If I Were a Rich Man

Luke 18:18-27

Grace, mercy, and peace are always for you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Most people dream of having more money. Have you ever dreamt of being wealthy? We could sing with the character Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, “If I were rich man . . .” Would you like to be wealthy? If so, how much money would be enough. Would it make you happy? Improve your relationships? Be the basis of your security?

Harvard Medical School psychologist Steven Berglas has written a book called, The Success Syndrome. He has found that individuals who, in his words, “suffer from success,” have arrogance and a sense of aloneness.

Insider trader, Dennis Levine, was asked by his wife why he needed the money from insider trading, and he really had no answer. Levine says that when his income was $100,000 a year, he hungered for $200,000. When he was making a million a year, he hungered for three million. Berglas says that, oddly enough, people who find that $200,000 annually does not make them happy, never asked themselves why they thought $300,000 would make them happy.

When asked to prescribe a cure for the success syndrome, Berglas said, “What’s missing in these people is a deep commitment or religious activity that goes far beyond just writing a check to a favorite charity.”

Someone wisely said, “Money is a great servant, but a terrible master.”

All my life, I’ve dreamed of what it would be like to encounter Jesus in the flesh, face-to-face. To have the chance to unlock His mind, or hear the passion of His heart, or learn more personally about the kingdom of God. The person in our story from Luke’s Gospel is called the rich young ruler. He was a man living the dream, and he had a personal encounter with Jesus. What do we know about him?

We know he was rich, young, and a ruler. He was rich like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his time. The Bible says he was exceedingly rich.

We know money does buy power, freedom, influence. It draws the admiration of others. But Jesus said, “It’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle” (Mark 10:25). In old Jerusalem is a place called Needles Gate. It is a low entrance in the wall where camels can only pass through if they are stripped of their saddle and all of their packs. Then the camel can go through the Needles Gate on its knees.

It’s hard for a rich man to enter the place where God reigns without totally submitting to God’s authority and power, without being totally dependent upon God. As Christians we would say, without surrendering to Jesus as Lord. We need to strip off all that blocks us from trusting, following, and serving the Lord Jesus. To be a true disciple of Jesus Christ means we offer all our gifts, talents, and assets to serve Christ’s kingdom.

This man was rich, but he was also young. All of life’s dreams are ahead of him. Adventure and opportunity abound on the horizon. He is healthy. The youth have a sense of invincibility and a vitality of life that throbs with possibility.

This man was a ruler. He was blessed with a position of power, authority, and influence. He commanded others. This rich young ruler had it all!

Moreover, he was morally upright. He told Jesus he had obeyed and followed the commands of God since he was a boy. This rich young ruler does not know Jesus is God, but he does know Jesus is a good teacher.

He is a seeking soul on his knees before Jesus who has the answer to his problem. His life is so good, but he realizes it can’t last forever. All of us will die. So, on his knees, he pleads to know how his good life could last forever. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

His understanding of eternal life was flawed. Eternal life, as the Bible describes it, is more than length of life. It is the quality of life. Eternal life also is not a flat commodity to be bartered for or to be earned. Nor is it an extension of our present existence, lasting forever.

Remember Jesus in John 17:3 said, “This is eternal life: that the world know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is living by faith in a shared relationship of life and love with God Himself, walking by faith with God each day.

Eternal life is the mystery of the living, all-powerful Lord Jesus inhabiting our souls and transforming our lives by the presence of His indwelling Spirit. Remember Jesus said, “The one who believes in me has already passed from death to eternal life” (John 5:24).

The rich young ruler also was mistaken in his concept of the way to receive eternal life. His question said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer to that question is nothing. No human being can do anything or achieve anything to merit eternal life. He was hoping Jesus would give him a task. He was used to making things happen. His self-sufficiency was at the highest level.

When Jesus looks at this rich young ruler, he sees the motivations of the young man’s heart. It says in another Gospel account that when Jesus looked at him, He loved him.

But Jesus also was very straightforward in speaking the truth: “You lack something.” When Jesus looks at us, He also looks at us with love. However, He also sees our deficiencies, our imperfections, our flawed loyalties. Jesus sees in the rich young ruler that his wealth, his youthful health, and his position of power were idols for him. Even his moral obedience was a source of spiritual security in his understanding of his identity. All these things are gods (with a small “G”) for the rich young ruler.

The rich young ruler is very successfully self-reliant, but his self-reliance and wealth prevented him from seeing his need for what Jesus alone could provide. It blocked him from seeing his total dependence on Jesus Christ alone.

So Jesus gives this rich young ruler a bold request: “Give away all you have to the poor. Give it away to those who have no capacity to reciprocate, and come follow Me.” Jesus is not giving him a new path to salvation nor suggesting a person has to live in absolute poverty in order to be His disciple. He is instead lifting up the first Commandment – You shall have no other gods – as the very area where the rich young ruler falls.

Scripture says the rich young ruler was sad, and he went away deeply grieved. Mark’s Gospel says his face fell.

This promising young man, with great potential for good, was not chased by Jesus. Jesus did not lower the bar. Jesus did not say, Wait, wait. Let’s negotiate. Jesus has now pierced the rich young ruler’s naivete.

Just last week, I was visiting with a woman in a nursing home who knew by the doctor’s prescription that she only had a few days to live in this world. She said to me, “You’re gonna tell me how great heaven is, and that I’ll see Jesus soon. The truth is, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to leave my things.” I looked around her small room in the nursing home with stacks of boxes of stuff, of trinkets. She was surrounded by her personal junk, and she didn’t want let go of it, even for the glory of heaven.

Perhaps Jesus’ words strike a raw nerve for us, too. Will Jesus ask something of us, which will cost us too much? Jesus’ call to discipleship always calls for everything from us. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in the field,” Jesus says. “When the man found it, he sold all he had to buy that field” (Matt. 13:44). Jesus also said, “The one who saves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will find it” (Mark 8:35).

Faith is a total dependence on Jesus Christ alone. But discipleship – inseparable from faith – is offering myself totally to Christ’s service. I’m willing to follow Him wherever He leads. My life is in His hands.

If I were a rich man, the potential is I would be tempted for my wealth to become more significant for me than Jesus. The rich young ruler couldn’t let go of his wealth and all the benefits that went with it, so he went away. There is no neutral response when Jesus calls us to follow Him.

The disciples then asked Jesus, “Well, then, who could be saved?” Jesus says this poignant word, “With people it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Thank the Lord, God specializes in the impossible. And the impossible was accomplished for us by the cross of Jesus Christ, the free gift of salvation, forgiveness of our sins, and the open door to eternal life. It says in the Scripture,

“Jesus has broken down every barrier dividing us” (Ephesians. 2:14).
“(Jesus) gives us access to the grace of God in which we live” (Romans 5:2).

On the cross, Jesus let go of His personal power and His rights to give His very life as punishment for all our misguided priorities, sins, and failures. The cross is the grace of God opening the kingdom of God for us. It is never based on merit or personal achievement.

Dr. Dick Hardell once told the story of observing a father with two young children in a congested airport terminal. The father was carrying his youngest child in his arms while his four-year-old girl walked confidently beside him. All went well as they moved as one through the crowds. But then they arrived at the escalator. The father stepped on without missing a stride, but the four-year-old girl stopped, frozen in fright at the foot of the strange steps, which moved up by themselves in an endless stream. She stood paralyzed watching her father disappeared up the escalator. Then she cried out loud enough for the father to recognize that her voice was at a distance. Too long a distance for safety.

He shifted the youngest child to another arm and slowly turned his body to look for his daughter to see her trapped at the bottom of the steps. With great passion, he turned and began to walk down the up escalator speaking words that would bring comfort, encouraging her, and slowly closing the distance between them. He turned, reached out his hand, and said to his daughter, “We will make this big step together.” She grabbed her daddy’s hand, smiled as tears splashed off her cheeks, and bravely stepped onto those endless steps, which had brought her fear.

Dear friend, whatever creates fear within you or hinders you from hearing Jesus call you to follow Him and receive the treasures of heaven, let go of it and trust Jesus. Follow Him today. Amen.

Pastor Lee Laaveg