A Poi$oned Heart
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 19:18-19 (Holman) “Which ones?” he asked Him. Jesus answered, “Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus listed commandments five through nine (EX 20), using Leviticus 19:18 as a summary statement. Why did Jesus choose these commandments? Because the Ruler’s unknown failure was contained in them. He’s about to be shocked by a painful revelation: he does not love his neighbor as himself.
The first table of the Ten Commandments, highlighting God, is the essence of faith; the second table, highlighting people, is the evidence of faith. “Our light burns in love to God, but it shines in love to our neighbor” (Henry).
Matt. 19:20a “I have kept all these,” the young man told Him.
This claim immediately proved he was clueless as to what the Law was all about. He knew nothing about the deeper, inner meaning of God’s laws.
He had never gone below the surface of the commands. The Ruler would not murder, but had he hated? He would not commit a sex sin, but did he lust?
The Ruler never suspected anything seriously wrong inside him. Like many today, his religion was impressive, but superficial, external. John Edie says many are concerned more about their churchmanship than their spirituality.
For some Christians, the letter of the law, its thin outer veneer, is enough. They emphasize quantity, a series of acts they can check off on their to-do list. They should emphasize quality, an inner and outer reflection of God’s nature.
Superficial self-satisfaction, as opposed to deep self-dissatisfaction, has ruined many. It is easy to consider ourselves good when we define good.
We are by nature proud at heart. This, combined with Satan’s strategy to blind us to our sins, leaves us with a built-in inclination toward self-deception.
We find it easy to overlook sins we enjoy, and to find ways to condone them. Sinners “perish with whispering sins, many with silent sins, sins that never tell the conscience they are sins, as often as with crying sins” (J. Donne).
Matt. 19:20b “What do I still lack?”
Alexander Maclaren called this plaintive plea “the wail of a hungry heart”. Was he disappointed with Jesus’ answer? Had he expected some new, more difficult, challenge? Many share his dilemma; they feel they are doing their best, yet can’t escape an inner gnawing that something is still lacking.
He truly believed he was willing to do anything, however hard it might be. He was caught in the vortex of a paradox. He claimed to have kept the commands, but was not satisfied, not sensing God’s approval. If he was 100% convinced he had obeyed, why was he still bothered, why no joy and peace?
The young man knew he did not have assurance, yet at the same time did not know he had sin. He had been taught the commandments, and had kept them to the extent he understood obedience. But he was nevertheless conscious of some nebulous, unknown deficiency, which Jesus will now reveal to him.
The Ruler was about to learn the hard way that the Law was given not for us to be able to fulfill it 100%, but to show us how righteous God is, and how far short of pleasing Him we fall. The purpose of the Law is not to help us earn God’s favor, but to convince us it is impossible for us to earn merit before God. The Law was given to teach us our sinfulness, our need for outside help.
Had he understood the spiritual nature of the Law, its deeper meanings, and its impossibility to fulfill, his answer to Jesus would have been totally different. Instead of saying, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” he would have said, “I have broken all these; how can I be forgiven?”
Matt. 19:21a “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, . . .
Jesus was not advocating sinless perfection. Noah was called perfect (GN 6:9), yet committed shameful drunkenness. Job (1:1) was perfect, yet God rebuked his impertinence. These two were perfect, but not sinless.
The word means to be complete, lacking nothing that is required in a given case. The Ruler said he wanted eternal life. Jesus was saying, if you want to succeed in this, if you want the full package deal, the whole load, if you want to be perfect in the issue you brought to Me, here is what you have to do.
Matt. 19:21b “Go, sell all your belongings and give to the poor . . .”
The reply was crushing—no, annihilating. Jesus bluntly burst his bubble. To jar the Ruler from his complacency, Jesus laid bare the young man’s hidden spiritual gangrene. Instead of flashing a huge floodlight on him, Jesus focused a spotlight directly on the darkened, diseased cells of his inner self-absorbed life.
Jesus attacked his idolatry. He worshiped money. The love of cash was poisoning his heart. He was chained to Earth. To prove he desired to escape his addiction, and loved Jesus most, he had to voluntarily deprive himself of earthly things he adored, and embrace a life of hardship. He had to give not to relatives or friends, who might give in return. His loss was to be absolute, irreversible.
We should not be surprised at Jesus’ point-blank lack of leniency. “He who chose Calvary for Himself is apt to prescribe sacrifice to others” (Glover).
The duty Jesus demanded of the rich Ruler is not required of everyone. Being poor earns no more merit before God than being rich does. There were rich believers in the Bible, including Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The essential requirement was not poverty, but obedience, absolute yieldedness. The moment Jesus voiced this command, the Rich Ruler was duty bound to do it to prove his submission to Jesus. We are all obligated to obey the Lord.
Jesus’ command for us to deny ourselves is universal, but the specifics differ. For some the test is to leave honor, fame, an addiction, porn, a pet sin, a job, a career, an unbelieving fiancé, home, or a time-devouring hobby.
We are not all expected to make the same sacrifices. Abraham had to leave home and be willing to sacrifice his son. Hosea had to marry a prostitute. Moses gave up palace life. Elisha left his property. Paul forsook his ambition.
What tests one may not test another, but often we each possess something that possesses us. The burning question for us from Jesus is, “Will you do anything and everything, and give up anything and everything, I ask you to?”
Having established the point that giving away all we have is not required of all, let me press home the point that it is required of some. Could we give up all for Jesus? I don’t know about me; we could start by asking if we tithe.
St. Anthony and St. Francis of Assisi, raised in wealth, were stricken at this command. Feeling it applied to them personally, they promptly divulged themselves of every possession, including their clothes, to provide for the poor.
These two men changed the world. As a side note, when Francis stripped himself of all his clothing, he was quickly brought a poor peasant’s tunic to provide him modesty. He wore the robes of the poor the rest of his life.
Matt. 19:21c “And you will have treasure in heaven.”
Giving to the poor would not earn Heaven, but could be a turning point, rightly redirecting his life course. He was to trust God for gladness out of sight.
We never lose by trusting Jesus. Any seeming loss is more than made up for, many times over. If we measure our happiness only by this life, the outlook is glum. But if we remove the artificial barrier between this life and the next, if we take eternity into view, we can be assured we will never lose by doing right.
This consoles us only if we think of Heaven often. “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither” (C.S. Lewis).
Downplaying Heaven has made us less happy on Earth. The massive amount of gladness reserved for us in Heaven is a reservoir from which we can borrow drops of happiness for this life. Let me use one illustration from my roots. My forebears may have been musically smarter than I give them credit for. In days of depression, war, and want, they sang Southern Gospel, a genre of music that hugely emphasizes Heaven. I said it was “Pie in the sky by and by”, but it may have been borrowing from the future what was rightfully theirs.
Our generation has not emphasized happiness in Heaven enough. As a result, we have lost a huge reservoir of gladness intended to help us here.