Thursday 10 May 2012

The rich young man (Mark 10:17-27)

C.S. Lewis once compared God to a dentist. Let me explain: When you go to God with a problem, you know that he is not going to stop with your toothache. He is going to notice all those cavities that need filling and he is going to keep on working at it until all your teeth are fixed. God is not going to stop until you get the full treatment.

In today’s passage a man runs up to Jesus with the question, “How do I get to heaven?” It is a sincere question but Jesus gives an answer that surprises him and amazes everyone around him. “Sell everything and follow me.” Jesus gives him the full treatment. Understandably, some of us hear that and wonder if Jesus went too far. Some of us wonder if Jesus was asking too much.

The curious thing is, the bible tells us that Jesus said this out of love. Verse 23: “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” In order for this man to get to heaven, Jesus explains that he would need to turn away - not from his badness - but from his goodness. Not from his weaknesses, but from his wealth. It is a surprising answer because many of us have never heard that before. It is a loving answer because it reveals the truth about who we are and who Jesus is.

I want us to notice three things from our bible passage today.

1. A good man
2. A rich man
3. A God who does the impossible

1. A good man

The first thing I want us to see is that this man is genuinely good. He approaches Jesus respectfully and earnestly, bowing before Jesus and calling him, “Good teacher”; the way we might address someone as “Professor” at the university. Yet the question he puts before this teacher is not academic but personal. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Trust in God and you will be saved!” That’s what Jesus should have said. “Follow me and receive eternal life.” That’s what we expect Jesus to have said. Strangely, Jesus gave none of those answers. Instead, Jesus asks him to consider a different question.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good - except God alone.”
Mark 10:18

Jesus is saying that “goodness” is absolute, not relative. Put it another way: goodness is digital, not analogue. There is one standard of goodness and it is God alone. Now why does Jesus seem to go off on this tangent? Well, here’s this young man coming up to Jesus acknowledging him as a good teacher, meaning he saw Jesus as a capable teacher, a gifted speaker, a moral guru. Jesus points out a flaw with that approach. You are thinking about eternal life which is an good thing and an important thing to be thinking about. You want an absolute answer but you have posed a relative question: ‘What can I do?’ You are looking for five ways to improve yourself. You are searching for ten steps to maximise your happiness. Unfortunately, that approach won’t bring you any closer to heaven. It won’t bring you a step closer to God.

The clue lies behind the word “inheritance”. The man asks, “What can I do to inherit eternal life?” When a person dies he leaves behind an inheritance for members of his family. So, a father leaves behind his property to his sons and daughters as an inheritance. Do you see the flaw in the young man’s logic? He calls eternal life an inheritance and yet wants to know what he can do to gain this inheritance. The simple answer is you can’t do anything! You are either in the will or you’re not. You receive your inheritance by virtue of a relationship, not by virtue of your effort.

Here is an intelligent young man who is monumentally deluded with the idea that he can do something to gain eternal life as an inheritance. Jesus immediately identifies the reason why: it is his goodness. This man is good, moral and upright. And Jesus’ next question is designed to show him that his goodness is not enough, even for God.

“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and your mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.
Matthew 10:19-20

This guy is the real deal. When he says to Jesus, “I’ve kept all the commandments,” I believe that he has sincerely tried. He isn’t boasting of his accomplishment saying, “I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” but rather, the young man is giving a sincere answer to Jesus’ question, “I’ve been good.” I must say, I have great respect for a guy like that. He is the kind of guy you would want as your friend. In fact, he is the kind of guy you want as your Prime Minister. He doesn’t lie, cheat or steal. He is honest and respectful to his parents. He is sincerely and genuinely good.

What is more, this young man is obedient to God. The “commandments” that Jesus lists are taken from the Ten Commandments in the bible: Ten rules of conduct set by God himself. Every good Jewish boy knew these rules and obeyed these rules. Now, I doubt a Muslim would have any problems with these rules. I doubt even an atheist would have any problems with these rules. Jesus intentionally chooses five of the ten commandments - leaving out the ones that have to do with loving the one true God - and including only the ones which have to do with loving your neighbour. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not cheat. Respect your parents. All of these commandments are the ones you do. Remember the young man’s question back in verse 17: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus is saying, “Well, do this, this, this, this and this. Obey the commandments.” The young man answers, “All of these I have done since I was a kid.” Yet even as he says this, don’t you hear the frustration in his voice? I’ve done this, I’ve kept these commands. Yet why do I feel as if something is missing. Do you sense a lack of confidence? Please tell me: What else must I do?  Do you hear that longing for something else he needs to be able to do? Jesus does.

2. A rich man

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.
Mark 10:21-22

I recently led a bible study on this passage with a group of teenagers. I asked them, “What if Jesus said to you, ‘Give away everything you have, everything that is of significant value in your life - your iPod, all your nice clothes, all your money - even your university degree?’” To which one girl cried out, “NooooooOOOOoooo!!!! That’s too much. That’s cruel. That’s unfair.” The natural reaction to such a bold request is shock. Surprise. After all, that is the reaction we see from Jesus’ friends, who were “amazed” and then were “even more amazed” by Jesus’ words.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Mark 10:23-26

“If this guy can’t get into heaven, who can?” the disciples were saying to one another. Here was the ideal candidate: A Cambridge graduate, successful in his career, responsible with his money, generous with his life, obedient to God’s law. If Jesus was turning away such talent, what chance do the rest of us have?

The disciples were amazed, as we ought to be amazed with such a radical request. Yet, notice that wasn’t the response of the young man. He wasn’t shocked, he wasn’t amazed. In fact, I wonder if he was surprised by Jesus’ call to sell everything he had. Instead the bible tell us that his immediate reaction was sadness. Jesus told him he lacked one thing. Just one: To give his money away. He approached Jesus in all eagerness and anticipation. He turned away in sadness and depression.

What was the turning point for the young man? His wealth. Verse 22: “He went away sad because he had great wealth.” Jesus tells his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich” - the wealthy, those who have money, status, possessions in this life - “to enter the kingdom of God!” Now Jesus isn’t saying that having lots and lots of money is bad. Nowhere does he imply that this young man obtained his wealth through ill-gotten gains. If anything, it is remarkable that this man was so young, so moral and at the same time, so wealthy. It means that he used his money for good. It means that he earned his money responsibly by working hard. Remember his answer about the commandments - he never stole, lied or defrauded anyone. Meaning this: Jesus doesn’t have any problems with wealth per se, but what Jesus does here is expose a side-effect that comes from having abundant wealth: we become attached to our wealth. The more money we have, the more likely we are to define our identity by the our money. The more wealthy we are, the more likely we are to measure our goodness against our wealth.

For all his willingness to obey the commandments, to strive to greater heights to serve God and love his neighbour - for all his goodness - there was one thing the rich young man was unwilling to do. He couldn’t let go of money. The King James Version of the bible reads, “He went away grieving.” That is insightful. You grieve when you lose someone you cherish. You grieve at the loss of someone you love. Just the thought of giving away all his wealth made him mourn. Again, we are not talking about a greedy businessman who lied, stole and cheated his way to success. Whatever the circumstances this young man received his fortune, he got it honestly and he used it generously. But somewhere along the way, money become more than just money to him. It became a source of his identity. His money became the means of his morality.

I wonder if this might be true of you as well? We apply for the grant with the biggest funding not simply because it would useful to have more money for the project is it? It’s because more money means we are worth more; more money means our work is more significant. And when the economy forces us to take a pay cut or when that unexpected bill leaves us with less in the bank - we feel less secure. We might even feel angry and betrayed. Some of us wonder if God is punishing us by taking away our money.

That’s what Jesus means when he says, “It’s hard.” It’s hard to let go of money. But notice, Jesus doesn’t simply say give up everything and cling to nothing. He isn’t advocating a life of abstinence and poverty. Look again at what he says to the young man.

Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.
Mark 10:21

He is challenging the young man who is eager to gain eternal life, “Would you let go of all your wealth in exchange for heaven?” More than that, Jesus is saying to the young man, “Would you be willing to lose all your wealth in order to follow me?” That’s a hard thing to do. In fact, by the end of our passage we find Jesus saying to his disciples, it is impossible for us to do.

3. A God who does the impossible

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Mark 10:27

Earlier on, Jesus looks at the young man and tells him to sell his possessions. And notice here, Jesus does the exact same thing: he looks right at his disciples. There is a connecting thought here - Jesus looks at him; immediately Jesus turns and looks straight at them. The disciples are wondering how God can save anyone if the demands are so impossibly high. Jesus is about to answer that question. It is the same answer he gave to the rich young man.

The question they ask is, “Who can be saved?” If you read verse 27 on its own, Jesus’ answer sounds almost dismissive, “All things are possible with God,” as if to say, “God will make a way. Somehow, it will happen.” But if you see the connection between the this answer and the one previously given to the rich young man; if you see that Jesus is using the rich young man as a picture of how God will do this impossible thing - we see that the demand which Jesus placed on that young man to give up all his riches is a demand that Jesus himself has fulfilled.

Why does it say that Jesus looked at him “and loved him”? Because Jesus looked at the young man and saw a reflection of himself. At this point in his life, Jesus was barely over thirty. He was in the prime of his life. The bible contends that all throughout his earthly existence, Jesus never sinned, not even once. Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill God’s law in its entirety - he met every requirement, he never broke a single rule. More than that, Christians believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who left the gaze of angels, who left the glory of his Father to come to earth to take on human flesh. Jesus is the ultimate rich young man who gave up a heavenly inheritance in order to enter our poverty. The bible says,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

Jesus was the ultimate rich young ruler who gave up all privilege, who sacrificed all wealth; who, on the cross, gave up his life so that we would receive his reward; so that we would gain eternal life. God was doing the impossible in Jesus Christ, he became a man. He humbled himself as a servant. He died to take our punishment. And he rose to give us eternal life.

“Who then can be saved?” That is the question Jesus was answering. The answer is not the one who gets wealthy. It is not even the one who gives up his wealth. Jesus is saying the one who is saved is the one who receives salvation as a gift - as an inheritance - through Jesus’ death. Who receives wealth through his poverty. For our sakes, Jesus Christ laid aside his majesty, took our debt of sins and lavished us with his reward, his acceptance and his love.

In Jesus Christ, we see the truly righteous man - who fulfilled all of God’s law. We see the truly rich man - who left his wealth to enter our poverty. And in Jesus Christ, we see God doing the impossible - saving sinners at the cost of his own Son, by giving him up on the cross.

In love, Jesus looks at us and calls us to exchange our lives for something infinitely more valuable than all the treasures of heaven. God offers us the gift of himself. With man this is impossible. With God all things are possible through Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. "(Mark 13:32)

Bible verse never say that Jesus hesitate to preach about the Judgment day, but simply he did not know. So the question arises, whether the same three gods are really coequal in unity? or theyare just separate entity with different minds? For indeed father? is greatest beyond comparison to Jesus.

Jesus: "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God (the father?) Only. (Mark 10:18)

Obviously Jesus is not God nor is he comparable to God