There is something admirable about the young man who approached Jesus with the soul-searching question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (v. 16). Jesus probes the young man’s concept of life in both this world and the next: “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Then Jesus carefully points the young seeker to God, “the only one who is (truly) good” is the author of the commandments on which God’s people are to build their living (v. 17). The unfolding conversation reveals the seeker knows his subject as he asks which laws take priority, reciting the core list of the Ten Commandments. It is obvious he has been to synagogue school and can recite the correct theological truths, but he is hungry for something more. “What do I lack?” he asks Jesus (v. 20).
The answer is about more than money, although wealth reveals the barrier in this young man’s heart. He has done what his religious mentors have taught him, which means he lives morally and observes the religious traditions of prayer and sacrifices. And, according to the popular belief of his day, his wealth is evidence that he must be personally blessed by God. Such thinking is still prominent in our time as a “gospel of success.” Jesus recognizes the barrier to spiritual peace as he says pointedly, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven, then come, follow me” (v. 21). Try putting yourself in that young man’s position and substitute whatever you most value for the word “money” in Jesus’ answer. What blocks your spiritual peace: professional standing, job security, reputation among friends, career advancement, financial security?
Several years ago I sat in the impressive office of a wealthy businesswoman in Seoul, Korea. Behind her desk was a powerful painting of a tiger stalking his prey. Another wall was all windows looking out over the city. Everywhere I looked were signs of wealth and power. Some of her Christian friends had asked me to share Christ with her. She was polite and patient, finally explaining that she already had everything she wanted or needed and was not interested in religion. I shared the story of the rich seeker, the gift of God’s grace, and suggested that one day when her life was concluded she would wish for more than the evidence of her business successes. I went away heavy-hearted that day for a successful and attractive woman whose soul was empty. I pray that one day she experienced God’s love. Jesus’ words about the young man who went away, with grief still in his heart instead of God’s love, “Truly, I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 23). You can substitute other ideas for anything a person values above God.
We Americans greatly value our money and possessions. Wealth plays a key role in politics, in community privileges and leadership, in the “American dream.” As an English friend once told me, “You Yanks certainly have a strange custom of building storage units to hold all the stuff you can’t fit in your attics or garages!” I heard a television preacher the other day promising “God wants you to be successful, to have wealth, to live a life of joy and fulfillment … God will prosper you if you only believe!” The crowd was joyful! Is Jesus for wealth or against it? He said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24).
Money is not the problem, our attachments and values are the problem. Remember the young man’s original question: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (v. 16). Look again at Peter’s troubled question: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (v. 27). Our human DNA seems to drive us to earn, celebrate what is ours and hold on to it! Jesus is talking about trusting God with your life and spending your life sharing God’s love with others.
Jesus describes the goal of life entrusted to God in the present as well as the future. He points to “the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on the twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (v. 29).
Be careful how you read this promise. This picture of reward is not celebrating the division of families or suffering and loss as emblems of our spiritual superiority. This is a writing style contrasting the heartaches and inequities of this world with the amazing blessings of our new life in heaven. We tend to reduce heaven to a place of extreme worldly success and rewards, such as mansions and golden streets. When I try to imagine heaven I see the indescribable glory of God, the gathering of those who have blessed and guided me in this world, and our Savior welcoming us all home. The details cannot be adequately expressed in words. Everything will be different. “The first will be last, and the last will be first” (v. 30).
This passage is about both our possessions and God’s grace. Following Christ must be about more than attending church on Sunday and keeping the rules. The rich young ruler got it all wrong when he asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Ephesians 2:8-9 explains God’s gift of life: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not the result of works, that no one should boast.” The text seems to indicate the rich young man was already gone when Jesus answered the disciples’ question, “Then who can be saved?” (v. 25). I know of no comprehensive list of the things we must give up or do to experience God’s love. We simply open our heart to God, trusting and accepting his love. After that the Holy Spirit begins to apply God’s grace to our thinking, values, expectations and behavior.
Life in this world is complicated and the details are often beyond our explanation. But when we surrender life to God we begin to live according to the example and teachings of Jesus. No more pressure to observe every nuance of a law or observe complex rituals. The goal of the Christ-life is to be an example of God’s love, reach out to the oppressed, bring hope to the suffering and offer others the same grace you receive from God every day. Life is never about how much you possess. The bottom line is, are you held in the loving arms of God?
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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