In one way or another, we’re all like the rich young ruler of Matthew 19:16-22. We just each have a different sinful strategy to cope with life. The young ruler’s sinful strategy was self-sufficiency through keeping the law and commandments. And when he talked to Jesus, he most likely expected Jesus to suggest he follow those rules for gaining eternal life.
Jesus at first stayed at the level of the Law by challenging him, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verses 18-19).
Evidently the young man thought that was the easy answer on the quiz because he claimed he had done those things. He had no clue that Jesus was referring to that “to-do” list as a barometer of the heart. This young man's behavior seemed obedient but evidently, he hadn't attended the class entitled “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5-7). Because there Jesus explains it's all about the heart not just the behavior.
Jesus in his compassionate way was gently guiding this young man toward truth, even knowing he would walk away.
The young man then asks, “What else do I lack?” You have to give him credit. He seems determined and he knows there's something more. Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (verse 21).
This was a specific soul care interaction designed exactly for this man. We have no record that Jesus ever told anyone else to do that same thing. Why? Because other recorded interactions didn't include a person who idolized and suffered from a sinful strategy of self-sufficiency.
Interestingly, Zaccheus evidently didn't suffer from this strategy or he quickly repented from it, because even though Jesus didn't tell him to “go, sell,” Zaccheus did it of his own accord (Lk. 19:1-10). His heart was supernaturally healed and delivered—from the inside out; the fruit was generosity to others and commitment to Jesus.
The rich young ruler's heart was not changed. “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (verse 22). His possessions were his god and he did not want to surrender his strategy of self-sufficiency. It must have felt impossible and he ended up choosing eternal death, thus not finding the eternal life he sought from Jesus.
We love how Jesus compassionately and patiently tried to woo this young man to believe. Can we hear Jesus’ wooing us, calling to us to abandon our insufficient efforts at providing for ourselves?