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Now a [rich young] man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
There are portions of Scripture where one gets the feeling that a person of means and influence ought to tighten his or her spiritual seat belt. To recall the words of the airline pilot: “We have some turbulence in our flight path.”
How might we characterize the man in this story, who approached Jesus with a question? Was he a seeker? Even a would-be generous giver? Let’s at least assume this: He was a man driven by goodness and the correct kind of curiosity. He was drawn to Jesus, and he appeared to have launched his question not in an attempt to embarrass Jesus but rather to learn from him. Perhaps he was seeking a genuine change of life and inner perspective instead of merely dabbling in religious speculation.
“What must I do to obtain eternal life?” It is the mother of all questions, for in the correct answer is the seed of all other answers to life’s questions. Find out this answer and you can follow it to everything else you should do and should be. This young man was smart enough to know that.
The young man seemed fairly confident as the dialogue began to unfold. Jesus’ answer took him first to the core of the law, a compelling law to all of us. Don’t dare ignore it: “Obey the commandments.” The inquirer responded, This is how I’ve been living. In a very basic sense, he was probably speaking the truth. He had committed his life to living by these laws. Probably there were not significant lapses in his performance. This was likely a very good man speaking.
“What do I still lack?” Two possible interpretations of this question lie before us. The first suggests that he is saying, Why don’t I feel better? Or, Why do I have this feeling that this is not enough? A second interpretation: What unique teaching are you bringing to the moment that I don’t know about or haven’t done? One has the feeling that this man genuinely wanted new insight. And, perhaps, he wanted a certain justification for the kind of life he was living.
If any of this is true, then the next part of the dialogue must have been a terrible shock to him. In baseball terminology, if he expected a pitch that he could hit out of the park, he was greatly mistaken. What he got was a high, hard, fast one. And it appears that he never saw it coming. He thought he was in control of this conversation. But he wasn’t.
A would-be generous giver who spends much time in the presence of Jesus will have these sorts of experiences occasionally. Better tighten your seat belt. There was turbulence then; there will be turbulence again.