The great sin of the Pharisees, the testimony of the rich young man, and the dangerous trap for many who call themselves Christian today is that for them, the faith that they hold has become about appearances; it is a way that they make themselves look a certain way (namely, "good") and justify their own goodness and perhaps even celebrate it.
The Pharisees did it, calling themselves the keepers of the law, a phrase that had for them double meaning. They kept the law themselves, and Jesus calls them out for wanting applause for that, for standing on street corners to be seen and for taking the places of honor as often as they could, and their excellent keeping of the law made them, in their own eyes, protectors (keepers) of the law, authorized somehow to force their understandings upon others.
The rich young man did it. When he came to Jesus, he came, essentially, boasting. There was quite a crowd gathered, as there often was around Jesus, and the rich young man comes in proudly declaring that he has kept every word of the law, even since he was a younger man. He likely was looking for a "well done, good and faithful servant" that didn't require that messy, you know, death and judgment and all that. He wanted to skip right ahead to God's approval and praise of him and, well, if the crowds also happened to hear and be impressed, then that was all part of the plan, too.
The same is true for a many who call themselves Christian today. They are in it for the appearances of it, to be able to say that they have a church, that they perhaps even go to church, that they aren't "bad" people because they are really "good" people who do "good" things and Jesus loves them on account of their goodness. They, too, want to hear "well done" without the full cost of sacrificial living, without the cross, without death. For them, their faith is a status symbol, all for the benefit of keeping up an image.
But the Scriptures say plainly that this is not how it was meant to be. This is not what the law is for; it's not what faith in the living God is about.
All the way back in the words of Moses, in his final sermon in the book of Deuteronomy, there is a word of stern caution against falling into such a trap. Moses has just laid out the whole of the law one more time for the people, Israel, as they stand on the edge of the Promised Land and Moses faces his own death on the far side of the Jordan. After recounting the entirety of God's command and covenant, Moses says, Set your heart on these things.
For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life. (Deuteronomy 32:47)
It is not a vain thing. It's not for appearances. It's not for making you look "good." It's not for approving of yourself when you look in the mirror or having others approve of you when they see you in the square. It's not for standing in public spaces and taking the seats of honor. It's not for boasting. It's not about how you look, to yourselves, to others, or to God.
It's a real thing. A vital thing. A life-giving, life-changing, life-thriving thing. And I think it's fair to say that if that is not the case for you, then you've missed the very heart of it all.
The Pharisees missed it. The rich young man missed it. Many who call themselves Christians today are missing it. Because they have made it about appearances, about how they look, and they have sought the "well done" without the death...
...and it was supposed to be their life.
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