A Rich Young Man

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 18:15-30

If you had been able to encounter Jesus in the flesh, do you think you would have been attracted to him or turned away from him? It’s an interesting question, and the answer might depend on what he demanded from you.

There isn’t a scene in the New Testament with more charm and appeal than this one from the Gospel of Luke:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross, but he stops long enough to bless some children who were brought to him by their parents. In fact, he even rebukes his officious disciples for trying to interfere with the encounter (v.15), and he follows that up with his famous welcome, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (v.16). That is touching and heartwarming, and it has provided the subject for many a nursery picture, but we must not miss the point of this scene by focusing too much on its heartwarming, attractive, sort of romantic, aspect. In his blessing of the children Jesus was trying to say something important about salvation, and how to receive it.

HOW TO ENTER THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

Jesus gives us an important clue to his thinking in the comment he made to his disciples about these children: “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). In order to be saved, to “enter the kingdom” (Matthew) or “receive the kingdom” (Luke), we must somehow become like children. Let’s think about that. What did Jesus mean by that?

Well to begin with, let’s be clear that Jesus is not speaking about literally becoming children, or trying to pretend we are not adults with adult needs and adult questions. He did say, after all, we needed to be childlike, not childish. Nor did Jesus intend us to understand from this that we must strive to develop some of the qualities of a child, such as innocence or purity or a simple, childlike faith. That’s often the way it’s interpreted, but I think it’s wrong. After all, children can be viewed in many ways. Sometimes they are sweet and loving and trusting, and willing to take things on faith if they can’t understand it, but they can also be stubborn, self-centered, willful and cruel. Children are no more free from sin than adults are. Jesus isn’t holding children up as models of innocence. His point wasn’t that the disciples should try to develop certain child-like characteristics. I think his point was that we all have to be willing to become what a child, in itself, was, at least what it was in Jesus’ culture. The key thing was the position of the child, not its subjective qualities.

In the ancient world children were non-entities. They had no status or importance – which, incidentally, is why the disciples were turning them away. They had clear ideas about who was worth Jesus’ time and attention, and children obviously weren’t. But they were thinking the way the world does. That’s how it is in the world. “Nobodies” don’t get to spend time with important people. Only “somebodies” do. But in the kingdom of God things are different. While it’s the self-assertive and self-important who advance in the world, it is the self-denying and self-abasing who are able to enter the kingdom. In order to meet Jesus, you must give up your pretensions to importance and be willing to become a nobody – in other words, to become like a little child. A little child has only what it has been given. It does not have the strength to take, to provide for itself. That’s exactly what we must become in spiritual terms. To enter the kingdom we must be willing to receive it the way a baby receives everything, without grabbing or claiming ability or merit, not as a reward or a prize, not as a result even of our own efforts, but simply as a gift, a gift from God. “To receive the kingdom as a little child,” said one scholar, “is to allow oneself to be given it” (C.E.B. Cranfield).

ONE WHO WOULD NOT FOLLOW

As Now this is really the prelude, this little picture of Jesus blessing the children, Jesus receiving the children of an encounter that follows immediately after it in the Gospel of Luke. Just as Jesus was finishing his blessing of the children, someone else approached him.

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: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do 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 a man of great wealth. 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 a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

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

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

Luke 18:18-27, NIV

It’s no coincidence that the story of the young man we usually call the rich young ruler follows in the Gospel of Luke immediately after Jesus’ spiritual object lesson with the little children. The first three Gospels all tell the story of this young, important and wealthy man’s encounter with Jesus. Luke describes him as “a certain ruler.” Matthew calls him “a young man,” and all three gospel writers mention his great wealth; hence the popular designation for him: “the rich young ruler.” I think maybe in today’s world he’d be a successful young businessman, an upwardly mobile professional person, a leader in his community. The encounter this man had with Jesus provides a haunting illustration of the truth that Jesus has just been emphasizing: the only way into the kingdom of God is to humble yourself to become like a little child, and to accept it as a gift.

The young man is a very appealing figure in many ways; in fact, one of the gospel accounts says explicitly that when Jesus looked at this man he loved him. He seemingly had it all: he had position and prestige. In fact, the word ruler in Luke’s description of him is a title that indicates membership in the upper class. He also had wealth, and he had character. His claim to have kept all the commandments was probably true, at least mostly in a superficial sense. He combined attractiveness, wealth and status with moral integrity, the sort of man everybody could look up to, and even envy.

And on top of all that, the man seems to have been very serious-minded, and interested in spiritual matters. He came earnestly to Jesus with a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Actually, I find two things a little surprising about that question. The first is the way Jesus brushes off the way the man addresses him. “Why do you call me good,” he asked him. “No one is good except God.” Now I don’t think Jesus is trying to run himself down here, as if he had no right to be considered good himself, nor do I think that he was trying to distance himself from God and put a contrast between God and himself. Rather, I think that Jesus is trying to get this man’s attention right from the start, even to shock him a little. I think Jesus wants to break through the young ruler’s rather self-satisfied attitude, to rattle his complacency. It’s apparent to me that the young ruler, for all of his seriousness, all of his moral earnestness, nevertheless thought pretty highly of himself. Perhaps he was intending to extend his blanket of approval to embrace Jesus as well. “Well, Jesus, you and I, we know what good is, and we embody it. So let’s have this talk about eternal life.” But Jesus would have none of that. He rejected the man’s casual assumption that he knew all about goodness and moral superiority.

The other thing that surprises me about the question which the rich young ruler put to Jesus is the fact that he did it at all. I mean, wouldn’t most people in his place have assumed that they already had eternal life? He was moral. He kept the law from his boyhood. No rebelliousness in this man’s past. He respected God, and was respected by people. He was obviously physically, financially. What made this man think he still needed anything? Why did he believe that something was lacking in order for him to be sure of having eternal life? I wonder if the rich young man was serious when he asked the question, or whether he was really looking not for information Jesus but for reassurance from Jesus, maybe even praise. Could it be that this man expected Jesus to say something like, “What must you do to inherit eternal life? Why, nothing, my boy! A fine young man like you? You’ve already got everything you need; you’re in!” Or did this man somehow, deep down, feel that something was still lacking, that he still did need something? Was he not satisfied by all of his morality, all of his wealth, all of his prestige? Perhaps it was even the meeting with Jesus that made the rich young ruler sense that something was missing, that made him uneasy in the midst of all his attainments, and caused him to realize that, no, he didn’t quite have it all just yet. So he came to Christ looking for more.

He was quite right to do so, for despite all that this man was and all that he had, the young ruler did lack something. What he lacked was the one thing necessary to provide eternal life, and that “one thing” (v. 22) is really everything. Jesus tells him how to get it. Actually it’s really quite simple: just “Come, follow me.” That’s the gateway, the door, into salvation and everlasting life.

But first there was something that had to be gotten out of the way, an obstacle standing between the rich young man and following Jesus. To enter the kingdom of God one must be willing to be humbled, remember, like a child, to be stripped of everything in which one’s trust is placed, and be brought to absolute dependence on Christ. One must receive this gift to allow ones self to be given it. Jesus had once told his followers that the door into the kingdom of God was narrow. The way to heaven was hard. He meant that we have to give up all the baggage we’re lugging around and stoop low to enter it. If there is anything more dear to us than Jesus, we can’t follow him. So Jesus put it to the man straight: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come along with me” (v. 22). It turns out that the man couldn’t do it. Something there was that this man loved more than Christ, something he wanted more than eternal life, something he did not feel he could leave behind in order to follow Jesus. It was his money. Jesus told the man he had to give it up; and he couldn’t do it, or would not; so he left in sorrow (v. 23).

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That was Jesus’s sad comment on the whole encounter, and that actually shocked those around him as much as his reception of the little children had done. They all believed that wealth was an indication of God’s approval, and that someone as outwardly favored as the rich young man must be particularly blessed. But it isn’t so. God looks with favor upon the lowly; the proud he sends empty away. That’s a hard lesson for most of us to learn, but I can’t think of anything more important to understand.