For all of the contentiousness between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, there is one man living quite the Pharasaical life that Jesus does not so sharply condemn, and it is his story that must draw us into a deeper story of grace ourselves.
That man is the "rich young man," or as we often call him, the rich young ruler.
It's an interesting proposition to hear "rich young man" and grace in the same sentence, particularly as the story does not end well for him, at least as far as we know. But there is something about this story that we have to pay attention to, something about it that will shape the way (or should shape the way) that we interact with others.
The Pharisees, as we know, were chided by Jesus again and again for making the law the thing. They had spent their entire lives invested in the law, fine-pointing the law, preaching the law, holding everyone accountable to the most minute details of the law. They had turned "faithfulness" into "perfect obedience," and it had nothing to do with love and everything to do with performance. No man can be in a love affair with a God who is always judging him, and this is the wall that the Pharisees set up between the people and the Lord.
The rich young man is a full byproduct of this teaching. He comes to Jesus quite confident that he will be approved of, by virtue of his perfectly righteous living before the law. In fact, it's his opening line. "Jesus, I have kept every letter of the law that the Lord has given us. Aren't I great? Tell me if there is anything else in the law that I must do to be even more perfect."
It's Pharisee 101, and this man has bought it hook, line, and sinker. Now, every time the Pharisees say something like this, Jesus responds with harsh words. "You vipers! You brood of snakes!" He minces no words telling them how wrong they're getting it and just how terrible they - and their theological error - is. But that's not the response that He has to the rich young man.
Jesus considers the rich young man for a moment, then responds. "Sell all you have and give the money to the poor." In other words, Jesus takes the man's question...and answers it according to the needs of the man's heart. He hears the man's dependence upon the law and crafts a response that does not reject it, as Jesus Himself says that He has not come to do, but fulfills it, just as He says.
So what is the difference between the Pharisees, whom Jesus speaks so venomously against (see what I did there with all the snake references?), and the rich young man, for whom the answer is a gentler grace?
The rich young man wasn't attempting to hold anyone else to his standard.
The rich young man wasn't teaching this bad theology. He wasn't holding others to it. He wasn't proclaiming in the streets that this was the way to gain God's approval. He wasn't turning others away from the Temple. He wasn't chastising them or berating them or degrading them on the basis of their failure to follow the law as perfectly as he. The Pharisees were, which is how they got the rich young man in the first place.
But the rich young man himself was just trying to live his life as best he knew how, by the understanding and the theology that he'd been given. He'd been told this was it, and he was doing his best to live it.
Something must be said, too, of the little bit inside of him that was still humble enough, even in his boast, to pose a question in this moment, rather than just to brag. "What else must I do?" He believes he's got the right theology - the law - but he's not sure he's got the full law, so he wants to make sure that he's doing the fullness of what he believes, that he's got it all, that he's not missing anything.
This matters. Even though he's way far off in his theology, even though we know that the law is not the way to the living Lord, this is extremely important.
It's important because we are surrounded every day by Christians whose theologies are...a little off. We're surrounded by those who are living these lives by the words that they've been given, but those words are no good. And it's so easy for us to go off on them the way that we would on the Pharisees themselves. "You vipers! You brood of snakes!" or in our more modern vernacular, "You morons!" We're very quick to want to tell other Christians how wrong they're getting it.
But we have to remember that most of these Christians are not Pharisees, not by any stretch of the imagination. Most of them are not standing in pulpits or public squares trying to hold everyone else accountable to their own interpretations of the Scriptures. (Ironically, in condemning them, we are doing this very thing.) They're just men and women who love God and are trying to live according to the story they were given.
Condemn the Pharisees who gave them that teaching in the first place, yes. But most of the men among us are not Pharisees; they are the students of the Pharisees, those who have bought into the interpretations hook, line, and sinker, and are just doing their best. Our response ought to be one that invites them to do better by a bigger word.
Which means that our response to them must be as gentle as Christ's was to this rich young man. Which means that we must answer them with grace. Which means that we must seek not to condemn their theology, for such condemnation will never work, but rather to expand it. We must take the law that they hold and not reject it, but fulfill it, and draw them into a deeper life with the living Lord.
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