How completely inappropriate is Jesus’ answer to the wealthy young man who asks him — begs him, really — for the answer to his eternal destiny:
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Here’s a man who has been faithful to his religion all his life. Somehow, rather than being hypnotized into complacency, he has managed to glimpse the big picture. His religion isn’t working. He knows he lacks something. He does not feel closer to God. He has been let down. One day he hears about an itinerant preacher – a Galilean, yes, but worth a try – coming near his home. Oblivious to the objections of his upper-class family and friends, he debases himself, running out after this Galilean and falling on his knees like a common beggar.
Such sincerity! Such courage! Such a soft heart towards God! Jesus then delivers to him the saving truth of the gospel:
“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commeit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother…'”
A shocked expression comes over the young man’s face as Jesus itemizes the Law of Moses. He interrupts. “Teacher!” Jesus pauses and looks down at him. “Teacher,” he says, in a calmer tone, a tear in his eye, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
What sort of crap answer is this? The man has done his duty, obeying the Law. He needs the gospel! He couldn’t have been any plainer in asking for it! Instead of relief, he finds more of the same burden.
The key here is an unspoken presumptuousness on the young man’s part. He has kept the Law perfectly, he says. This is a clue to Jesus that he has not yet arrived at that place of real desperation, where he abandons all hope of self-justification. What this man needs is not the gospel, not yet. He thinks he has successfully carried the load. Fine. Jesus gives him a bigger rock:
“One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Compare this to God’s admonition to Cain:
“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”
God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Cain is a proud man, dutiful, diligent, faithful. But his offering is not one of desperation (like Abel’s); it is one that satisfies some standard of his own making. It is a man-centered religion. God’s response is to give Cain a bigger rock. “Master sin,” he is told. Why is Abel not given the same charge? We can be sure that Cain wondered this very thing. Cain must master sin because, by carrying the bigger rock, he will, perhaps, arrive where Abel has already arrived – at a place of desperation. He might cry out to God in self-abandonment.
The purpose of the Law — whether the Law of Israel or the moral law within us Gentiles — is to lead us to Jesus Christ.