. He did not have a relationship with God. Consider again his question: It seems that, to him, “eternal life” was merely a thing to be gained, not a relationship to be prized.
When he called Jesus “Good Teacher,” Jesus saw that the man was focused on him, rather than on his God. Now that may sound confusing, especially to those well-schooled—and rightly so—in the doctrine of the Trinity. After all, Jesus is God. But throughout his ministry, Jesus sought to point to his Father (John 5:19, 30; 14:9; 12:27–28; 17:1). Jesus knew that if we have no concept of who God is, then we can never have eternal life. After all, eternal life consists of knowing God (John 17:1–3). Jesus is not merely a fire escape from hell; he is the one who reconciles us to the good God.
Perhaps, like so many, this sincere man was not interested in knowing God as much as he was in “going to heaven” (whatever that means). In other words, the security of his soul, rather than the priority of a relationship with God, was his concern. And this is a deadly problem that remains all too common in our day.
Many religious people desire to be spiritually “fire compliant” without it interfering with their lives. They want benefits from God, but they are not too interested in God himself.
This mindset is often played out when a couple decides to marry. They search for a church where they can have a religious stamp of approval placed on their ceremony. But God dare not tell them what to promise each other, thank you very much! The same is true with those who decide to find a church home when they begin to have children.
I am not being critical of what may be well-intentioned desires. What I am saying is that, all too often, people can show religious interest without God being high on the priorities list. I think this young man was in the same boat, and Jesus knew it. Hence, he sought to awaken him to his need to know the good God whom Jesus revealed. Yes, he was a “Good Teacher,” but he had come to reconcile a lost world—and yes, even a lost religious world—to the good God.
We see the love and grace of Jesus as he sought to move a man from wrong motives to the rightness of pursuing God.
My father-in-law recently recalled in a discussion that this was true of him and my mother-in-law. They were rank unbelievers when they were married, never darkening the door of a church. When their first child was born, they decided they needed to go to church, so that their children would have some moral grounding. They started to attend a nearby Baptist Church that, when they were children, had sent a bus around to collect children for Sunday school. It was there that they heard the gospel and entered into relationship with the living God.
What about you? Do you desire to know God or do you merely desire to “go to heaven” when you die? That is a fair and honest and most-important question. A mark of conversion is love for God. In fact, that isthemark of conversion (John 4:19–24; 1 John 4:19; John 5:1–3). One’s affections reveal one’s relationship, or lack thereof, with God.
It is often said that Christianity is less a religion than it is a relationship, and that is correct. Christianity is about sinners being reconciled to God. It’s about rebels being transformed into lovers of God.
I suppose we can summarise this point by asking, do you desire to know God? If so, you are on the right track to eternal life. If not, ask God to give this desire.
Confronted by Our Self-Understanding
Coupled with the above, Jesus fleshed out what the goodness of God looks like by pointing to God’s law; specifically, to what is often referred to as the second table of the law: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honour your father and mother.” Boldly, the rich man replied, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth” (vv. 19–20).
Jesus did this to provide this man with an understanding of what God’s goodness looks like. It looks like loving your neighbour as yourself. Jesus was highlighting that, when it comes to being right with God—to obtaining eternal life—mere human goodness won’t cut it. We need God’s goodness. That was the point of his next statement, “You know the commandments.” Jesus then enumerated six of the Ten Commandments (assuming we identify “do not defraud” with “you shall not covet”).
It is helpful to think about this man’s initial question, “What must I do to inherent eternal life?” Jesus gave him a literal answer: “Do this and live” (see Leviticus 18:5). The law of God reveals the character of God, which means that the law of God defines ultimate goodness. This is what one needs in order to inherit eternal life—not wealth, not status, but the brilliantly holy goodness of God. This is what lay behind Jesus’ response. He was challenging of this man’s conscience.
This man’s self-understanding was horribly superficial: He believed that he had sufficiently obeyed God’s law—though notice the absence of “good” in his response this time. This man’s self-understanding, like so many others, was sadly superficial, at least when it came to his standing before God. This is the challenge for those who will follow Jesus.
I have already said that, in the past, I used to accuse this young man of arrogance. I think I was probably wrong. Paul spoke of himself being “blameless” concerning “the righteousness of the law” (Philippians 3:6) and testified, before the Sanhedrin, that, before he came to Christ, he lived with a pure conscience before God concerning obedience (Acts 23:3; cf. 2 Timothy 1:3). The point to be made is that, on a certain external level, the Ten Commandments can be characteristically obeyed. And the rabbis of Jesus day taught so.
So, I would argue that this man was sincere in his answer. He was not seeking to be duplicitous. He wasexternally good, at least in comparison to others. And Jesus affection towards him—“looking at him, loved him” (v. 21)—substantiates this.
This man was under the same delusion that most are. They assume that they can meet the standard of goodness measured against God. They assume that a general obedience to the Ten Commandments makes them right with God. In other words, this man, like us, clung to his self-righteousness.
When he asked, “What must I do?” he was sincere. And when he heard the answer, he was not shocked. He probably expected it. Therefore, as recorded in Matthew 19:20, he asked, “What do I still lack?” He must have realised that the kingdom offer by Jesus was not yet his experience, even though he had outwardly conformed to the commandments. He expected to be called upon to do something else. I am not sure what he expected as an answer. But when Jesus told him what he needed to do’ he was not willing to do it.
This is a good place to be, to be confronted with the realization that, in spite of good efforts, you are still not reconciled to God. This can make way for childlike faith.
Confronted by Our Need
Verses 21–22 confront us with our need:
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
This is both a tender and a very troubling scene. Jesus, “looking at him, loved him.” This is the only occurrence in Mark where it is said that Jesus loved someone.
The word translated “looking” speaks of Jesus looking into the heart of this man—and what he saw drew out deep love for him. This, by the way, is evidence that this man was neither hypocritical nor arrogant. After all, Jesus did not show tender love to hypocrites or to the arrogant. In this case, Jesus saw a young man who had lived a good life. He had sought to obey the commandments of God the Father. And therefore Jesus had great affection for him.
I can relate to this, can’t you? A friend or family member lives a rather good and noble life and yet they are not Christian. You love them, and you feel for them. Oh, why don’t they see their need and come to Christ?
Jesus loved this man too much to allow him to have a false sense of eternal security, so he gave him a commandment. In doing so, he revealed the man’s deepest need—and ours.
This man, who claimed to be a commandment-keeper, was given a command to keep. If he loved God and wanted to know God, then surely he would have no qualms about obeying this commandment. If he wanted to enter the kingdom of God, to inherit an unending relationship with the God of the kingdom, then surely he would obey this commandment from Jesus. After all, he was the “Good Teacher.” If he truly wanted to be in a right relationship with God, then surely he would obey this command, which essentially sums up all the Ten Commandments.
The man had obeyed the externals of the law of God. But the question to be answered is, why? Had he obeyed out of love for God, who is good? Jesus was asking the man: “How good do you think God is? Is he so good that there is no comparison with all the riches of the world? Is he so good that you can trust him with everything you have? Is he so good that that you are willing to give up everything to follow me so that you can know him?” This commandment highlights our greatest need: to be helplessly dependent upon God. And when we confess that need, we will gladly follow Jesus who brings us to God.
Jesus was telling this man what John recorded: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus was saying, “If you want eternal life, you must come to me and do what I say.” Sadly, this young, rich, noble, highly respected young man counted the cost and, according to his calculations, knowing God was not worth it. Mark tells us that he went away “disheartened” and “sorrowful.”
The word translated “disheartened” means to render gloomy. It was a word used in relation to inclement, cloudy weather (see Matthew 16:3). A cloud of disappointment came over this young man’s religious aspirations. He was sorrowfully grieved at the words of Jesus because he could not cling to his possessions and cling to God at the same time. And he made the foolish decision to walk away. This man, who had everything, in the end had nothing.
There is an interesting contrast between this scene and the preceding one. There, those who had no possessions received the greatest possession while, here, one who had lots of possessions forfeited the greatest possession. He was possessed by his possessions and lost out on the greatest of possessions: eternal life.
There is no indication that Jesus chased after him. He let him go his own way. He went away gloomy and sad because he did not appreciate the goodness of God. To him, the possession of goods was more important than the possession of the greatest good, that is, God. How disturbing. How sad. And how common.
Some reading this are in the same position as this young man. You want life after death. You want to have a spiritual dynamic to your life. But you don’t want it badly enough; at least, not bad enough to give up everything for it. And the reason is because you do not see your greatest need. And you don’t see this because you are not impressed with the goodness of God (cf. Romans 2:4). Eternal security is not nearly as much a priority to you as is temporal security.
The words of Jesus are unambiguous. This is a straightforward commandment—and yet it so often debated! The same is required of all who will follow Christ. Our greatest need is to humble ourselves as little children and come to Jesus confessing, “Noting in my hand I bring, simply to your cross do I cling.” If we will inherit eternal life, then eternal life must be our supreme concern and we will be willing to let go of any and everything to have it—to have him! We will be willing to leave our possessions, our passions, and even our people (v. 29), for Jesus’ sake.
Those who will inherit eternal life must prize eternal life. They must prize knowing God above everything and anything. Those who will be made right with God will surrender all to Jesus. After all, we owe him everything. If you are not willing to leave this world for Jesus, then forget about living in the next world with him. Salvation is free, but it is costly.
Unfortunately, the evangelical church has often lost sight of the call and cost of discipleship with the result that it has become bloated with many who are deceived about their true standing with the Lord. Further, the church has become gloomy rather than joyful because goods rather than God is often its source of security. And how much the poorer we are for this! True freedom and joy come when we can say, “Take the world but give me Jesus!”
Jesus turned up the temperature, as it were, in vv. 23–27:
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
The young man had made his choice. Confronted with the truth about God, man, and Christ, he responded by walking away. He clung to stuff he didn’t need, having rejected the Saviour he eternally needed.
Now it was Jesus and the Twelve. The man’s response had possibly tempted them. Would they too walk away? Jesus spoke into the situation and, in doing so, revealed two essential things they needed to learn.
First, Jesus pointed his disciples to a problem with which they needed to be confronted:
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?”
A Searching Look and a Sobering Lesson
The words “Jesus looked around” are something of a feature in Mark’s Gospel (3:5, 34; 5:32; 9:8; 11:11). The phrase refers to a penetrating and contemplative gaze, which is followed by some action in relation to what was observed. We might say that Jesus took “a commanding survey of the situation” (Edwards).
He was observing the response of the disciples to this encounter. How would they respond? Jesus knew they were shocked. How would they respond to such a counter-cultural message? How would they respond to the rejection of Jesus by this well-known, well-to-do man? Would they turn back? Was the kingdom of God destined to be made up of the poor? If it is as difficult for a rich person to enter into the kingdom as Jesus suggests, how would this kingdom be funded?
Rather than watering down what had just occurred, Jesus informed the disciples that this is the way it is. Entrance into the kingdom is difficult for the wealthy. And this amazed them. Literally, they were astounded. Why?
Again, among the Jewish nation, wealth and prosperity was viewed as God’s blessing on an individual. It was deemed to indicate that it was well with their soul. So, if a wealthy person could not enter the kingdom, what chance did anyone have—including themselves?
But Jesus did not relieve the tension. He torqued it even more with the impossible picture of a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle. The ridiculous picture was intended to convey the enormity of the challenge.
A Sobering Setback
The disciples were once again thunderstruck at Jesus’ response. It seemed more than just difficult for a rich person to be saved. From Jesus’ illustration, it would seem impossible. And that is precisely what they needed to understand.
Jesus was highlighting the fundamental problem that this young man had just illustrated, and the problem they would encounter in the years ahead: The kingdom comes to a world that doesn’t want a King! The gospel comes to those who naturally reject it. The call to discipleship comes to people who don’t see their greatest need. In other words, they were embarking on a humanly hopeless task.
The Lord’s Power
So, if it is impossible, it would seem that there was no hope, at all. But, of course, that would be a wrong conclusion. The final verse makes that clear: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God’” (v. 27).
They had heard correctly. Entrance into the kingdom is humanly impossible. But not with God. A rich person—and, for that matter, a poor person—has no ability to enter the kingdom of God. But God can make it happen. Our good God is able to thread the needle of salvation in such a way that even a camel can get in!
Jesus’ point was that salvation is of the Lord. Salvation does not come by what we do. It does not come by us doing the exceptional. It comes only by the work of God. Only God can bring a person to see themselves as helplessly dependant. Only God can convert a rich, young ruler into a humble, helpless, and trusting child. Thank God that he can. Thank God that he does.
Let me summarise: Jesus points us to God. He points us to ourselves. He points us to our need. And he points us to the problem. But he also points us to the solution to the problem: the power of God. God’s power can make us little children.
Nicodemus asked Jesus, how? Jesus answered, “You must be born again” (John 3:1–15). As you are born again, you become a little child. Those who are born again are the only ones who can believe and truly confess that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1).
But how does God do this? What provision has he made?
In the text before us, there are actually two rulers: the well-known enquirer, and the one to whom the enquiry was made—the Lord Jesus Christ. At thirty-three years old, Jesus was a young man. As King, he was a ruler. At one point, he had been rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He was (and is) co-equal with God and yet he laid aside his robes of glory to take on the form of a servant, becoming a human being. And why? So that we, through his poverty, might become rich.
Jesus literally gave up all he had in order to help the poor—spiritually poor sinners like you and me. He died as a pauper in our place. He rose in our place. He intercedes so we can come to his place (John 14:1–3).
What drove Jesus to do this? It was his love for God the Father—the God who alone is good. Jesus did always those things that pleased him (John 8:29) because he loved him. This included him leaving all to follow his plan for his life. And the result is that Jesus secured—forever—treasure in heaven, his inheritance, the church (see Ephesians 1:18).
Jesus could have commanded this man to do what he never did. He is King, and he has that right. But, in this case, Jesus knew precisely what it meant to give it all. He gave it all throughout his life, culminating in his death. But then the Father gave him all when he raised him from the dead (Matthew 28:18). Therefore, Jesus is able to give you all!
The question confronting us now is, will you heed the call of Jesus to forsake all to follow him? Will you follow him to love and serve the Father, the one who God is? He is worthy. Repent and believe. Christian, he remains worthy, so continue to repent and believe on him.