12th January 2020 – Russell Baker – The Rich Young Ruler – Mark 10:17-31
I’ve never bought a scratch lottery ticket. But occasionally I’ve been given one by someone – as a gift or a “door prize”. I got one this week from my barber – it’s part of their loyalty card scheme.
A scratchy is an interesting item – it’s a piece of cardboard. It’s almost certainly worthless, but it could be worth thousands of dollars. Before you scratch it, it has an amazing potential value – after you scratch it, it’s trash.
In that time when you have it and you haven’t scratched it you can enjoy thinking of the possibilities. What would I do with all that money? All sorts of ideas come to mind.
Then, if I step back in my mind from those ideas, I can start to think about the way that I’m thinking – and this brings up other questions. What do these ideas and plans, these feelings that come with the scratchy, tell me about how I feel about money – about possessions – about what’s mine and what I am entitled to do with what I consider to be mine?
Today we’re meeting a man – a good man – who wanted to know about eternal life – who also had a lot of possessions.
What’s been happening for Jesus?
Earlier in chapter 10 we learn that Jesus has been in Judea and beyond the Jordan. He’s been answering challenges from the Pharisees on divorce and admonishing his disciples when they tried to send some mothers and children away. Later in the chapter Jesus will be heading to Jerusalem, and he’ll foretell his own death to his disciples. Between these things, Jesus was approached by a man.
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.
Who was this man?
The account of this meeting is recorded in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18. We know from Luke’s account that he was a ruler – we know from Matthews account that he was a “young man”.
We’re not told what this man was a ruler of – perhaps a regional official in Bethany beyond the Jordan – perhaps a member of a local religious council – perhaps, despite the location, he was, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, part of the ruling council from Jerusalem.
What else can we say about him? He was genuinely interested in learning from Jesus, and his question, unlike those earlier in the chapter, was not an academic or theoretical one – nor is there any hint of a trick or trap – this question was earnest and personal.
Falling to his knees, he asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is a good question, so far as it goes.
Even so, Jesus replies with a challenge – a correction – “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone”
Why Do You Call Me Good?
Why did this man call Jesus good? Well why wouldn’t he?
By any reasonable human standard, Jesus sure seemed to be good.
It makes sense that this man would look at Jesus as being a good man, And we are about to find out that this man was very committed to the idea of being good. But Jesus challenged this man’s whole perception of goodness.
Now we all know good people. “Relative goodness” is a thing, and it’s a real thing. (No that’s not about having a nice family.)
We all recognise human goodness. We reward it in our children. We seek it in ourselves. We quickly pass judgement on those who have done what is “not good”. We establish rules and rewards, we condemn and punish to control bad and we reward good.
It’s ok to recognise the good in people – people are made in the image of God, and this image is displayed every day, in so many beautiful ways. Jesus is not telling us to go around calling everything and everyone “bad”.
But there is “good” and there is “good”.
Jesus undercuts the human idea of being “good”.
Jesus makes the standard for goodness the holiness of God.
This is especially important in the context of eternal life – of entering the Kingdom of God. No one should think of themselves as good. No one is good but God alone.
This is true for the young ruler – and it’s true for us too.
When it comes to eternal life, do not put your confidence in the goodness of people – do not trust in your ability to achieve a goodness that will please God.
What does this mean for Jesus? Can Jesus be good if only God is good? That’s a question that’s left hanging here – we can fill in this blank, if we want to, by acknowledging that Jesus, being in very nature God, is the only truly good teacher that ever was.
But Jesus didn’t fill in this blank for the young ruler – instead, he challenged this man’s whole concept of goodness.
Then Jesus continued:
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.’
In Matthew’s account we also read: “love your neighbour as yourself”.
The commandments that Jesus started with were not a complete set – they are commandments that relate to other people – not directly to God.
Why would Jesus do this? We might expect Jesus to emphasise other commandments, such as:
- You shall have no other god before me
- Keep the Sabbath day holy
- Do not make a graven image
- Do not take the Lord’s name in vain
- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
I reckon we would expect that these commandments – the God-focussed ones – would be the ones to put first. That’s the way our religious thinking tends to run. But those important commandments were not the ones that Jesus chose to bring up with this man.
We’re not told why Jesus chose these commandments, so we can only ponder about his reasons. What we can say is that loving God and pleasing God is impossible when we do not have love and care for other people, who are made in God’s image.
How did the man respond?
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
When it comes to human goodness, this man was doing pretty well. We would be wrong to say he was lying to Jesus here. If he were, Jesus could easily have called out his hypocrisy. He could have shown how he was a white washed tomb. We know that Jesus was willing to do this for others.
Instead, Jesus accepted what he said about himself – Mark even records that Jesus loved this man. I am confident that as human law keeping went, this man was a really good person.
One Thing You Lack
You might think that the man would be feeling confident with Jesus response. He has been able to say – I’ve done that. Yet the man had a sense that this goodness was not enough. That’s why he was there talking to Jesus. In Matthew’s account, the man himself asked “What do I still lack?”.
The man lacks something – he knows it, and Jesus knows it.
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
There is one thing he lacks, but Jesus tells him to do three things.
Sell his possessions – sell everything – but not just so he had nothing – the goal was not a personal aesthetic life of poverty. For some people throughout history, and maybe even today, the idea of living a life of poverty has been seen as a really “spiritual” thing to do. I do not believe this is Jesus’ message at all. There was a positive reason for the man to sell his possessions that goes beyond getting rid of wealth.
Give to the poor – use his wealth for the benefit of others. Jesus wanted this man to use his wealth, to dispose of his wealth, in ways that helped and blessed others – in ways that dealt with poverty. Poverty was not some good thing to be sought, it was a need to be met by this wealthy man. Jesus even linked the promise of treasures in heaven with the man’s response to poverty. He told him to act to address the poverty of others.
Follow Jesus – doing “good” is no good without Jesus. It is not enough, even if the man did sell his possessions and do wonders for the poor, to just settle with this. There is no eternal life without Jesus. At that point “follow me” might have seemed like a call to be a travelling disciple. We know it was also a call to trust and believe in everything that Jesus will do to save his people and win them eternal life.
On hearing all this – the answer to his questions from the one who could bring him what he asked for… the man’s face fell… he walked away… because he had great wealth.
The young ruler walked away, and walked out of the written record, and as far as we can tell he turned his back on eternal life and the kingdom of God that thought he had been seeking.
The Eye Of The Needle
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”
Poverty is not some virtue to be sought – but wealth is a dangerous trap. Entry into the kingdom of God for people with wealth is harder than getting a camel through the eye of a needle. It can’t be done.
What is your mind set about your possessions?
Jesus doesn’t ask us to sell everything
Jesus does warn us that wealth is a deadly trap.
So, it’s just as well we’re not wealthy, right?
We can think of so many people who are way richer than us.
But wealth, like “being good”, is a relative thing… Some of us may have known real poverty, but many have always had everything we need for a comfortable life – everything and more…
What does our wealth look like?
It might look like money in the bank.
It might look like the things we own.
It often looks like over consumption – buying more than we need, having an excess of possessions, throwing out things that still work because we’ve got ourselves a newer, better version.
It might look like hoarding – collecting and protecting stuff that might not have much of a cash value, but sure has emotional value to us.
Our wealth may not look like much compared to Gina Rhinehart but it’s our wealth that endangers our souls. Entry into the Kingdom of God for a wealthy person is impossible.
I feel like I’ve heard more than a few talks and comments on this passage that seem to “let us off the hook” of Jesus’ challenging words. Words that make it look like this is all just an overstatement for effect – or words that suggest that this man must have had a particularly bad issue with wealth – it doesn’t matter for us.
I don’t think Jesus wants to “let us off the hook”. We should not look for a neat way of understanding this passage, or any other scripture, to make us feel comfortable.
I think this call of Jesus, and this warning, is for us, and it should have an impact for us. I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. I don’t think Jesus expects all his followers to be in poverty – remember the positive goal of alleviating poverty – but we can’t ignore what Jesus says here either.
We all have wealth, to some degree. We all are warned that our wealth is a barrier to eternal life. If we’re not all going to be in poverty, what other options are there?
Perhaps it’s not the wealth and possessions themselves – but the place they have in our thinking, in our hearts, that is the barrier to faith in Jesus. Do we trust in our wealth – in our possessions – for joy and security that we should be finding in God alone?
The scratchy… The extra day’s work… The income we earn or the payments we receive – how do we think about them?
It’s mine – I deserve it.
It’s a bonus – I’ll enjoy it.
I earned it – I’ll use it.
I am worried, uncertain, sad or lonely – this will make it better.
I think the threat that comes from wealth is what it does to our thinking and our beliefs – and it’s very easy to put your faith in wealth and possessions even if you don’t actually own very much.
The truth about our possessions is that whatever we have, it’s not our own. It’s held in trust. One day, sooner or later, we won’t have it any more – either in this life or at the end of it. While we have it, we are just custodians – stewards – people who are managing God’s wealth, not our own.
Probably, you personally don’t need to sell all you have and give to the poor to be able to follow Jesus. We all DO need to hand everything over to Jesus (NOT TO A CHURCH) and use everything with the mindset of being stewards.
It’s all God’s. I’m a steward.
What are my needs, really?
What else can I do with my wealth and possessions that I would be pleased to explain to my Saviour?
Can I use it to further God’s kingdom?
Can I use it to serve others?
How much should I use in order be responsible for myself and my family?
How can I use everything with great generosity?
What would it mean to me if I lost it, or had to give it away?
Who Then Can Be Saved?
I hope I’m not creating wriggle room that lets me, or you, off the hook from Jesus’ challenging words.
Nor do I want to give you a neat way of thinking that we CAN find a rule and follow it, a guideline that gives us the “one thing we lack” so we can make ourselves good enough for eternal life. That’s not what Jesus offered his disciples.
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Jesus answer to the confusion and discouragement of his disciples is not to show them how to get out of this warning or to make themselves good – but rather it is to say – God can do the impossible.
Our response to Jesus words should be to admit our inability and to fall into the grace that God offers us in Jesus. Our attachment to possessions must be replaced with an attachment to Jesus – and this type of heart change does not happen through our own power – it happens by the spirit of God renewing our hearts as we look to Jesus and find faith in Him.
Now And In The Age To Come
Just briefly, let’s look at the conclusion of this account. Peter had something else to say.
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
Matthew records that Peter also said, “What then shall we have?”
Jesus called his disciples – and calls us – to give up everything in order to gain what is better – to lose what we cannot keep and receive what we cannot lose. Jesus does not tell us we’re going have nothing when we follow Him. We’re going to have the best of all things.
Let’s look, really briefly, at what Jesus holds out to those who have suffered loss for his name:
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Blessings now – the fellowship of believers, the presence of God.
Blessings in the age to come – eternal life.
But remember – what looks good now won’t stand up in the kingdom of God – many who seem first will be last, and the last first.
There is too much here to dwell on now. I encourage you to come back to these final verses during the week, to pray about what Jesus has promised for his disciples in these words.
Being good enough for eternal life? We can’t do it.
Whether we have great wealth or not, it’s impossible for us. Eternal life comes by faith in the God who does the impossible through the power of His Spirit, through the work of Jesus.
The process of living this out is going to take a lifetime, and that lifetime will be one of getting it wrong, and coming to Jesus for grace, and hopefully growing in godliness, and knowing that even if we end up being pretty good people, we’re still not good. Only God is good.
What of that scratch lottery ticket? It holds lots of promise, but scratch below the surface and we know it will be worthless. What a waste.
What of that rich young man, that good man? It all looked so promising, but scratch below the surface, and all his legal righteousness was worthless. His heart was too attached to his wealth to let it go. There was no space for Jesus there. He walked away from Jesus, and walked out of recorded history, and that’s the last we know. What a waste.
What about you?