READ : Luke 18:26-27
Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Luke 18:26-27 RSV
WHAT MADE THEM WONDER
It was a puzzled, pained question. The disciples had just heard something from Jesus that shocked them profoundly. This is what He 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” (vv. 24-25). That sparked the question: “Who then can be saved?”
It was generally held in Israel that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. Poverty, on the other hand, was seen as a sign of His displeasure – a kind of punishment. As far as opportunities to learn the Torah were concerned, or means to buy the best sacrificial offerings, surely the rich were in a better position to please God than anyone else. If they couldn’t enter the Kingdom, what hope was there for anyone else?
The question had special gravity for the disciples because of what they had just witnessed. A wealthy ruler had come to Jesus calling Him “good master,” asking how he could inherit eternal life. When Jesus had pointed him to the Ten Commandments, it turned out that the man had been trying to keep them from his youth. If there ever was a seeker after truth, a likely candidate for the Kingdom, it was this man. But now he had gone away sorrowing at Jesus’ call. And the Lord had remarked how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. In the eyes of the disciples, this ruler had everything in his favor. I can imagine that most ministers today would have regarded him as a prize candidate for the pastor’s membership class. But Jesus seems to say that he will never make it into God’s Kingdom.
Who are the rich that Jesus has in mind here? Are they simply the Sam Waltons, the Ross Perots of the day? Or do they include a wider circle? In some parts of the world, you’re regarded rich if you have a pair of shoes or a change of clothes. People living at what we call the poverty level in the U.S.A. actually have more than the great majority of fellow earth-dwellers. Who are the rich?
Here in the U.S.A., we’re looking toward a political campaign in which the national economy will be a major theme. I heard on the radio just the other day about the economic pain on Main Street, U.S.A. I don’t question the reality of that pain for many people. Thousands have lost their jobs, with seemingly little hope of securing a new one. Many who work for the minimum wage simply don’t have enough money to meet their obligations. But not all the cries of pain are coming from people in those circumstances. Many who have good jobs and earn better than average wages are not at all content with their financial situation and are casting about for someone to blame.
A sociologist friend of mine talks about what he calls, “the adaptation level phenomenon.” The idea behind that verbiage is that our feelings of success and failure, of prosperity or poverty, are all relative to what we have experienced in the past. If we become more prosperous, we soon adapt to that situation and consider it to be normal – about what we have a right to expect. And so despite the substantial increase in real buying power during the past several decades, the average American is not appreciably happier. Once we achieve gains and successes, they quickly become our expectations. After a while, if we can’t better those, we feel deprived. Then when we take the further step of comparing ourselves with those who have more, discontent grows. We’re not “getting ahead.” The result is that we indulge in “poor talk” and become insensitive to the need of those who are truly impoverished. Some of us are rich without even knowing we are and without enjoying it much. It’s doubly painful then to be told how hard it is for rich people like us to enter the Kingdom.
IMPOSSIBLE WITH MEN
When the disciples asked Jesus “Who then can be saved?” this is how He responded. Luke 18:27: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Jesus says flat out that entering the Kingdom of God is impossible for us. That gives us a clue as to what He means when He talks about the camel going through the eye of a needle. I’ve heard many ingenious attempts to make this “impossible” of Jesus into something merely “improbable” or “fairly difficult.” In one of these, the “camel” becomes a kind of rope. It’s hard to get that through the eye of a needle, true, but conceivable. To someone else, the “eye of a needle” becomes a small opening in a wall which a person can only enter by kneeling down and laying aside every burden. That’s inconvenient, even humbling, perhaps, but definitely manageable. Jesus is talking, however, about a real live camel and an ordinary sort of needle. And that’s how the disciples understood Him. That’s why they were so dismayed.
Entering God’s Kingdom was made to seem impossible for even the most advantaged in Israel. Calling Jesus “Good Master,” asking religious questions, trying to keep the Commandments, wanting to go to heaven, none of that seemed to do any good. The man who said he had kept all the other commandments, this ruler who came to Jesus, tripped over the tenth command, “Thou shalt not covet.” Apparently, if we want to enter heaven by keeping God’s commands, we need to obey all of them all of the time.
Is that easy to do? Hardly! Listen to Jesus’ summary of God’s Law in the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). I once set out to explain that to a man I was seeking to lead to Christ. I tried to help him see what it would mean to love God first and best with his whole being, in every part of life. After I had sketched that in as challenging a way as I could, I asked him if he thought he had measured up. He said, “I’d give myself about 95%.” I was considerably taken aback. I knew that if that was true, his batting average was a great deal higher than mine! But suppose we could rise to those heights and love God supremely from now on to the end of life. We would still have our past failures to answer for. To be totally just before God, to win acceptance with Him by our own efforts and virtues, that is a thing impossible.
The disciples had just seen, in the experience of this ruler who went away sorrowing, how humanly impossible it is for a man to break free from the hold of riches, even when Jesus invites him to. Ask people with addictions, who get into 12-step programs. Is there any way that they can break the chains of these habits by their own resources? Those who know themselves best will be most ready to tell you, “No way!”
The apostle Paul calls sin “fall[ing] short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Then obedience, godliness, must mean attaining that. Measuring up to the glory of God in your life, who is sufficient for that? No one! Who then can be saved? The answer is that if we are left to the resources within ourselves, not a single one of us can make it.
Now why, we wonder, does the Bible so belabor that point? Why are prophets and apostles so insistent that we all have gone astray, that we all are without excuse, that we are stained by sin’s guilt and trapped by its power, totally unable to save ourselves. Does God want by that to humiliate us? Does He delight in exposing our weakness and willfulness? Or is there a higher, more gracious purpose in this? Does He want to direct attention away from ourselves and our efforts – to Him? I think that is the answer.
POSSIBLE WITH GOD
After Jesus says that salvation is impossible with men, He says that it is possible with God. What we are talking about now is the most important reality that can ever be presented to our minds. It’s the heart of the Bible’s message. It’s the most liberating, joy-bringing truth there is. Are you ready for it? Salvation from sin and death, from guilt and bondage, from lostness and despair, is completely the gift of God!
Salvation is possible for us. We can enter the Kingdom of God. We can be forgiven, accepted, redeemed and made new because of what God has done. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16). “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “It is not by works of righteousness that we have done, but according to his mercy that He saved us” (see Titus 3:5). “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Do you want to know how you can be saved? It has nothing to do with your past performance, your interest in religion, or even your church background. If you and I are ever to be saved, it will be completely on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, in giving His Son to die for us. It will be through what God does in us, by His Holy Spirit whom He sends to dwell in our hearts. All is God’s doing. The miracle of salvation is His free gift.
So how do we avail ourselves of that? How does it become real in our lives? Not by our efforts, our spiritual disciplines, our sincerity, even our promises to do better, but by trusting completely and only in what God has done for us. Every shred of dependence on ourselves, every imagination that we somehow can have God in our debt, stands in the way of saving faith. I am a saved person when I receive mercy from God’s hand as a sheer gift, when I renounce all hope in myself and my own efforts, to set all my hopes on Christ alone.
So even though this rich ruler is a hopeless case in himself, never able to break free from the bonds of covetousness and enter the Kingdom, the Lord can still turn him around. There are no hopeless cases with God. He can work the miracle of conversion even in the hearts of the wealthy. Think about Zacchaeus, not only a wealthy man but also a dishonest one, an extortioner. Yet salvation comes to his house in the person of Jesus. He’s ready now to give away half his wealth to the poor. And if he has defrauded anyone, he says, he will restore that four-fold. The hold of money on this money-grubbing man is broken, and he has a heart to give it away. And it’s all because of Jesus and His transforming grace. He had said to the man everyone loved to hate, “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
The disciples themselves are “Exhibit A” of what God can do. When they say, “We have left our homes and followed you,” Jesus says to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30). The disciples are walking miracles. Their willingness to leave all to follow Jesus is a sign that His grace has conquered their hearts. They aren’t such great raw material. In time one of them will betray Him, another will deny Him with oaths and curses, and all will forsake Him and run away. But His grace will persist in them and make of them a people who can turn the world upside down. Nothing is too hard for the Lord.
The secret in the lives of these disciples, and what could be hope for all of us, is what Thomas Chalmers once called, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Chalmers raises the question, How do people ever break free from their addictions? How are they led to relinquish their idols? Not by being admonished, even threatened. Their treasure is real to them. They may say about it, “This is all I have.” The more you try to steal it away, the more tightly they hold on. But suppose that a new and greater love can come into their lives. Suppose they find a treasure much more valuable, a joy a thousand times greater. Then the once-adored idols seem cheap and the old addictions drop away like dead leaves, all their power and vitality gone. Let Jesus Christ enter a person’s heart, let His glory be revealed to our inner eyes, and all lesser loyalties just die away.
That’s our hope, friends – in God’s great mercy, in Jesus Christ crucified, risen and reigning for us, in receiving Him by faith, in finding the treasure of His Kingdom so rich that we are willing for His sake to part with everything else. Christians sing about it, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
Prayer: Lord, make us all know that salvation is impossible with us but possible with You through Jesus Christ. Amen.