READ : Luke 18:22-23
He was a serious inquirer. Most of us would judge that he was not far from the kingdom of God. Listen to his story. I’m reading from Luke 18:18:
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: `Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'” And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. Jesus looking at him said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.”
A GREAT START
What a promising candidate for discipleship this ruler seemed to be. He was obviously asking the right question. He was concerned about eternal life. Perhaps he had heard Jesus speaking about that and found his heart stirred with a new hunger. He wanted to know more.
With him, it wasn’t idle curiosity either. He had the right attitude. He didn’t want to speculate about eternal life or get into an argument. He longed for this great blessing and seemed ready to go to any lengths to receive it. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” What preacher of the gospel wouldn’t rejoice to have someone come with that earnest question.
Further, the man was definitely on the right track. When Jesus reminded him of God’s commandments against adultery, killing, stealing, false witness, along with the call to honor father and mother, the man nodded his head eagerly. He was already trying to live this way. He could say (and Jesus didn’t seem to doubt his sincerity), “All these I have observed from my youth.”
It often seems in God’s dealings with people that when they are responsive to the light they have, they receive more. Think about Cornelius, a man we meet in the book of the Acts. Cornelius was a God-fearer. He invited Simon Peter to come to his house and explain the gospel. Cornelius showed himself a candidate for further light, and he received that in a marvelous way. Well, this man had certainly been attempting to live according to the light he had. From his earliest days, he had taken God’s commands seriously and sought to fulfill them. How many people do you know who with integrity could say that?
Most importantly, the ruler had come to the right person. If we have questions about salvation, about peace with God, about the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, Jesus is the One to ask. Simon Peter once put it this way, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). This man had the wisdom and the grace to recognize that. He came to Jesus for answers, submitted Himself to the Master’s teaching, and showed a high regard for his person, with the greeting, “Good Master.” Did anyone, we wonder, ever come to Jesus with better credentials than these?
The Lord’s response must have taken Him by surprise. It seems a bit unusual to us. Instead of acknowledging the ruler’s tribute, “Good Master,” Jesus challenged him. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The Lord was not rejecting this address as cheap flattery. Rather, He was raising the question of what it really means to be good, and urging that only God deserves that designation. Was Jesus hinting at His own identity here? Was He probing what lay behind the ruler’s way of greeting Him? Whatever we say about that, we’re struck by the challenge implied in Jesus’ words.
Then when the ruler said he had been seeking to keep the commandments from his early youth, Jesus made no acknowledgement of that. He accepted it, didn’t contradict it, but gave no positive response. If the inquirer was looking for affirmation, congratulation, there was surely none of that. Instead, he heard that he needed something more, “One thing you still lack.”
WHAT WAS MISSING
Can you imagine the man leaning forward now to catch the next words? He’s about to be told the secret of eternal life. He’s about to learn the one more thing that he needs for all the blessings of salvation to be his. Put yourself in his place. The Lord is about to tell you the key to your highest destiny. You’re all ears.
The ruler must have wondered what that missing something could be. Apparently to Jesus, resistance at one point can block the way to eternal life. Every person’s will has a central stronghold. It’s some part of our lives where our desire to be in control is most firmly entrenched, some place where we’re holding out against God. Sometimes we’re not even aware of that resistance. This ruler may not have had any idea what was about to come.
Here was the “one thing.” “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
It’s interesting to notice that one of the Ten Commandments Jesus had not specifically mentioned was the tenth, “Thou shalt not covet.” Now He raises that issue. He speaks to the one thing in this ruler’s life that remained a stumbling block: his possessions. He’s a very rich man. We don’t know how he acquired his wealth, whether by inheritance or by his own industry, but he had ample means. What was his attitude toward those? What kind of attachments did he have to them? To what extent had they won his affections? The call of Jesus would make all that plain.
There were really four instructions here. First, he was to convert all of his possessions into cash, then give all of that away to the poor, then come to Jesus, and follow Him. That was the movement needed in this man’s life for him to enter eternal life. That was the way: relinquish everything that stood in the way, and then make an unreserved commitment to follow Jesus. Along that road he would taste the life that is life indeed. And at the end of the way, an incomparable treasure in heaven.
There it was, the answer to his question. This is what he had been searching for all his life. But when the response came, the man wasn’t happy with it. Luke writes, “But when he heard this, he became sad for he was very rich.” Isn’t that a fascinating combination of words? He heard what Jesus said and it filled him with sadness. How could that be? Why would Jesus’ words have that effect upon him? Because he was very rich. Apparently his riches had not made him sad before. They had probably figured largely in his sense of well being, in his enjoyment of life. But now his riches make him sad – because of what Jesus had said to him. Now he saw that his riches could keep him from the Lord and from the kingdom of heaven.
The man had shown himself ready to obey the latter two commands of Jesus, “Come and follow me.” In a sense he had offered himself already as a volunteer. It was the first two that gave him such a problem, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor.” That would not have been difficult, I suppose, if he had been a pauper. Then it would have been a small thing for him to divest himself of his tiny store of possessions. But as it was, he had much. He owned land, houses, gold and silver in abundance. There was a lot to sell, a fortune to part with. This man could not bear the thought of letting it all go. Jesus had said all. And he had a lot to lose.
The thought that the poor would be enriched and blessed by this turn of events seemed to give him little comfort. And apparently, he didn’t even hear the promise Jesus gave him, “You will have treasure in heaven.” That failed to quicken hope within this man. Really, Jesus was asking him to trade one treasure for another, and that didn’t seem to him a bargain at all. What was treasure in heaven, some mysterious intangible heavenly reward compared with his sizable holdings on earth? Shall I let go all of this for that? He wasn’t ready for the trade. He decided to keep what he had.
Why then did he go away sad? It seems that he had believed in Jesus up to a point. He did desire eternal life. He was an earnest seeker for the way. The sadness was in this: he was deeply disappointed to find what it would cost him to enter into life.
THE MESSAGE FOR US
You ask me, “What does this mean? Does everyone have to do this to become a Christian, to become a child of God?” Jesus doesn’t say that. His call to discipleship took other forms with other seekers. Maybe that’s not required for you and me, but maybe it is. Let’s ask ourselves: what does Jesus see in my life which is a kind of substitute god to me? To whom or what am I looking for my happiness? On what am I depending for security? What’s the treasure most likely to capture my heart and keep me from the living God? That could be for me the one thing I lack. That’s what I’ll need to trade in if I’m going to be serious about following Jesus.
And He won’t leave me in the dark about what that is. If you and I come to Him and say, “Lord, I want to belong to You. I want to put my trust in You. I want to receive Your gift of eternal life. Show me what that means for my life,” He’ll let us know. He’ll show us that central stronghold where we still insist on having our own way and running our own life. He’ll show us what needs to go.
The ruler’s problem, you see, was at root a problem of faith. It wasn’t simply that he loved his possessions too much. It was that he believed the promise of Jesus too little. He couldn’t believe that Jesus had something for him infinitely more valuable than his wealth. Faith means that I find in Jesus Christ my true treasure, my chosen portion, my joy forever. Coming to Him, I esteem the blessings He gives as of more value than all the world beside. And so, whatever I may have to say goodby to, whatever I may have to let go of, won’t seem as important any more as it once did when I see Jesus.
The Lord had this to say as He looked at the ruler, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus loved this man. He wasn’t speaking with scorn and contempt. He was marveling at how difficult it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom. Why is it so hard for a rich man? Because he has so much to lose. Riches are such a formidable rival for God. They promise us so much in happiness and security. If this man so eager for eternal life, with so much going for him, couldn’t bring himself to part with wealth, who could?
There are other addictions – to alcohol, to drugs, to sexual compulsion, to the lust for power. None of these are stronger than what held this man. Riches don’t grip us by the chemical, by the hormonal, but by capturing our imagination and affections. To part with what we have can feel like letting our hearts be torn out.
It’s rare when anyone does this. Someone like a St. Francis or a C.T. Studd is touched like this now and then, but it takes a miracle of grace. As Jesus said, “With man it’s impossible. With God all things are possible.”
What can weaken that hold of riches on us? Sometimes the awareness that we’re about to lose something even more dear. Sometimes when we have a financial disaster and lose everything, as a friend of mine did, not long ago. It can wake us up to what’s really valuable. And every time we give something for Christ or for others, that hold of things on us gets a bit weaker.
Did this man eventually come back? I believe he did. Jesus, we read, looked on him and loved him. That sadness he felt was the Lord’s mark of love upon his soul. I think one day that led him to return. It made him face the fact that holding onto his money couldn’t give him joy. Once we’ve glimpsed the Lord’s grace, once we’ve heard His loving call, we’re spoiled for anything else. With all my heart I pray that that will be true for you and for me today.
Prayer: Yes, Father, that is our prayer, that You will enable us so to see the glory and grace that are in Christ, that we’re willing to let other things go. For His sake. Amen.