“You Lack One Thing”: Thinking About Love and Law

Religion is such an external thing, isn’t it?  At least for many people it is.  Like the Sunday clothes that get pressed and put on one day a week, religion gets put on and paraded at the same time as the fancy clothes.  After a brief outing, the clothes hit the laundry or are folded neatly on the hangers, and the religion is put away until next week, too.

Thomas Jefferson told his nephew that the practice of religion is not a bad thing.  He should give it a try.  Indeed, any influence of good in a person’s life is beneficial.  But the real value of religion is not in the external wearing of the trappings of “faith” one day a week.  Real faith becomes grafted into your life and it suffuses it, coloring everything you are and do.

The value of real faith comes not from the mechanical, programmed conduct of rituals and acts of worship.  Oh, worship is absolutely essential.  Don’t get me wrong. But Jesus was not trying to launch an institution that required ONLY the strict adherence to a set of practices for worship.  He was out to change lives by showing people how to live each and every day.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus had so little to say about actual worship?  In rebuking Satan at his temptation in the desert, Jesus said, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:8).  Later, his conversation with the Samaritan woman is recorded in John 4. “21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  As far as I can tell, those are the only direct comments Jesus made about worship per se:  in essence, keep the focus on God and keep it real.  Certainly, he spoke of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 and other places.  However, Jesus’ emphasis was far more on changing the heart and how people live.  Perhaps the way to interpret that is that if you get the heart right, the worship will follow naturally and purely from a pure heart.

An excellent example of this principle is found in Mark 10, where Jesus was confronted by a wealthy young man who was seeking eternal life.

“17 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?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 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.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

There are at least four important points regarding this exchange: first, he reinforced the reality that he was indeed God when he asked the young man, “Why do you call me good?”  He used that to emphasize that he was indeed God in the flesh.  “No one is good except God alone.”  Since he didn’t say NOT to call him good, he accepted the description.  In doing so, he admitted that he is God.

Second, he determined that the young man knew and kept the law. Keeping the law was important.  The Law of which Jesus spoke was not just ceremonial.  It governed all aspects of the lives of the Jews.  The commandments he mentioned, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother,” these can all be summed up with what Jesus called the second great commandment, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

You could almost see the young man brighten up at that statement.  Of course!  He had kept all of those commandments since he was a child!  This would be easier than he ever imagined!  If superficially observing the letter of the Law was all that was necessary, Jesus would have said, “Welcome aboard.”  But Jesus took it one step farther.  He told him to prove it.  “21 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.”  If he truly had internalized the commandment to love his neighbor, he would do what was required.

So, when Jesus said that keeping the commandments was indeed important, the young man was encouraged.  When Jesus told him what he needed, his countenance fell.  So often, the focus of any discussion of this encounter has been on the young man’s response to Jesus’ difficult command to sell his possessions and give to the poor before coming to follow him.  The emphasis has been on the unwillingness of the young man to do what Jesus asked.  The young man must not have been sincere.  He must not have been honestly seeking the kingdom.  He was an example of what not to be or to do.

But, as a third point, there is another important consideration here that reveals something of the nature, mind, and motivation of Jesus.  Look at this brief glimpse into his very heart:

21 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.”

Notice that parenthetical comment: “…looking at him, loved him….” Jesus didn’t size him up and decide that this was the way to prevent him from entering the kingdom. What Jesus told him he told him out of love. He knew that wealth was the young man’s weakness. But the true value of wealth is not in the currency or gold stored up in a bank or counting house. It is in the good that you can do with it. Jesus wanted him to use that gift to help others. That would be the first step into life in the kingdom.

Fourth, he told his disciples in the following verses that it would be difficult for anyone who placed such an emphasis on riches to enter the kingdom of heaven.  It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.  This of course sounded absurd to the disciples, but Jesus said in Mark 10.27, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

The entire Sermon on the mount from Matthew 5-7 may have mentioned worship practices, but rather than describing and enumerating what they were required to do as acts of worship, he emphasized that what they did would be useless if their hearts weren’t right.  He not only preached the principles of living a righteous life from the heart outward, he practiced them.  The deepest motivation of his followers would be their love for each other and for all.  John repeats this over and over in John 14 and 15.  How many times do we see the love and compassion Jesus had for his friends, his followers, and people in general?  Even the Jews who came to see what he would do when he visited Mary and Martha after the death of their brother Lazarus.  They said, “See how he loved him.” (John 11.36)  When Jesus saw the people that followed him had been with him for three days and had no food and were hungry, he said, “I have compassion on the crowd.” (Mark 8.2)  When Jesus heard about a widow who had lost her son, in Luke 7, the record says, “13 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.””  If God is love, Jesus embodied it.  His life was dedicated to loving others and teaching others to love as he did.  That was the heart of his message.

Of the exchange between Jesus and the wealthy young man, we only know the young man went away sorrowful, and we know no more of his later decisions. I would like to think that if or when he realized that Jesus made his pronouncement out of love, he would have done what he asked.  That would be speculation, of course.  What a spokesman he might have been, using his wealth to glorify God.  But even if he never came to himself, as did the lost son, he gave Jesus an opportunity to teach us an important principle.  Although a negative example, his life was given significance.  We should learn from him, but far more, we should learn from yet another example of Jesus’ love.


2 Responses to “You Lack One Thing”: Thinking About Love and Law

  1. Greg Watkins says:

    I have begun to pay more attention to possible Hebrew parallelisms and this one just hit me. “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” (Luke 4:8) It doesn’t appear that Jesus is talking about two separate things here (worship and service). If this is indeed Hebrew parallelism, then service IS worship.

    The same can be said about the section of the Lord’s prayer in Mt 6:10 “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” As a follow-on to your posts on the Kingdom, if we want to know what “Kingdom” looks like, then we need to pay attention to what God’s will on earth as it is in Heaven looks like.

    Thanks for your writings.

    • Darrell Ray says:

      Interesting point. I think this falls under the general emphasis on internalizing the “great commandments.” When we experience a life/heart change, these principles become part of us. As we serve others, we are showing God’s love and indeed serving him by fulfilling his purpose for us. My aim in this article was to point out what I think is an often over-looked point, at least within my specific faith tradition. Jesus loved this man who was seeking eternal life, and wanted him to put his wealth to service, to rid himself of the anchor that would hold him back, but do so in a way that would bring benefit to the poor. Had he remained for the balance of Jesus’ discussion with the disciples, he would have seen that he would receive far more that he currently possessed, even despite the promise of persecution.

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