The word used for this man implies he is somewhere in his twenties. We don’t find out he is rich until the end of the story.
He comes to Jesus with an interest in his teaching and a desire to earn true life in God. Jesus points out, leaning on the Shema, that only God is good. Thus, we cannot earn his favor but only attach ourselves to him in devotion. For the orthodox Jew, this meant keeping the commandments.
Keeping the love commandment meant caring for the poor through almsgiving. The man is up to date on his giving.
The man is a devout Jew and keeps the commandments, but he senses that there is more Jesus wants. Perhaps Jesus wants him to give even more. He is willing to do so, I imagine.
Jesus uses the term “perfect”. That always scares us, because we picture a sinlessness that is impossible for us. But the word really implies a perfect devotion to God. Undivided loyalty. Ahead of everything else.
For this young man at this particular time, it means selling out and becoming a follower of Jesus. That is a higher cost than the young man had imagined. We find out he is wealthy, and apparently he is too attached to his money and its attendant status to give it up. So he went away, although sorrowfully.
Does Jesus require the same of all of us? Well, in a way, yes. We cannot allow anything to be more important to us than following Jesus. We may not have to sell out, but we do have to hold our possessions lightly. In fact, we must allow God to own them, not us.
Being attached to material things has wrecked many a young potential Christ follower.
When we tell people, “Just say this prayer and you will go to heaven instead of hell”, we are leaving out important parts of the story. Jesus requires everything the follower is and everything the follower owns. There is a high cost to following Jesus. It won’t do to ignore it in our evangelistic efforts.
But we are filling church buildings up with hundreds and hundreds of people who have bought fire insurance and will never become disciples of Jesus.
One pastor in a former church used to talk often about depopulating hell. I understand what he means by that, although I do think it is a crass expression of evangelism. But worse than its crassness, it is shallow and incomplete. A ministry that focuses on depopulating hell is misguided and in almost no way at all does it fulfill the great commission of Jesus.