The Man Who Walked Away
Grace, Idolatry, Wealth
As we have worked our way through Luke 18 we have read a series of encounters and stories that have pointed us in the direction of a discipleship that is deeper than that which is usually embraced. In the account of the Pharisee and the tax-collector we learned that a prerequisite to be part of the Kingdom of God is humility. We need to come to Christ aware of our own inability to save ourselves.
Second, we were told that we were to receive the Kingdom like a child. To be a follower of Christ we must have a simple and unreserved commitment to the Lord. We must trust Him with the simplicity of a child.
This morning we will read about an encounter that shakes us to our core. A man we would look up to as a spiritual giant walks away from the Kingdom of God because the requirements are more than the man wants to embrace. It is a message that calls us to a discipleship that embraces Christ above everything else.
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
A Surprising Challenge
Consider this man. He was a leader. He may have been popular. We will soon learn that he was apparently successful. In addition to these things the man was also a man who tried to live in a way that honored God. He tried to keep the commandments. Most people would call him a good man, perhaps even a religious man.
This man hungered for more. He asked the right question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He came to Jesus because He recognized that He alone could answer that question.
The man called Jesus “Good teacher”. We don’t know whether the man was trying to flatter Jesus or whether he saw something in Jesus someone unique and sent from God. Jesus does not deny that He is indeed a good teacher but he wanted the man to see that the only One who is truly good is God.
Jesus answered the man’s question on how to receive eternal life by first pointing him to the Ten Commandments (or at least the last part of the Ten Commandments which deal with interpersonal relationships). The underlying message is: if you want the life only God can give, live the way God has commanded.
I believe the man was sincere in believing that he had kept the commandments. He was trying to live a good life. Unfortunately, like most people, he didn’t understand that the Ten Commandments are as much about the heart as they are about our external behaviors. Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount that the command about killing also addresses the issue of hatred. The command forbidding adultery also addresses lust. Stealing and lying can be part of gossip and misrepresentation. Coveting can take many different forms. Jesus does not go into this long explanation. Instead he zeros in on the main obstacle that stood between this man and a real relationship with God.
22 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.” 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.
The very first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me”. In other words we are to have no one or nothing that is more important or exerts a greater influence in our life than the Lord.
In this man’s case, his money was his god. It was his source of security. If the man really wanted to obey the commandments he had to start by letting go of his riches.
Is Jesus saying we have to give away everything before we can be saved? I don’t think that is the message. The Bible records the riches of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Job, David, and Solomon. Riches are not wrong in and of themselves. When riches become our security, our first love, or our driving ambition, it is an idol, taking the place of God. That’s when the material is a problem.
I think Jesus may have been making several points to this man. First, it is impossible to “earn” God’s favor. The man wanted to know what he could DO. Because of our sinful nature we are unable to do what is necessary for salvation. This man needed to come to Jesus like the tax-collector earlier in the chapter. He needed to come to Jesus and say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” So do we.
Our only hope of salvation is God’s mercy and His grace. We will never be able to work hard enough to earn God’s grace.
We should still work to eliminate idols from our lives. We should still seek to live by the Ten Commandments. However, we do not do so because we think we can earn Heaven. We should do so because we love the Lord. Saving faith involves loving the Lord above all else. Though we are imperfect in our obedience we should be pursuing the perfect standard.
Second, truly obeying God’s commands involves positive action. The man believed he had shown regard to other people because he didn’t do anything bad to them. Jesus wants him to understand that he also needed to take positive action.
To truly live with God’s heart means to do positive good toward others. The book of James calls us to extend practical help to others. He chastises us for merely praying for a person and doing nothing practically to meet their need.
We are the richest nation in the world. We are also the most self-indulgent nation of the world. I must confess that my list of necessities in life is obscenely long. Maybe your list includes Internet access, HD television, Cable, a microwave, two cars, a computer, a washer and dryer, the latest video game system, a certain size home, and a certain dollar amount in Savings. If one of these things were to be lost or break down . . . we would quickly replace it because we “need” it.
I don’t think Jesus would say that such things are bad, however, when these things become a barrier to reaching out to people who are truly hurting then we have missed the heart of God. In Christian circles we talk about “stewardship”. We are to view the material things of the world as tools that God has given to use to use for His glory. The question we should ask is this: Would we be willing to give up the “stuff” we have if God asked us to do so?
Third, to walk we Christ we need to get other things out of the way. In the case of this man, his riches were in the way of his coming to Christ. He needed to get rid of them. David Platt gets to the heart of the matter,
This brings us to the crucial question for every professing or potential follower of Jesus: Do we really believe he is worth abandoning everything for? Do you and I really believe that Jesus is so good, so satisfying, and so rewarding that we will leave all we have and all we own and all we are in order to find our fullness in him? Do you and I believe him enough to obey him and to follow him wherever he leads, even when the crowds in our culture—and maybe in our churches—turn the other way? (Radical Electronic version 315)
For many (maybe even most of us in America) our problem may also be riches and comfort. But it is also possible that it is something else,
- Pleasure. We choose feeling good over being faithful. We choose satisfying desires over pursuing holiness. When there is a conflict between what we want and what God commands, what we want wins out.
- Status. We are happy to “follow the Lord” as long as it enhances our status and doesn’t get in the way of our goals.
- Pride. We are willing to serve the Lord as long as it doesn’t involve being with people we don’t like or who might taint our reputation.
- Job. We can ask the same question: which comes first the job or the Lord?
- Politics. Will we serve the Lord only as long as it fits our political leanings?
The list could go on and on. The point is that anything that stands in the way of true devotion to the Lord is that which we must release in order to truly follow Him.
A Difficult Problem
When the man heard what Jesus said we are told that he became sad because he was very wealthy. The man wanted to be right with God but not if it meant giving up what was his source of identity and security.
24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Jesus is not condemning wealth. There were people in the early church who were wealthy and used that wealth to help support the new ministry. The problem with wealth (and understand that all of us are wealthy by the standard of the rest of the world) is that it tends to make us feel self-sufficient. We begin to trust our resources, our 401K’s, IRA’s, investments, salaries and stuff more than we trust the Lord. We feel like we can make it on our own.
The material world is very seductive. The pursuit of wealth can make us
- Define our values by profitability rather than whether something is right and pleasing to God. Some of our spiritual acts may even have profitability as a motive.
- Define happiness by external things rather than by a vibrant relationship with the Lord of life
- Twist our theology to justify our extravagance
- More concerned about our comfort than meeting the needs of the hurting and hungry.
- Put all our focus on living for the moment rather than laying up treasures in Heaven.
Having much is not a sin. Having little is not a sin. It’s all just stuff. What matters is where we attach our heart. The material is a tool that we use or it is an idol we worship.
The Best Investment
We (I) have a hard time with these words from Jesus because I like the toys of life. Our society applauds those who are successful (measured by net worth). Even the people listening had trouble with the words of Jesus
26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
We all tend to think that those who have much are “blessed”. There are theologies who teach affluence if proof of God’s blessing. It is not true. Affluence can be a blessing but it can also be a snare.
28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
29 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers 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.”
Notice that the Lord doesn’t address the disciples directly. Perhaps He was concerned that they too would put their confidence in their sacrifices rather than in the Lord. Instead, the Lord makes a general observation: “no one has given up anything without receiving much more now and in the future.
As we give our lives to the Lord what we get back is something better than what we gave. Note that this is not just a future promise . . . it is now and in the future. Jesus is not saying if you give of your money you will get more money. He is not saying if you give someone your house you will be give a bigger house. The promise is not that we will be given the same thing that we surrendered . . . we will receive a greater blessing.
Imagine you were in a parking lot of some retail store and you are running late. You see a woman who is really struggling with a package and has a flat tire. Your first instinct is to go about your business. However, you realize that you can show the love of Christ by helping this woman in distress. So, you go change the tire. You end up late for your appointment and are also all dirty. But suppose in talking to the woman you find out you have much in common. She offers to buy you a cup of coffee and you cancel you appointment and go inside to visit over coffee. You have a great time and decide to meet again. Before long you realize you have met the love of your life. You didn’t get your time back, you didn’t get new clothes but were you rewarded for your effort? Yes. The reward was different from what you gave but it was certainly better.
It is admittedly a corny illustration. However, suppose you sacrifice to support a mission project and that mission is used by God to lead people to eternal life in Christ. Is that a reward on your investment? It is different but better. Suppose you show friendship to a person who is drifting from the faith and as a result they come back to the Lord. Is that a reward greater than your investment? It is. Our present sacrifices will bring eternal rewards. Some will be seen in this life, others in the next.
Many of us have seen investments made over a long period of time all of a sudden lose their value because of the change in the stock market. Investing is always a gamble. The point Jesus is making is this: investing in the Lord is a sure fire investment. God will always see and multiply that which we truly invest in His Kingdom.
Let’s try to be practical. What is it that we should take away from this text? I want to suggest a few things. First, we must recognize the nature of the true gospel. Think about how we might have been tempted to answer this man when he asked, “What I can I do to receive eternal life?” We might have given him some theological bullet points, said a prayer, and considered the deal sealed! That wasn’t the way of Jesus. He called people to do more than express faith; He called us to live by faith by following Him. He made sure they understood the nature of the commitment to follow Him.
We should certainly explain the gospel as simply as possible and I encourage you to pray with a person. However, we must make sure that we are bringing people to a point of discipleship. Bringing people to Christ involves leading them to a commitment and also teaching them how to walk with Christ.
Second, we must look at our own hearts. I am painfully convicted by this passage. It forces us to ask an eternally important question: are we willing to follow Christ fully and above everything else in our lives? Are we turning to Him because we hope he will help us reach OUR goals or are we seeking to accomplish HIS goals? Are we willing to buck the pressures of society and go the way of Christ? Are we willing to adjust our own lifestyles so we can help others? Are we willing to adjust our calendars to His priorities as stated in the Bible, or will we continue to adjust the requirements of faith to suit our convenience and desires?
Let me give you a preliminary action plan.
- Ask God to show us the things that stand in the way of true commitment to Him then ask Him to help us change. Like the rich young ruler, it may be hard to hear the truth. Let’s listen carefully. If you listen God will communicate. And rather than get discouraged, let’s ask God to help us trust Him more fully. Instead of justifying our behavior (which we all do), let’s face it and work toward real change.
- Make progress. I find that I am sometimes paralyzed by all the things that need to be corrected in my life. I feel like I need to move a mountain and all I have is a shovel. We can get discouraged by the size of the task or we can start moving the mountain one shovelful at a time. So here’s the challenge: make progress. Work at surrendering more of your life to the Lord. It may be giving an hour or two more a week to the Lord. It may be giving a little more financially to some ministry or need. Perhaps you need to make that phone call to address a festering problem or maybe you can work on letting go of a past hurt. Maybe you need to make worship a higher priority in your life. Maybe you need to make time for God in your day. Perhaps you need to change the things you do for “fun”. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by how far we are from perfection, seek to make progress.
- Read the Bible responsively. Rather than just reading the Bible to gain information, read it looking for God to lead you. For example when you read a passage about controlling the tongue don’t just underline it . . .look for ways to obey that command. When the Bible tells you to “not be conformed to this world” look at your life and identify the areas where you are becoming like the people around you rather than becoming more like Jesus. Take specific steps to address those areas in your life. Let God speak to you in His Word and in prayer.
I’ve read that one of the ways hunters catch monkeys is to put something in a container with a narrow opening to which the monkey is attracted. The monkey will put his hand in the container but cannot withdraw it without letting go of his prize. Since he will not let go of what he has gained, he is trapped and easy to capture. In the story of the rich young ruler we discover that Satan uses the same tactic with us. Let’s take a lesson from the monkeys: If we want to know salvation and new life, if we want the incredible freedom and blessings of God, we first have to let go of the treasures of the world.