I have been pondering the stories of three men and their experience with Jesus for the past six months. One was a virtuous leader who found his success to be more important than Jesus. The second was a blind beggar who possessed nothing but a desperate prayer. The third was a wealthy rogue who refused to let anything stand between him and seeing Jesus. Read together, their stories reveal the truth of what we want and what Christ wants and how our desire and his reality can be reconciled. The next three messages will be devoted to these stories which appear in sequence in Luke 18 and 19.
- Do you recognize the foolishness of seeking fulfillment outside of Him? Do you understand that it’s impossible to please God in any way other than whole hearted surrender? Do you grasp the beauty and deep joy of walking in genuine intimacy with God, our holy Father and Friend? Do you want to see God more than you desire security? (Francis Chan, Crazy Love [Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008], p. 113)
What would you like to acquire if you could? Assume money is no object and that you have enough youth and energy to carry you to your goal. Assume that you have the authority to command people to help you, and the upbringing and religious discipline to keep you on course.
What would you want to acquire with all this?
— A larger house?
— A balanced and fat investment portfolio?
— A better class of friends?
— A nicer car?
— A new wardrobe?
— A dream vacation?
— A secure position?
What about salvation?
You say,”Kent, you’re kidding right. You can’t earn salvation. Salvation is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9).
I reply, “Really? That’s true enough, I believe it too, but are you and I living as grateful recipients of the gift? Are you plagued by guilt, shame, doubt, anxiety, defensive anger, “white-knuckle” compliance, hopeless confusion about which way to go, the driven feeling that you must continually do more and be more to satisfy God or maybe those who claim to speak for God in your life?”
Luke tells a story in his Gospel that begins to put this into perspective.
- A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.'” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.”
- Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.” (Lk 18:18-30).
Luke was a Greek and it shows in his telling. The order of commandments follows the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint and varies from the Hebrew Bible. His description of the exchange between Jesus and the ruler is Socratic in style. The power of this story is in the series of questions between the man and Jesus.
The “certain ruler” is known better for his identity in the other Gospels as the “rich, young ruler” (Mt 19:16-20; Mk 10:17-31). This context is important. Wealthy, energetic, in-charge–this is the type of successful person that ministries like to showcase as an endorsement of the benefits of a life of devotion and upright living. “I have kept all these since my youth” he tells Jesus about the commandments and it is seemingly the
answer that Jesus was wishing to hear, or was it?
From the man’s question, Jesus realizes that he is off-base. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a confident question. It says the ruler believes that there is such a thing and he can qualify for it if he only knows what to do. On the other hand, it reveals that the man who seemingly has everything, lacks something that he is now looking to acquire. Despite his wealth, youthful energy, power and piety, he has a vague anxiety about the future.
Jesus answers him with a question that goes to the base assumption. “Why do you call me good? No one but God is good.” This goes to the heart of the matter. If goodness is the human test, the ruler is “good,” but it is not enough. If only God is good, then it follows that only God can save.
What is drawing the man to Jesus? That’s something he should think about, so Jesus gives him the opportunity. Is it possible that his desire for eternal life is really a desire for God? Is it possible that Jesus is God and the fulfillment of the desire. The seeking heart can only be lead so far and then it must decide.
Jesus turns to cut down the underbrush of superficial legalism. The nineteenth-century theologian John Henry Newman said that “Virtue is its own reward,” but that’s as far as it goes since virtue lacks saving power. Jesus gently points out to the man that his life-long commandment-keeping has not satisfied the longing in his heart. Author Timothy Keller in a stunning exposition of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son lays out the sinful bankruptcy of such thinking:
- Most people think of sin as failing to keep God’s rules of conduct, but, while not less than that, Jesus’s definition of sin goes beyond it.
- In her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor says of her character Hazel Motes that “there was a deep, black, wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” This is a profound insight. You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior. . .
- If. . . you seek to control God through your obedience, than all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want. . . There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good (The Prodigal God [New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008], pp. 37-38, 39, 44).
The ruler says that he has kept the commandments and Jesus takes him deeper to the point that he is lacking something. Every one of us, created beings that we are, lack something. If it’s not one thing it is another. I tell my dental students at Loma Linda, “Whatever you do in life, don’t do it for money, because if you do that there will never be enough money for you.” Having more always proves to our limited but grasping soul that there is more to be had, but reaching for it causes us to lose our balance.
Jesus sees that the man believes he is self-sufficient in materials and religious matters, but it is that very self-sufficiency that will doom him. Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and distribute the proceeds to the poor. A common problem in the interpretation of this story is the conclusion that it’s the money that’s the problem. It’s not.
Jesus had plenty of encounters with the wealthy during his time on earth and he did not generally tell them to give up their wealth. There are two kinds of attitudes about money that I’ve witnessed in my career as a business lawyer. A healthy attitude is that money is simply a tool to help us. An unhealthy attitude sees money as an end in itself to give its possessors status and power. Paul wrote that “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evils, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Tim 6:10).
The crossroads that Jesus was driving the man towards was that salvation was not just one more acquisition to his portfolio as a hedge against the future. Salvation is everything, and anything else that you think you must have to live other than God is something lacking from your relationship with God.
The world tells us that it’s important to “find” ourselves and that we are unique and “special.” The rich, young ruler is very much a man of the world despite his religiosity because his identity is that he is wealthy, young and powerful. Jesus is calling him to end the alienation of his “specialness” and enter into community by sharing his estate with the poor, but that isn’t the end of it as far as his salvation goes. The obsession of the poor with money can be every bit as destructive to their relationship with God as is that of the rich (Prov 30:8-9).
Jesus’ call to the man is to give up everything so that Jesus can fill him with life. His salvation will be found in following Jesus into a new life.
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus told Martha who was worried and distracted by many things (Lk 10:42). That one thing was a focused listening to Jesus even when it was viewed by others as a useless exercise. The ruler doubtless believes that his forfeiture of status and security will make him useless and powerless.
How many of us are like that. If we have material success and Jesus too won’t that be a powerful witness that it pays to serve Jesus. But that route literally means that there will be other god’s before Jesus in violation of the first commandment of the Decalogue (Ex 20:2). The Lord was very explicit to Moses that our worship should be entirely focused on God with nothing of us left at the altar including our efforts, our pretense at holiness, and our very well-being because ultimately we have nothing.
- The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar; so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it” (Ex 20:22-26).
The man appears to have been present when Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter it” which is another way of saying your power, possessions and usefulness buy you nothing with God. God fulfills us with his strength in our weakness and his provision in our need. The hard truth of it is that when we claim to be strong and self-sufficient we are rejecting God.
The ruler can’t buy this, literally. He wants to give his best to Jesus to purchase his salvation and Jesus doesn’t care about his best the way others do. This is the same Jesus who told the money-loving Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk 16:14-15).
What Jesus cares about is him, and what is he if not rich and in control? It’s a jolt to his self-esteem and he goes away sad for he is very rich. That wealth defines him and he is unwilling to allow Jesus to redefine him in a personal relationship.
Jesus makes his own sorrowful observation which is that if your hands and heart are full of possessions it is very hard to squeeze into heaven. Those who heard this were shocked. How can the blessings of God be an impediment to a life with God? “Then who can be saved,” they ask Jesus.
His reply revealed the essence of grace–God is everything to us. “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God.”
I leave the application up to you, but the story strips the flesh off of my spiritual bones. Seventeen years of formal Christian education, a life-time of commandment-keeping, professional success offering me a platform to speak and write about Jesus, leadership in Christian organizations, but for whom have I done these things and why? Jesus asks me if I am even a believer.”How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory from the one who alone is God” (Jn 5:44).
It’s me he wants, not my stuff. I have to leave the stuff at the foot of the cross because my hands must be free to share the death and resurrection of Christ as my own for it is by these that he made me his own (Phil. 3:10-12).
After all these years, my hunger and my lack are the truth of my prayer. “Nothing in my hand I bring, only to Thy cross I cling.” Salvation is not the prize for my service or the purchase of my best efforts. Salvation is Christ’s life in me (Col. 3:3-4) and hard as it is to give it up there is room for no one and nothing else. If Christ is not enough for me nothing else ever will be.
Next week, I will tell the story of the second man and his experience of salvation.
Under the mercy of Christ,