Text: Luke 18:18-27 (also found in Mt 19 and Mark 10)
Jesus said and did many wonderful things. But here, surely, he got it completely wrong.
Here’s what should have happened:
“Good Teacher,” he blurts out, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replies, “I can see that you are a very sincere, earnest, and courteous young man. So relax: I’ve got some good news for you: there is nothing you have to do to inherit eternal life. It’s not a matter of giving, but of receiving. It’s not about trying, but trusting. Eternal life is a free gift from God.”
A smile begins to spread across the young man’s face. “That’s marvellous,” he says. “So exactly how do I receive this free gift of eternal life?”
“It’s as simple as ABC. A – acknowledge your need. B – believe in me. C – confess your new-found faith. That’s it. Oh, and because you have more money than you know what to do with, try to find a little spare cash for the poor and needy.”
When he hears this, the young man is positively beaming. And he went on his way rejoicing, because he already had everything this world could offer: his youth, his wealth, and his influence, and now he had heaven too.
Then Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “How easy it is to enter the kingdom of God!”
But Jesus didn’t do it that way, did he? Why not? Why won’t he ever give a straightforward answer to a simple question? Why did he keep probing away, making eternal life seem so difficult to attain? And why, when he saw that the poor man couldn’t meets his demands, didn’t he call him back, apologise, and make it all a bit easier?
You know about the person who stopped a Norwich local in the street and asked for directions to Thorpe station. “Oh,” came the reply, “If I wanted to get to the station, I wouldn’t start from here.”
If we look carefully at this encounter, we will see that Jesus attempts to stop the man in his tracks three times in order to get him to see that he’s starting from the wrong place and trying to get down a No Through Road.
1. He was mistaken about goodness
V18, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
V19, Jesus replies with a question of his own: “Why do you call me good; there is no-one good but God alone.” I think what Jesus is doing here is challenging a piece of thoughtless flattery. “What do you mean when you call me “good teacher”? Have you really thought about what true goodness is? Only God is good, and so for you to ask what you can do to be good enough for God is the wrong question.”
Some brave souls do try desperately hard to be good enough for God. The great evangelist George Whitefield recalled, “When I was sixteen years of age I began to fast twice a week for thirty-six hours together, prayed many times a day, received the Sacrament every Lord’s Day, fasting myself almost to death all the forty days of Lent, during which I made it a point of duty never to go less than three times a day to public worship, besides seven times a day to my private prayers; yet I knew no more that I was to be born again in God, born a new creature in Christ Jesus, than if I were never born at all.” But he later came to see that he had been attempting an impossibly high standard, and exclaimed: “Works? Works? A man get to heaven by works? I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand!”
Most of us today are less heroic than the young Whitefield. We are content simply to lower the bar, making it easier to jump over. There are many who seek to reassure themselves that everything is OK between them and God, but they are measuring themselves, not against God’s standard of goodness, but against some lower standard. “I’m as good as the next person…” But Jesus will always pull you up sharp, and say, as he said to the rich young ruler, “think carefully, before you decide to seek entry to God’s kingdom on the basis of your supposed goodness.”
The rich young ruler was mistaken about goodness.
2. He was mistaken about God’s commandments
Our Lord’s second strategy for stopping the man in his tracks is to refer him to God’s law. In v20 Jesus reels off 5 of the 10 commandments. ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.’
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” boasts the man. Yes, but what about the other 5? If a person is aiming inherit eternal life by keeping God’s commandments, he is going to have to keep the lot. Half is no good. You may have heard recently about a man named Paul Lister. He wants to re-introduce into the Scottish highlands animals that have not roamed there for centuries – bears, lynx and wolves. Of course, he’ll have to put up a big fence to keep them in. But supposing he puts half the fence up, and then stops. His wild animals wander into the surrounding towns and villages, causing havoc. Can he excuse himself by saying, “Well, I kept them half in”?
What about the drunken driver who is pulled up by the traffic cops? Can he get round it by claiming, “well at least my MOT is up to date”?
Or what about the schoolboy who deliberately set off the fire extinguisher and sprayed all his class-mates? Can he offer the plea, “But, Miss, I did hand my homework in on time”?
Jas 2:10 ‘Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.’
But back to our rich young ruler. Which were the commandments which the man was conveniently ignoring, hoping that Jesus wouldn’t mention them? The first 4 commandments, and the 10th. The ones which have to do with our relationship with God, and the one which has to do with our relationship with money and possessions. The commandments that say, “Love and serve your God with all your heart,” and the one that says, “Don’t covet; don’t be greedy.”
Folks, there are still plenty of people around today who think they have been following the Ten Commandments. Well, they may have been following them. But you can be sure that they’ve never caught up with them.
So, moving on,
3. He was mistaken about his own heart
Lk 18:22 Jesus said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this, Lk 18:23, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.
He was unwilling to loosen his grip on his earthly treasure in order that he might receive heavenly treasure.
Of course, the Bible does not teach that ‘money is the root of all evil.’ It teaches that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ It is not possessing riches that keeps people out of the kingdom. It is being possessed by riches.
v24f Jesus looked at the man and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
No wonder the people complain, Lk 18:26, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replies, Lk 18:27, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
And Jesus just leaves it hanging there. And I’m tempted to do the same.
But I can’t resist pointing out this whole section of Luke’s Gospel hammers away again and again at the same point. Let me show you.
Go back to 18:9-14 – Two men went up to the temple to pray, one who thought he was good, the other who knew he was bad. Jesus says it was the second one who went back to his house right with God.
18:15-17 – Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Do you get it? The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who will begin with an attitude of childlike dependence.
18:35-43 – a blind man cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus healed him, right there and then. Again, his starting point was his need.
19:2-10 – Jesus calls a wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus down from a tree. Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus into his house and joyfully pledges to give half his money away and repay any he has cheated fourfold. In reply to those who criticised Jesus for consorting with Zacchaeus and other undesirables, he replies, “But I came to seek and save the lost.”
But what I haven’t mentioned, sitting there right in the middle of all this welcoming of the lost and the needy, is 18:31-33. “We’re going to Jerusalem. There I will be mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed. And on the third day I will be raised to life.” Ah yes, there on the cross, the righteous one will die for we the unrighteous, to bring us to God.
If you have any interest in eternal life; if you would like to follow Jesus; if you hunger and thirst for his abundant life; if you desire treasure in heaven; will you place yourself at this starting-point? Not, ‘What do I need to do?’ but, ‘Lord, you must do it for me. It’s impossible for me to climb up to you, Lord. But thankyou that Jesus came down and did for me what I could never do for myself.’
I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection.