What Got in My Way

Once again, my computer has been hacked, and this story just appeared out of nowhere. Go figure.

Let me introduce myself: I am the person known as the “rich young ruler” or the “young man” who came to see Jesus. [1]. My story must be important because Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all report my interaction with Jesus (Matthew 19:18-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-34). By reading my story in the first three Gospels, you can learn a good deal about me.

The Rich Young Ruler

First, I was rich. In my day, riches were mostly an inherited thing. Many people like me lived in cities or towns, but we had farms in the country. Some of us had businesses in the city. I can’t remember exactly how I got my money, but I was wealthy. My parents had inherited wealth, and our family had improved upon it.

Second, I was young (Luke 18:18). In my day, it was hard to be a leader under the age of thirty.  In Jewish thinking, a male became a man at thirty. Perhaps it was for this reason that thirty was the age at which Jesus began preaching. In addition, thirty was the age a person like me might become a member of the Sanhedrin—the supreme council of my people. No one was made a leader before thirty or so. As far as I can remember, that’s about how old I was.

Third, I was a “ruler.” This could mean a variety of things. Perhaps I was a member of the Sanhedrin. That would have been quite an accomplishment! Perhaps I was a ruler of my local synagogue. That would still have been a great achievement. For whatever reason I was recognized as a leader.

Finally, I was religious. I was what you would call an “observant Jew.” In my day, we were called “Pharisees.” There were over 600 laws in the Torah my people followed. I tried to follow all of them, faultlessly. And actually, I was pretty good at it. 

Scripture and Prayer

I want to tell you about my contact with Jesus. Before I do, I’m going to read my story from your Bible. As I said, my story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but I’m reading from Matthew.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, 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.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first(Matthew 19:16-30).

Prayer:Lord God: please come by the power of your Holy Spirit that in the hearing of this story our souls might be changed and become more like you. In Jesus name, Amen.

My Encounter with Jesus

As best I can remember, my story occurred while Jesus was traveling around the Judean countryside preaching the gospel (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:13). People came out from surrounding cities and towns to hear him. While Jesus was in my neighborhood, being curious, I went to hear what he had to say. I was impressed! I was a very serious Jew. I respected the Pharisees and the leaders of my people, and I believed that our scriptures provided way to eternal life. But, like any serious person I had my questions.

As I listened to Jesus answer questions from the religious leaders, I began to feel that he might be right. For example, when our religious leaders were questioned Jesus about divorce, instead of answering according to our laws, he answered according to the heart. He pointed out that most of the time the reason we get divorced has to do with hardness of heart (Matthew 19:1-12). So much of our religion had to do with externalacts of righteousness that we forgot the heart. Jesus seemed to always point to the heart.

Some of you might be like me. You haven’t accepted Jesus, but you’re interested enough to listen. Frankly, that’s just fine!

Jesus’ Response to My Question

Like some of you, I was confused by the words of Jesus. Sometimes, it seemed to me that Jesus was teaching that the moral law was not important. When I got my turn, I asked him, “Good Teacher, What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”(Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18). You see, as a Pharisee, I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and that those who are righteous would experience eternal life. I also believed that obeying the moral law was the key to Eternal Life.

Jesus made a surprising answer to my question! He asked me why I called him good, since only God is good (Matthew 19:17). He didn’t answer my question, something he did on and off to other people, for example Nicodemus (John 3). I did not understand at the time, but I think I do now: Jesus was pointing out that all of us are sinners. No human being is ever completely good. We all have our faults. At the time, I was prideful about what a good person I was. I didn’t understand human nature. But, I do now. I was not as good a person as I pretended to be.

As if to show me that the law was important, he shared that I should obey the Ten Commandments. He told me I should avoid stealing, lying, adultery, murder and the like (v. 19). This is where I made a mistake that showed my pride. I actually thought that I could go through life and obey the law of God perfectly, earning my salvation. Today, I know that’s not possible.

But that day, instead of admitting my human frailty, I told Jesus that I had obeyed all the Torah since my earliest days (v. 20). While it’s true that I had never murdered anyone, I certainly had been angry enough to murder. While it’s true that I had never committed adultery, I had looked at women with lust. While it’s true that I was not a liar, it’s not true that I always told the truth. Jesus knew all this about me. He knew I was trying to be good; he knew I was a nice young man. Your scripture says that he loved me, and he did (v. 21).

Then, Jesus then said something I didn’t expect. He told me that I only lacked one thing: I needed to go and sell all my possessions and give them to the poor (v. 21). I and, everyone around me, thought this was unusual. You see, in my culture wealth was seen as a sign of righteousness. [2]. Our wisdom literature is full of promises that, if one is righteous, one will become wealthy (see Proverbs 3:9-10). However, Jesus could see what the people of my country often could not see: Wealth can become an idol, something we worship. To be frank, that was my problem. I was proud of the fact that I came from a good and wealthy family. I was proud of my possessions and position in society. My wealth had become a kind of power over me.

There’s one other thing about what Jesus said that was unusual: Nowhere in Jewish scriptures does it ever say that a person must give away his wealth to receive eternal life. As I pondered what Jesus asked me to do, I realized again that he was pointing beyond the law to the condition of my heart. Jesus wanted my heart to be fixed on God and God alone. He was warning me that anything that got between me and God was trouble. He knew I couldn’t give away my money, so he directed me to the condition of my heart. I went away sad. I knew that if this is what eternal life would cost me, I couldn’t do it.

The End of the Story

I went away sad.

Neither the Pharisees nor the disciples could believe their ears! This is where Jesus spoke one of his most famous phrases: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”(v. 25). The disciples were amazed and disturbed! (v. 26). If a rich man, who to our way of thinking had been blessed by God for his righteousness, could not enter the kingdom of God, who could?

Jesus had expressed a great truth: It is hard for people who have money to not make money and idol and miss God’s kingdom(v. 23). Now, as your pastors have told you, the Kingdom of God is a mysterious thing. While it’s true that we experience eternal life when we die, the Kingdom of God is something we can experience right now. The Kingdom of God exists wherever and whenever God is in control. The Kingdom of God exists in every heart that accepts Jesus, follows Jesus, and puts God first. It doesn’t exist perfectly this world, but it does exist.

After sharing how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus got to the point: He told his disciples, “With man it is impossible but with God everything is possible”(v. 27). The point Jesus was trying to make is that we cannot find God’s kingdom, either here on earth or in heaven, by our own power. We need the grace of God. That’s why Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). That’s why the Reformers said we were saved by grace alone! We are completely dependent upon God eternal life. This was the point all along: God’s grace can do what we human’s cannot hope to do, rich or poor.

Does this mean that it doesn’t matter what we do in this life? Jesus answered that question. When Peter mentioned that he and the rest of the disciples had left everything for God, Jesus encourage them, telling them that no one who follows him and gives up everything to do so will receive a reward (Matthew 26-31).

A Final Word

Well, that’s my story. The people always ask pastors if they think that I eventually came to the Lord Jesus and received the gift of eternal life. The Bible doesn’t say, and I’m not going to say more than the Bible says. What I can say to you is what I’ve come to understand over the centuries: Money is powerful. [3]. It has the power to distort how we relate to God, our friends, our families, our coworkers, and our fellow citizens. Money can become a God. It had become my God.

We can worry too much about the future. Your pastor is at retirement age, and he’s told me that he worries about money much more now than he ever did when he was twenty-five years old! Jesus reminded us that we should not worry about the future. The future is in God’s hands. God has provided for the birds of the air, for the animals on the land, and for the fish in the sea. As Matthew says, we don’t need to worry about these things. (4:25-32). If we put God first and seek God’s Kingdom first everything we really need will be provided for us. We may not get rich, as I was, but we will have everything we need (v. 33).

There is something else we need to remember: Money doesn’t last forever. One of the Wisdom writers, the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we are all going to die.  We are all going to leave our money to someone else, and a good bit of the time that someone else will waste the money we worked so hard to gather. [4].  All this means that we need to keep our money in perspective. We need to use it wisely in this life, and remember that it is not of eternal  value. Part of using it wisely is not to allow it to dominate are thinking, our time, our talents, and or energy. When we do that, we make a great mistake. I know this, because it happened to me.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[1]. There are many good commentaries on the Gospels that give insight into this story. I have consulted William Hendricksen, “Matthew” in New Testament Commentary(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973). While I do not necessarily agree with everything in any commentary, this is a good commentary that I frequently consult.

[2]. See,Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Righteous Rich of the Old Testament” in The Other Journal https://theotherjournal.com/2010/08/05/the-righteous-rich-in-the-old-testament/(Downloaded September 27, 2018).

[3]. See, Jacque Ellul, Money and Power(Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1984). This book is absolutely the best treatment of the power money has over us and it’s spiritual danger to Christians.

[4]. Wisdom writers understood that all the blessings promised were uncertain and passing. Wealth, even as a blessing from God, cannot satisfy the desire of the human soul for eternity. It belongs only to this earth. See, Ecclesiastes 1:18-26; 3:9-19; 5:8-6:12.

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