Many things can get in the way of a person following Jesus Christ and entering into His kingdom. For instance, I recently had a conversation with a man whom I was just getting to know. He was dying of cancer, and it was imminent. When I asked him about his faith, he said he had some faith. However, as the conversation went further, I discovered Jesus doesn’t fit into his faith equation. The man is basically agnostic.
I shared the Good News with him and told him how much Jesus loves him. But he just shook his head and said, “I’m settled in and don’t want to rock the boat.” It seems he wants to remain in charge of his destiny. Maybe it is his pride; I don’t know for sure. He believes he’s okay with life and the future as it is. I pray daily this man has an epiphany.
I just finished reading an excellent book by Pastor Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods. It talks about obstacles, the idols of our culture, that get in the way of having a meaningful relationship with God. Some of them are power, love, sex, success, as well as money and possessions (a big one).
In our text from Luke, Jesus gives us an example of this. A certain young ruler approaches Jesus and asks,
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Perhaps he was a ruler of the synagogue, a member of the Sanhedrin Council, or a community leader. We don’t know what kind of ruler this man was, but we do know he was someone with authority. He was used to telling people what to do and being in charge. Let’s examine his question.
Jesus’ immediate response to him is corrective.
“Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
He is pointing out that the title “good” is reserved for God and God alone.
Upon first reading, one might wonder if Jesus believes this ruler sees something more in Him. Is Jesus winking at him as He responds to the man’s question – “Hmmm. I think you’re getting it.” But according to the end of the story, this is not the case.
Instead, Jesus gives a brief lesson on proper reverence for God on humility. This man has a superficial view of goodness. Only God has ultimate goodness. No one else has the right to call themselves good. Jesus is telling him to watch his talk.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It means living in God’s kingdom now and forever, living under God’s rule and His promises. Jesus has been telling people to repent and enter the kingdom under God’s rule. But this man asks, “What much I do to inherit eternal life?” These words reveal distrust, a need to stay in control, an inability to live dependant upon God’s promises alone. No humility there. He wants to earn this merit badge and add it to his collection of possessions.
When you think about it, his question is rather strange. You don’t do something to inherit something. To inherit something means to receive it as a gift, especially in matters of salvation and eternal life. It has to be done for you.
Jesus responds to the man’s questions using the same logic of doing something to receive an inheritance.
“You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,
murder, steal, bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.’”
Notice what is missing in this list: the first commandment (no other gods before me), the second, third, and tenth commandments on coveting possessions and greed.
The ruler nods and says to Jesus, “I’ve kept these since my youth!” I find this response to be rather humorous. It’s like he is saying, No problem, Jesus. I’ve nailed those down. I’m so good! How is that for pride and blindness to one’s shortcomings in love and life!
But Jesus can see this man’s soul as He looks into his eyes, and He responds by saying,
“One thing is holding you back.
Sell everything you have, give it to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven. (Come follow me.)”
The man went away very sad because he was very rich. It appears that money and possessions were his god of sorts, his true security. They had a hold on his life, and he couldn’t let go.
As he walks away, Jesus marvels at his sadness and says,
“How difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
Jesus is not saying that being rich is a sin. He is simply observing how riches can become idols, obstacles that get in the way of our relationship with God. When they have priority in our lives – even over God – money and possessions become our source of security, our first love, our master.
After Jesus said this, the disciples scratched their heads and asked, “Then who can be saved?”
People in those days believed wealth and riches were a special blessing from God to people with whom He was especially pleased. So they wondered if this man, who has obeyed these commandments all his life, can’t get in, then who can? Jesus answered,
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
We cannot do enough good to get into heaven. Only God can make it possible to enter His kingdom.
Peter says, “We have left everything behind. What about us?” Jesus assures Peter not to worry. God will take care of them. End of story.
Does this narrative have anything to do with people like you and me in 2019? Yes, it does. For you see, I am rich. In all likelihood, if you are living in America, so are you. If we compare ourselves to CEOs, professional athletes, and the Warren Buffets of the world, or even the guy down the street, we’d probably say we’re not rich. But friend, compared to most of the rest of this world, we are seen as very wealthy. In today’s text, Jesus is giving us some insights on faith in God and managing the good things He gives us, like possessions and wealth.
Wealth can become a counterfeit god we trust for our security and ultimately love because of what it can do for us. We can wind up obeying it and living for it as our master and lord. Possessions can be dangerous. An abundance of possessions can easily lead us to forget that God is the source of all good. It can lead us to believe we can trust in ourselves – our own abilities and the mighty dollar – rather than our Almighty God.
The late Bishop Edwin Hughes once delivered a sermon on God’s ownership that put one of his rich parishioners’ noses out of joint. The wealthy man took the bishop out for lunch and then walked him through his elaborate gardens, woodlands, and farm. “Are you going to tell me,” he demanded when the tour was over, “that all this land does not belong to me?” Bishop Hughes smiled and suggested, “Ask me the same question a hundred years from now.”
It is a good reminder, and it is why God tells us in His commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me.” You shall not fashion idols for yourselves to worship and obey. There is only one true God. These things cannot give you the real life you were created to enjoy under God in His kingdom. They will always fail you.
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his famous observations of America. In it, he noted a strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants in their abundance. “Americans, you see, believe prosperity could quench their yearning need for happiness. But such hope is an illusion because the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy the human heart.”
The joys of this world will never satisfy the human heart. How true it is! Jesus, in today’s story, is offering something far better than these counterfeit gods.
Tim Keller tells a story in his “Counterfeit Gods” book I like. It’s a testimony of sorts.
“In the midst of the great financial crisis of 2008/2009, I heard a man named Bill recount the three years before he had become a Christian. His ultimate security had shifted from money to his relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He said, ‘If this economic meltdown had happened more than three years ago, I don’t know how I could’ve faced it, how I would’ve even kept going. I would’ve hated myself. It would have driven me back to the Bible and maybe to suicide. Today I can tell you I have honestly never been happier in my life.’
The man lost a lot during the recession, so how could he possibly say that? Keller writes,
“His identity shifted when he met Jesus Christ. It had ceased to rest in being successful and affluent and had come to be grounded in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. It was all that mattered.”
How about you? What is your attitude toward money and possessions? Do you have them or do they have you?
Pastor and author Howie Hendrix shared a story years ago.
“My wife Gina and I once dined with a rich man from a blue blood Boston family. I asked him, ‘How in the world did you grow up in the midst of such wealth and not be consumed by materialism?’ His answer was this: ‘My parents taught me that everything in our home was either an idol or a tool.’”
How do you view your possessions and wealth? Are they idols or tools for God’s glory? You can serve God and use money. But Jesus said you can’t serve them both. It is impossible to serve both God and mammon. This is a fact.
I ask this personal question of you: Do you serve God and use money, or you serve money and use God? Honestly. Do you serve money and use God, or do you serve God and use money?
Back to Jesus’ words in our story. The Son of God, the Savior of the world, who loves you, was rich in His heavenly home, yet He left everything to enter this world and save it. He became poor for our sakes.
Remember where Jesus is going as He encounters the ruler in our story. He is headed to Jerusalem where He will lay down His life and give His everything for you at the cross. He will empty Himself as a perfect sin sacrifice to make you His own and give you the riches of the kingdom.
Friend, when Jesus looks into your eyes and reads your soul, what does He see? The appeal today is to make Him, who gave His everything for you, your everything, over everything. When He is your everything, you have everything you could possibly need, because you’ve become rich in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer