The Rich and the Kingdom of God: Luke 18

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.”

Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

1.  What must I do to inherit eternal life is a recurring question. It’s similar to the question two weeks ago about who is my neighbor. Both men wanted to know how much or maybe how little they had to do to inherit eternal life. 

2.  In Matthew 19 he says “What good thing must I do?”

I know this person. You know this person as well – some of you more than others. In the law there are 613 mitvoth – laws within laws – that must be obeyed…but there is always one more. Now that I have obeyed them all and still feel unsure there must be something I am missing. “What other good thing must I do?” It’s not unlike Paul’s discovery on Mars Hill that the Greeks had a statue for the unknown god – just to make sure. They knew there were more because there are never enough gods or rules or requirements.

There is a difference in the motivation of desiring eternal life for the joy it will bring and desiring eternal life to avoid the punishment of hell. I remember a few experiences when I was young with evangelists who never talked about the joys of eternal life as much as the tortures of an eternity in hell. I had little time to think about the joys as I was fearful of what would happen if I did not go forward that night. The only grace in that message was knowing the bus would wait until I made a decision. The fear of hell creates a whole different relationship with God than the anticipation of being in his welcoming presence.  While there is really very little in the New Testament about the fires and punishments of hell it could be that the young man had been in the crowd just shortly before when Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is in hell where he was in torment asking Abraham to allow Lazarus to give him the tiniest bit of relief.  Remember the response, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received good things while Lazarus bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to us.”

Just hearing that story would make a young rich man have cause to question whether there was something he needed to do to end up like Lazarus and not like the rich man. But maybe he also heard the story of the tax collector and the Law abiding Pharisee and did not want to end up like that Pharisee. How much is enough? How much is too much? He has his whole life ahead of him but he is already worried about how he will spend eternity. It’s not uncommon, is it? How can he enjoy his life now that he has to worry about whether he will go to heaven or hell – especially if you are as concerned about being a good enough person as he is.

But, like all of us, he wanted to make sure he was covered and had not left out anything. For some it is wanting to reduce all the complexity of life to the simplest form. If you attend leadership seminars you’ll hear “six key traits of a leader”. People want to find the “one thing” that matters more than anything else. I don’t want to waste my life on the non-essentials.

For some it is a genuine desire for goodness but we keep discovering parts of ourselves that are not good. What if this one part of my life disqualifies me? Why do I never feel good enough? I like the way Mark describes the young man in his account. “He came running and fell on his knees at Jesus’ feet.” He was desperate for relief. I think Mark has a special affinity for this young man because of his own story of failure with Paul and his own desperate need to redeem himself in the eyes of others. Mark’s account is also the one place we read, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” If we did not know the end of the story we would guess that it would end well. Everything points to that – a desperate need and the irresistible love of Jesus. 

There is something in all of us that tells us we are lacking one thing. There is always something missing. It can be a clue about heaven “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” It can be a taste of hell as well to know that we will never be good enough. 

The search for one thing more leads in many directions:

For some it leads to envy. “If I had what they have I would be good enough.”

For some it leads to lust.

For some it leads to adventure. “What I’m looking for is somewhere else.”

For some it leads to giving up things and self-sacrifice

None of those work. There is always the sense that one thing more would make me secure or accepted or content or satisfied.

For some wealthy people the constant exposure to people asking them to do more leaves them asking “What more can I do? Why is it never enough? Why am I disappointing people’s expectations?”

A couple who had made a major donation found themselves the target of constant appeals for more money. While they thought making the donation would bring them joy it brought them the attention of everyone wanting something from them. I remember their saying to me one day, “When can we go back to the life we had before? Will we ever be able to give enough?”

How much is enough is not just a question about money. It is a question all of us ask because we don’t want to end up falling short on whatever it is that pleases whoever we are trying to please – especially God who refuses to give us the list. How much doing good is enough?  Maybe that is why Jesus questioned him about his definition of good by asking, “Why do you call me good?” The young man had looked at all Jesus had done and thought Jesus must surely be good in order to do those things. Being good must mean doing enough good things.  

I’ve written about a lunch I had with a friend and he asked me, “What are you doing that is going to let you hear ‘well done’ from God?” he asked. Normally I would have a list of accomplishments to illustrate my productivity and desire to hear God’s approval when the time comes. Not wanting to be the one who buried the investment in the ground, I had been focused for years on being found not only faithful but productive and useful. I may not be the one who received ten times what had been given, but I was determined not to be reprimanded for doing nothing. The prospect of being cast into the outer darkness was not in the plot for me.

Instead, what I heard myself saying was absolutely foreign. My internal editor must have stepped away for coffee. “I’ve already received my well done,” I told him. “When I accepted the grace and work of Christ I also received His ‘Well Done’ from the Father. I cannot do anything more. All I can do now is work out of gratitude – not out of trying to please God any further.”

I don’t know where I heard it but I like this: “The good life exists only when you stop wanting a better one.” Maybe the same is true that eternal life starts when you stop wondering what more you need to be doing to avoid hell and finally rest in the love of Christ.

3.  What’s the answer Jesus gives him? Sell everything, give the proceeds to the poor and follow me.

Prosperity knits a man to the world. He thinks he’s finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him,” wrote C.S. Lewis. The young man had become knit not only to money but to the privileges, the esteem, and the benefits of wealth. To be regarded as poor after being rich would have been too much. To be rich was to be blessed. To be poor was either to be pitied or disregarded. He could not have handled being that. He wanted more than money, didn’t he? He wanted even more of what he already had. He wanted to hear “Well done.”

Jesus does not say that to everyone who is wealthy – only to this young man because it is not only his wealth but his desire to be “good enough” that stands between him and life. In fact, goodness may be a bigger obstacle than wealth. Being focused on good enough is a mindset that is harder to remove than greed or lust. It almost requires a miracle of its own. 

I suspect it is also the hesitation he must have felt in joining a group of people who clearly are not good. After all, don’t they break the Sabbath rules? Isn’t Matthew a tax collector? Who would want to be associated with those people? Association with them would offend every conviction he had about being a good person. It was not just about wealth but about so much more in his life he wanted to keep that he would be giving up to follow. 

“Follow me” and not follow more rules or do one more good thing is the answer for him and for us as well. Turn loose of anything that keeps you from following.

4. There are a number of stories of wealthy men in the gospels and only one of them ends well. That’s the story of Zaccheus. It’s interesting to compare the two.

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Zaccheus is merely curious. He is a spectator. He is not driven to find an answer about being good enough. He wants nothing from Jesus. He’s not looking for one thing more. Likely he gave up on that years ago.

Zaccheus is probably not an inheritor. He understands what it is to earn your money – even at the expense of cheating and betrayal.  He is certainly not a ruler and far from respected.

Zaccheus responds immediately without being asked. Jesus never tells him to give any of his possessions to the poor or pay back any of those he has cheated. Almost before they even get to his house Zaccheus says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” The money has less hold on him than the young man. He experiences a rare kind of joy in turning loose.

Why was it so easy for a despicable tax collector to find joy and so impossible for a good person to do the same? Why does a good man go away sad and the other so undeserving experience salvation?

I wish the rich young ruler could have met, known and felt the joy of Zaccheus. Had he followed he would have. I wish he could have followed and met the blind beggar, the poor widow in the Temple and traded a life of constant striving for enough goodness for a life of contentment and grace. 

I like to believe that, like John Mark’s own story, the plot of this young man’s life is re-written somehow and as an older man he discovered something better than goodness and wealth. I like to think he finally was caught by the relentless and, in the end, irresistible love of Christ. He discovered that Christ above all else could be trusted and that underneath are the everlasting arms.

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