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Monday, November 08, 2004

The Heart of the Commandments

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus to find out what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminded him of the Ten Commandments. He declared, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing.”

It was at once a very simple, and yet, an impossible, prescription: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”

When the young ruler heard that, he became very sad and turned away because “he was a man of great wealth.”

Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

He went on to say that it is harder for the camel to go through the eye of the needle than it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Tradition has it that this reference was to a gate in Jerusalem through which a camel had to squeeze through. The point, presumably was that Jesus did not mean that it was impossible for a rich man to get into heaven, that there is nothing wrong with wealth per se. Since it was actually in principle possible for a camel to fit through this supposed narrow gate, by unloading all of its baggage and stoop down to crawl through, then there is hope for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, albeit, with much, much difficulty.

However, whether or not there is such a gate is now in dispute. In fact, it is now believed that the story of the gate is probably unfounded, and it is more likely that Jesus meant it literally. It really is easier for a camel, as large as it is, to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In other words, it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

To the hearers' ears, this is indeed shocking news. After all, Old Testament religion is filled with assumptions that wealth and prosperity is a sign of God's favor. If a wealthy man, someone who demonstrates in his physical wealth the spiritual blessings of God, finds it difficult to enter into the kingdom of heaven, what hope has the ordinary person?

Jesus reassured his hearers, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Taken within the context, Jesus is saying that there is really nothing you can do to earn yourself eternal life. Eternal life is given by grace, not by works. In fact, this story reinforces the emphasis that was all the while there in the giving of the ten commandments.

The preamble to the ten commandments tells about the relationship covenant between God and his people. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex 20:1). This declaration preceeded the giving of the commandments. The commandments were not given in order for Israel to follow in order to enter into relationshiph with God. The commandments were given as a result of the relationship. The relationship was already there. You are my people, says the God of Heaven, and as a reflection of that relationship, here are the commandments for you to obey.

The rich young ruler understood that these rules were for him to keep. They were not given as prescriptions or suggestions, but were given as commands to be obeyed. Yet, the obedience of the commandments were not the means to eternal life. The rich young ruler seemed to understand that. After all, since he was a little boy, he had kept the commandments, and yet he was not
complete. Something was missing. "One thing you still lack." He knew it deep down. That was why he approached the Master to seek the secret to eternal life.

Jesus' remedy for his incompleteness, for his disintegration, for his lack was for him to sell everything he owned and to give to the poor, and then to come and follow Him. This tells me that there are three things that marks those who wishes to enter into the kingdom of God and have a relationship with Him.

Number one, what matters most in our lives is our relationship with Him. Jesus redirected the young ruler's attention from religious rightness, legal rightness and material rightness to what was most important - being right with God. The rich ruler came to Jesus and acknowledged that He was a Good Teacher. Jesus says, "Why call me Good?" Your standards of goodness is based on sound doctrine. You are seeking doctrine from the "Good Teacher" but remember only God is Good. Why call me Good, just because you are seeking pure unadulterated teaching? Seek God. He is the only One you need. Do not let even sound doctrine stand in the way of that relationship.

Next, the rich young ruler was using the keeping of the law as a standard for judging his standing before God. Jesus says, "Remember the commandments," "Not just theose commandments that you have been careful to follow." But, remember the purpose for which they were given. The commandments were given by the Only One who is Good. He gave the commandment as a sign of a relationship. Remember never to let anything stand in the way of that relationship. Not even your religion.

Finally, the rich young ruler valued his riches and wealth as a sign of blessing from God more than He did the relationship with God. He loved the blessing, and forgot about the One who blesses. Jesus says it is impossible for him to enter into the kingdom of God if He let blessings, riches, and wealth stand in the way of his relationhship with God.