There were courage, earnestness, and humility in this young ruler's impulsive casting of himself at Christ's feet in the way, with such a question. He was not afraid to recognise a teacher in Him whom his class scorned and hated; he was deeply sincere in his wish to possess eternal life, and in his belief that he was ready to do whatever was necessary for that end; he bowed himself as truly as he bent his knees before Jesus, and the noble enthusiasm of youth breathed in his desires, his words, and his gesture.
But his question betrayed the defect which poisoned the much that was right and lovable in him. He had but a shallow notion of what was 'good,' as is indicated by his careless ascription of goodness to one of whom he knew so little as he did of Jesus, and by his conception that it was a matter of deeds. He is too sure of himself; for he thinks that he is ready and able to do all good deeds, if only they are pointed out to him.
How little he understood the resistance of 'the mind of the flesh' to discerned duty! Probably he had had no very strong inclinations to contend against, in living the respectable life that had been his. It is only when we row against the stream that we find out how fast it runs. He was wrong about the connection of good deeds and eternal life, for he thought of them as done by himself, and so of buying it by his own efforts. Fatal errors could not have been condensed in briefer compass, or presented in conjunction with more that is admirable, than in his eager question, asked so modestly and yet so presumptuously.
Our Lord answers with a coldness which startles; but it was meant to rouse, like a dash of icy water flung in the face. 'Why callest thou Me good?' is more than a waving aside of a compliment, or a lesson in accuracy of speech. It rebukes the young man's shallow conception of goodness, as shown by the facility with which he bestowed the epithet. 'None is good save one, even God,' cuts up by the roots his notion of the possibility of self-achieved goodness, since it traces all human goodness to its source in God. If He is the only good, then we cannot perform good acts by our own power, but must receive power from Him. How, then, can any man 'inherit eternal life' by good deeds, which he is only able to do because God has poured some of His own goodness into him? Jesus shatters the young man's whole theory, as expressed in his question, at one stroke.
But while His reply bears directly on the errors in the question, it has a wider significance. Either Jesus is here repudiating the notion of His own sinlessness, and acknowledging, in contradiction to every other disclosure of His self-consciousness, that He too was not through and through good, or else He is claiming to be filled with God, the source of all goodness, in a wholly unique manner. It is a tremendous alternative, but one which has to be faced. While one is thankful if men even imperfectly apprehend the character and nature of Jesus, one cannot but feel that the question may fairly be put to the many who extol the beauty of His life, and deny His divinity, 'Why callest thou Me good?' Either He is 'God manifest in the flesh,' or He is not 'good.'
The remainder of Christ's answer tends to deepen the dawning conviction of the impossibility of meriting eternal life by acts of goodness, apart from dependence on God. He refers to the second half of the Decalogue only, not as if the first were less important, but because the breaches of the second are more easily brought to consciousness. In thus answering, Jesus takes the standpoint of the law, but for the purpose of bringing to the very opposite conviction from that which the young ruler expresses in reply. He declares that he has kept them all from his youth. Jesus would have had him confess that in them was a code too high to be fully obeyed. 'By the law is the knowledge of sin,' but it had not done its work in this young man. His shallow notion of goodness besets and blinds him still. He is evidently thinking about external deeds, and is an utter stranger to the depths of his own heart. It was an answer betraying great shallowness in his conception of duty and in his self-knowledge.
It is one which is often repeated still. How many of us are there who, if ever we cast a careless glance over our lives, are quite satisfied with their external respectability! As long as the chambers that look to the street are fairly clean, many think that all is right. But what is there rotting and festering down in the cellars? Do we ever go down there with the 'candle of the Lord' in our hands? If we do, the ruler's boast, 'All these have I kept,' will falter into 'All these have I broken.'
But let us be thankful for the love that shone in Christ's eyes as He looked on him. We may blame; He loved. Jesus saw the fault, but He saw the longing to be better. The dim sense of insufficiency which had driven this questioner to Him was clear to that all-knowing and all-loving heart. Do not let us harshly judge the mistakes of those who would fain be taught, nor regard the professions of innocence, which come from defective perception, as if they were the proud utterances of a Pharisee.
But Christ's love is firm, and can be severe. It never pares down His requirements to make discipleship easier. Rather it attracts by heightening them, and insisting most strenuously on the most difficult surrender. That is the explanation of the stringent demand next made by Him. He touched the poisonous swelling as with a sharp lancet when He called for surrender of wealth. We may be sure that it was this man's money which stood between him and eternal life. If something else had been his chief temptation, that something would have been signalised as needful to be given up. There is no general principle of conduct laid down here, but a specific injunction determined by the individual's character. All diseases are not treated with the same medicines. The command is but Christ's application of His broad requirement, 'If thine eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out.' The principle involved is, surrender what hinders entire following of Jesus. When that sacrifice is made, we shall be in contact with the fountain of goodness, and have eternal life, not as payment, but as a gift.
'His countenance fell,' or, according to Mark's picturesque word, 'became lowering,' like a summer sky when thunder-clouds gather. The hope went out of his heart, and the light faded from his eager face. The prick of the sharp spear had burst the bubble of his superficial earnestness. He had probably never had anything like so repugnant a duty forced upon him, and he cannot bring himself to yield. Like so many of us, he says, 'I desire eternal life,' but when it comes to giving up the dearest thing he recoils. 'Anything else, Lord, thou shalt have, and welcome, but not that.' And Christ says, 'That, and nothing else, I must have, if thou art to have Me.' So this man 'went away sorrowful.' His earnestness evaporated; he kept his possessions, and he lost Christ. A prudent bargain! But we may hope that, since 'he went away sorrowful,' he felt the ache of something lacking, that the old longings came back, and that he screwed up his resolution to make 'the great surrender,' and counted his wealth 'but dung, that he might win Christ.'
What a world of sad and disappointed love there would be in that look of Jesus to the disciples, as the young ruler went away with bowed head! How graciously He anticipates their probable censure, and turns their thoughts rather on themselves, by the acknowledgment that the failure was intelligible, since the condition was hard! How pityingly His thoughts go after the retreating figure! How universal the application of His words! Riches may become a hindrance to entering the kingdom. They do so when they take the first place in the affections and in the estimates of good. That danger besets those who have them and those who have them not. Many a poor man is as much caught in the toils of the love of money as the rich are. Jesus modifies the form of His saying when He repeats it in the shape of 'How hardly shall they that trust in riches,' etc. It is difficult to have, and not to trust in them. Rich men's disadvantages as to living a self-sacrificing Christian life are great. To Christ's eyes, their position was one to be dreaded rather than to be envied.
So opposed to current ideas was such a thought, that the disciples, accustomed to think that wealth meant happiness, were amazed. If the same doctrine were proclaimed in any great commercial centre to-day, it would excite no less astonishment. At least, many Christians and others live as if the opposite were true. Wealth possessed, and not trusted in, but used aright, may become a help towards eternal life; but wealth as commonly regarded and employed by its possessors, and as looked longingly after by others, is a real, and in many cases an insuperable, obstacle to entering the strait gate. As soon drive a camel, humps and load and all, through 'a needle's eye,' as get a man who trusts in the uncertainty of riches squeezed through that portal. No communities need this lesson more than our great cities.
No wonder that the disciples thought that, if the road was so difficult for rich men, it must be hard indeed. Christ goes even farther. He declares that it is not only hard, but 'impossible,' for a man by his own power to tread it. That was exactly what the young man had thought that he could do, if only he were directed.
So our Lord's closing words in this context apply, not only to the immediately preceding question by the disciples, but may be taken as the great truth conveyed by the whole incident, Man's efforts can never put him in possession of eternal life. He must have God's power flowing into him if he is to be such as can enter the kingdom. It is the germ of the subsequent teaching of Paul; 'The gift of God is eternal life.' What we cannot do, Christ has done for us, and does in us. We must yield ourselves to Him, and surrender ourselves, and abandon what stands between us and Him, and then eternal life will enter into us here, and we shall enter into its perfect possession hereafter.