Jesus loved the rich young man. He really did. We are told so blatantly, but there was still something lacking in the young guy. There was still something that was holding the guy back. By all appearances, the young man was honest, upright, and tried to live by the rules. He was living the life of a God-fearing Jew, keeping the commandments from an early age.
As I thought about this, I began wondering why he went up to Jesus to ask the Lord what he had to do to inherit eternal life. I mean, think about it. He was wealthy which by the standards of his day meant that everyone believed that God had blessed him. He obeyed the commandments; the religious laws of his day.
When Jesus responded to this young man that keeping the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother; was key, the man responded, "I’ve done all of this from my youth." By all accounts, this guy had it. He was following the rules. He was making his way. Yet, he still was wondering about his eternal salvation. Why is it that he didn’t think he was doing enough? What gave him the idea he was still lacking something? Why did he think there was still something more when by every standard of his day, he was on the fast track?
Something obviously was bugging him, and so he came to Jesus to find out what that something was. And Jesus loved the guy. It says so right there in the text. Jesus had no malice, no anger, no frustration or any other sort of negativity toward this rich, young man. But Jesus did have a challenge for him: a very tough challenge, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
This was not news the young man wanted to hear. He didn’t want to give up his wealth. He didn’t want to give up his comfort. He didn’t want to walk away from the things that had made him successful. He wanted to have eternal life, but he also wanted a good life here and now. And the comfort of the here and now beckoned much more strongly than eternal life. We are told, the young man was shocked and went away grieving because he had many possessions.
Jesus then launches into a teaching that astounds the disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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."
A couple of things must be expounded on here. First, why was this teaching so perplexing and astounding? Remember the context into which Jesus is speaking. Remember that in Jesus day, if you were wealthy, it was a sign that God had blessed you. If you were wealthy, most believed it was because God had shined His grace and light down upon you. Wealth was just a manifestation of how much faith you had and how much God loved you. This understanding is very much akin to those preachers around today who say, "If you believe in Jesus, you will have wealth, health, and abundance." Those who say, "If you just have enough faith, everything in your life will work smoothly because God wants you to be healthy, happy, and wealthy."
The disciples were astounded because Jesus’ teaching turns this particular theology upside down. It is contrary to what they have been taught. It’s the exact opposite of the popular theology of the day, and it’s rocking their world view.
Perhaps this teaching rocks our world view today as well, but for a different reason. This is the second thing which must be expounded upon. For this text is troubling for those of us who are rich. Notice I used the word "us" there. There is quite a debate in our nation regarding the definition of wealthy or rich. Politicians love to throw around numbers like $250,000 or a million dollars, but when we as Christians read these texts, we need to do so in a global context. And when we look at the global context, we see very clearly that if a person has a home, a car, food on the table every night, a cell phone, and a little bit of money in the bank, then that person is rich–very rich. If you take a trip into the poorer countries of the world, you will see that our poor here in the U.S. would be considered middle class to rich in third world countries. This is the reality. So, if any of us find ourselves with the luxuries I spoke of a few moments ago, then we must consider ourselves rich, and Jesus’ teaching isn’t flattering. In fact, it’s quite bothersome, for He says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.
Why? Why is it so hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? Let’s keep this question in mind for the time being. Because as I continue to read through this text, I don’t think it’s just rich people who have a hard time entering the Kingdom of God. As I read Jesus’ next words, it sounds like anyone and everyone will have a hard time entering the Kingdom of God.
After all, the disciples asked, "Then who can be saved?"
Jesus’ response is very, very important, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
Why does Jesus say such a thing? Why does He stress that salvation is impossible for mortals? Why does He say salvation rests in the hands of God and God alone?
Because of what Jesus demanded of the rich, young man and of what Jesus demands from you and me. And what does Jesus demand?
One word: everything.
The rich young man was willing to offer Jesus his morality–his willingness to follow God’s commandments, but he wasn’t willing to offer his wealth to the poor or to dedicate his life to following Christ. Jesus wanted it all. And it was impossible for the rich young man to give it up. It was too much to ask.
We will find out later in the gospel stories that even though the disciples were willing to walk away from their jobs and their families, they were not able to give everything to Jesus. When they came to arrest Jesus to take Him before trial, the disciples ran. They scattered. They were not ready to give up their lives for their Lord. Jesus demanded everything, and it was impossible for the disciples to give it.
And were someone to give up all property, all wealth, all their time and devote it to loving God and serving the poor, there is the problem of devoting one’s entire mind and spirit toward God as well. There is the problem of sin to overcome. Jesus clearly instructs His followers in Matthew chapter 5 verse 48 to "Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus demands perfection. Nothing less is required to attain eternal life. If you want to inherit eternal life, you must be perfect. The rich young man wasn’t perfect. Neither are we. And if you want to live by the law, you must be perfect. Do you really want to live by the law? If achieving eternal life is impossible for mortals, do you really want to live by the law in striving to attain salvation?
Or do you wish to live by grace? Do you want to fall before Jesus and admit your shortcomings? Do you want to fall before Jesus and say, "Lord, you demand everything, but I am unable to give it. I am not worthy to be counted among your disciples. I do not wish to give up my possessions. I cannot be perfect. I have tried and failed so many times. Is there hope for one as imperfect as me?"
And if you say so, please now hear Jesus respond, "For mortals, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible. God forgives you. I forgive you. I died so that you might live. Enter into the Kingdom of God because of my grace and not because of anything that you did, but now, go, and strive to show that grace to others." Amen.