Camels Through the Eyes of Needles

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Yeshua said, ‘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.’ The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’ Yeshua said to him, ‘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.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
—Matthew 19:16-22

This story often gets misunderstood. I've heard of modern-day monastics who actually go and sell everything to live in squalor, thinking that will benefit them. There was a time in my life where I admired them.

But much more often, I see people argue that this proves we can't be good through obedience. As you can read, the young man claimed to have kept the commandments perfectly, but he still lacked something. Was Yeshua lying when he said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments”? Let's take a look at Yeshua's words more carefully:

  1. You shall not murder (Exo. 20:13)
  2. You shall not commit adultery (Exo. 20:14)
  3. You shall not steal (Exo. 20:15)
  4. You shall not bear false witness (Exo. 20:16)
  5. Honor your father and mother (Exo. 20:12)
  6. You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18)

Five of these come from the Ten Commandments, and the last one is sort of a summary of them all. But what is missing from this list? Well the first four commandments aren't there, but as an earnest Jew intent on inheriting eternal life, it's unlikely that the man was intentionally breaking those. But where's the tenth commandment? I would suggest that Yeshua's exhortation that he sell his possessions was the tenth commandment.

You see, Yeshua wasn't lying when he said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” After all, God said, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yehovah” (Leviticus 18:5). Would the son of God contradict God? That's foolishness! Instead, Yeshua was revealing to the man the truth of Romans 7.

“What then shall we say? That the Torah is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the Torah, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the Torah had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the Torah, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the Torah, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
—Romans 7:7-12

Paul's point in this passage is that the Torah exposes our sin. If we don't know what sin is, we can continue in it within shame. Ignorance is bliss. But once we know the truth, it promises to bring life but invariably causes our death, since our flesh sees it as another opportunity to go our own way. Some have tried to tie Paul to the young man in Matthew in part because of Romans 7; I'm inclined to agree. To me, it appears that Paul realized that coveting was his big pet sin he was willing to ignore. He was basically good in the rest of them—and I don't think he was lying when he said that he kept them all since his youth (cf. Mark 10:20). But it wasn't until Yeshua forced him to confront his covetousness that he understood that the same Torah which promised life would be his condemnation.

So what then? When we realize the Torah condemns something we formerly thought was morally neutral (I'll let your conscience speak to you here), how should we respond? I'd suggest the attitude of the young man is NOT the way to go. “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Rather, we should take the stance of Paul's more mature understanding:

“So I find it to be a rule that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the Torah of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another torah waging war against the Torah of my mind and making me captive to the torah of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Yeshua Messiah our Lord! So then, I myself serve the Torah of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the torah of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Yeshua. For the Torah of the spirit of life has set you free in Messiah Yeshua from the torah of sin and death. For God has done what the Torah, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Torah might be made full in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit set their minds on the things of the spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s Torah; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
—Romans 7:21-8:8

What does it mean for us to walk in the spirit? It means that our minds are set on the things of God—his holy Torah, that which “if a person does them, he shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5).

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