One Thing Lacking

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“And as [Jesus] was setting out on His journey, a man knelt before Him and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’… 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” (Mark 10:17, 21-22).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man says as he kneels before Jesus. He is a neaniskos, St. Matthew tells us, a young man between the ages of 24 and 40. A ruler, adds St. Luke. Here is a man who has everything. Evidently from a wealthy, religious family, he has already achieved some prominence and has a bright future. He is committed to an honest, upright lifestyle, and ready to do even more to assure himself of God’s favor.
To Jesus’ disciples, this seeker of religious truth is an almost perfect prospect. I mean, they wish that everyone would follow Jesus, of course; but this is the kind of guy who’s got his act together. He’s the kind of guy who would volunteer to serve on committees and get a lot of work done. He’s the kind of guy who would be an asset for whatever sort of plan or strategy needs to be launched.
The Twelve must be breathing a sigh of relief, for it’s been a rough couple of weeks. First, there was the fiasco after the feeding of the 5,000, when many disciples got upset and left, and Jesus had even asked if they were ready to leave, too. Then there had been those strange, unsettling predictions by Jesus that He’s going to be crucified. But here’s a nice change: A young, rich, enthusiastic guy has appeared, who wants to be a disciple. This is a rising star. Let’s put him on the fast track to adult confirmation, call the seminary admissions department.
But the conversation doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to. At least, not the way the disciples think. Who would ever imagine that this almost perfect prospect would go away sorrowful a few minutes later? Let’s examine the exchange.
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the rich young man. The problem has already begun, because the almost perfect prospect asks a flawed question. His first words clue us in: “Good Teacher.” Certainly, the young man is to be commended because he thinks Jesus has the answer. The problem is in his understanding of "good.” He seems to think it applies to him as much as Jesus.
It is this misunderstanding Jesus seeks to correct first. “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” With this, Jesus does not say that He is not God but, rather, seeks to have the young man reflect on why he is calling Jesus “good” and what implications that might have. It is to make him think. There is more involved than just going to Jesus with a question and seeking an answer. We demand answers to our questions, but Jesus wants to give us so much more. And the truth be told, oftentimes we’re asking the wrong question.
That’s the case here as well: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks. His question tells us that this man assumes that he can work his way into heaven by the things that he does. That’s understandable. It’s the natural fallback religious position of Old Adam. What he is asking Jesus is this: “How much more of God’s Law do I have to keep in order to earn my way to eternal life? What do I have to do? How good is good enough?” Although the man is sincere, he is far from faith. He doesn’t want Jesus to save him from sin, but to approve of who he is and the good that he has done. But he risks losing his inheritance in the meanwhile.
How exactly does one inherit anything? You really don’t do anything at all. Someone has to die, and when he dies, you have to be in his good graces. That’s how you inherit. It’s not by doing, but by grace, being in the favor of the one who died and left you the inheritance. The same goes for inheriting eternal life.
Now Jesus could have just said that and be done with it, but every good teacher knows that the lessons learned best are the ones learned by struggle. And so Jesus let the pious young man experience a bit of his religion firsthand. The same religion he’s likely been pawning off on his own friends and family.
“You know the commandments,” Jesus says. And just in case he’s forgotten his catechism, Jesus gives him a quick review: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” It is basic second table of the law stuff—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this young man has been raised religiously to think he can keep the commandments, just as St. Paul could later claim to be “blameless” under the Law as a Pharisee. “Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth,” he says. And he means it. He sincerely believes he’s kept the commandments.
Notice, how Jesus doesn’t argue with him. He could have. He could have delivered a mini sermon on the mount and said, “Ah, you may have kept them in deed, but have you kept them also in thought and word? Have you lusted in your heart? Have you had angry words with your brother?” But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus looks on this young man, caught in his own commandment-keeping, and He loves him. That’s a little detail that only Mark gives us. It makes me wonder if the young man might not be Mark himself. Who knows?
Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter: “You lack one thing,” says the Lord. “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” This time, the man sees how the Law accuses him, and it crushes him. He’s not as good as he needs to be. Almost perfect is not good enough. And he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is. Jesus has just pointed out to him his sin. But what sin is that, exactly? The sin our Lord condemns here is not wealth. Jesus is not preaching a sermon against the evils of being rich. We must make this clear so that we can understand the true sin and the marvelous Gospel of this text.
Sadly, Bible stories like this one have been used to declare that wealth is innately sinful. Liberal churches have used this passage to promote a “social gospel.” Political forces have infiltrated the Church and used stories like this to spread their message of “social justice” and the redistribution of wealth. Some of Pope Francis’ speeches on his recent trip to America certainly had that flavor. Others have used this to live for their own selfish purposes. In Luther’s time, it was considered a great work to sell all and make a vow of poverty, for poverty was considered more pleasing to God—at least as far as individuals were concerned. Ironically, wealth was considered to be a blessing for the Church itself.
To be sure, wealth has its dangers, as the Lord will go on to say. Those who have riches are certainly tempted to trust in them rather than the Lord. But wealth is not a sin. Money is not “the root of all evil.” But “the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” Is there greed here? Yes. The man has much in the way of riches, and he would rather keep them than love his neighbor and give them to the poor. So, yes, there is greed at play here, but greed is not the big problem either. There is a far more dangerous sin at work. The greater sin is this: The man thinks that he can save himself by how well he works at keeping God’s commands. He believes that he can work his way into heaven by being good enough.
When Jesus lists several commands, the man is delighted because he can tick them off and say, “I’ve kept them!” But then the Lord says, “If you are so virtuous that you can keep all of God’s commandments, then you won’t be in love with your money. You’ll be able to give it all away. If you’re going to save yourself by your work, then prove it!” Thus, the Lord shows the man that he suffers from greed though he didn’t know it until that moment. And because he suffers the sin of greed, he isn’t keeping all of God’s commands and he can’t earn eternal life—for to earn eternal life one must be perfect. “Almost perfect” is not good enough. For you can’t be almost perfect, any more than you can be a little pregnant.
And that highlights the real problem. At the root of his sin (and ours) is idolatry—the failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. The rich young man has turned to other gods—his wealth and himself. Though he wants a relationship to God, he wants it on his own terms, and that can never be.   
For greed, the man can be forgiven as he trusts in Jesus, the Savior. But as long as the man believes that he can save himself, he does not trust in Jesus to save him; thus there is no forgiveness. The Lord shoots down his whole plan of salvation—which isn’t as harsh as it sounds because it is a faulty plan in the first place. It isn’t enough to address that nagging doubt in the back of his mind that something is lacking in his life.
And what is it that is lacking? Listen carefully to the Lord’s words again and see if you hear. “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.” Did you hear it this time? It is easy to miss. The young man misses it. All he hears is that stuff about selling everything and giving it to the poor—another commandment, and one that he realizes he can’t keep. But he misses the Gospel. He misses the answer to his question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Follow Me,” Jesus says. The same words He spoke to the fishermen and to  the tax collector. “Follow Me.” More than another commandment, more even than an invitation, these are enabling and enlivening words, enabling the hearer to do what they say. Here is the answer for which the young man is searching. He lacks one thing. In all of his riches and all of his religion and all of his commandment-keeping, he lacks one thing. And that one thing is not poverty; it is Jesus.
Jesus. He lacks Jesus and faith in Jesus. And Jesus is offering Himself at that very moment with the words, “Follow Me.” And whatever gets in the way of following Jesus has to go. In this case, it is the young man’s trust in himself.
Jesus says to him, in effect: “You can’t save yourself. But I can. I will save you by going to the cross and dying for your sin. Do not trust in your own efforts but in Mine. I will share My cross with you so that you do not have to suffer and die for your sin. You can’t save yourself. But I can.”
But this is too much for the man and his preconceived notions. He arrives expecting the Lord’s blessing for his keeping of the Law—and perhaps admiration for his well-run life and wealth. Instead, he’s told to throw it all away and trust in the cross instead. This is not the way he wants salvation, and this not the way he wants the Savior to be. Therefore, he walks away. The would-be disciple, the almost perfect prospect walks away.
Jesus lets him go. That’s right. Jesus lets the rich young man go.
One can even imagine the frowns of disapproval, that Jesus would drive away such a promising prospect with His teaching. But Jesus lets him go. He loves the man, but in love He will not force the man to be repentant. Disheartened by Jesus’ saying, the young man goes away sorrowful, lacking one thing. 
 It’s too bad that this is the way the story ended. This is how the rich young man should have begun—sorrowful and disheartened. Sorrowful for his sins. Kneeling in repentance, rather than as a matter of protocol, or seeking a blessing of commendation. Following Jesus, trusting in Jesus’ mercy and love for eternal life, rather smug in his self-righteousness, or burdened with the guilt of unforgiven sin that still remains in his otherwise very respectable life.
The next time you kneel down in prayer, think of the rich young man who knelt before Jesus. Remember that Jesus sees you both on the outside and on the inside. Instead of saying of God’s Commandments like the rich young man, “All these I have kept from my youth,” pray something like this instead: “God, be merciful to me, a poor sinful being! I have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed. For Jesus’ sake grant me the remission of my sins.”
Or you may kneel before your pastor for private confession and absolution.  “Pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will… I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those who I have hurt, and those who I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin. I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace. I want to do better.”        
Or as you just did a few minutes ago, you can kneel or stand with your fellow sinners and say: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable, sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being.”
As you hear Christ’s absolution of forgiveness from your pastor’s mouth—whether privately or corporately—you can be certain that his forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness. Your sins are forgiven by Christ Himself.
Then properly prepared, come forward to the rail and silently kneel to receive the love of your Savior in His Supper. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t excuse yourself. Don’t say anything. Just open your mouth and receive Christ’s very body and blood given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. You have the one thing lacking: Jesus! Receive His blessing and depart in peace. You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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