April 7, 2019
If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because we heard it last October, only from Mark’s gospel instead of Luke’s. The two accounts are almost identical. They both describe the way wealth gets in between Jesus and us – not because money is an evil thing, but because it’s so easy to make money into an idol. The rich ruler didn’t have wealth, so much as wealth had him. His dependence on that wealth was all that stood between him and becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.
So as we listen to Jesus, we have to ask ourselves “What am I letting stand between me and Jesus? What’s getting in the way, what’s preventing me from getting closer to Christ so I can listen to him more completely?
The ruler in this story gives Jesus honor as he comes with his question. He calls Jesus ‘Good Teacher.’ Jesus responds in a peculiar way. “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” At first, it might seem that Jesus is demonstrating humility. He is sidestepping the compliment, downplaying the implications of this title, Good Teacher.
But in reality, he is not backing away from a compliment. He is leaning in to the confession. He is not warning that the ruler has gone too far, but inviting him to press in further. This man is onto something, he just doesn’t fully realize how close he is to naming the truth. Jesus is not only good. Jesus is God.
This rich ruler reminds us of our theme for this season of Lent. We have shared a commitment through this season to listen to Jesus. On the Mount of Transfiguration, at the outset of our journey to the cross, the Father spoke these words to us, commanding us to listen and obey his words. That has been our aim, through reading together, praying together, fasting together, banding together. And this ruler enters the story today to remind us why.
Jesus is a good teacher. It frustrates us when people sees Jesus as only a good teacher and deny his divinity. But it must frustrate Jesus when we declare his divinity and then act like he’s not a good teacher. We ignore his words and commands as if they are not life shaping and earth shaking.
We may put Jesus quotes on our refrigerators and into our memory, but we fail to reorder our lives according to the things Jesus says. We boldly hold others accountable according to his words, but we fail to bring our own daily walk under his lordship.
He is good because he is God. And his words demand that we respond in obedience. Keep in mind that the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ also means ‘obey.’ Shema. Listen to him.
The ruler asks an excellent question. It’s the key question, after all, but it’s rarely put in such clear terms. In all the gospels, the only other time we hear this question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is when an expert in the law asks it in Luke 10. In that story, this question introduces the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here, it takes us down a slightly different path.
What does it take to live the God-shaped life? How do I walk in alignment with the way of God? How do I enjoy the rich reward of a right relationship with God and thereby receive the kingdom? If you have one opportunity to ask Jesus a question, you’d better make it count. The rich ruler gets right to the heart of the matter: What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?
Now, when the lawyer asked this same thing back in chapter ten, Jesus answered him with a question: you’re an expert in the law, how do you read it? What does it say? But here, Jesus starts listing commandments that the ruler would have known well. But Jesus doesn’t include the entire list.
The Ten Commandments can be divided into two core categories: Love of God and love of neighbor. [By the way, back in chapter ten, the lawyer correctly identifies these two categories as the most important commandments.] Yet, Jesus only lists the commands that deal with love of neighbor.
Why? Maybe it’s because Jesus sees how we too often assume we are in right relationship with God on a personal level. But when we recognize our relationship with God is expressed through our relationships with others, we have to take a second look. Do I love God? Of course. Do I love my neighbor? Well, which neighbor do you mean?
If you remember, that’s exactly what the lawyer had asked Jesus back in chapter ten: who is my neighbor? The answer he got was the story of the Good Samaritan. And if you remember that story well, you’ll realize Jesus uses it to ask the even deeper question, “Whose neighbor are you?”
Now, as Jesus lists commandments for the rich ruler, he will force him to come to grips with two things: Does your love for God show up as a selfless love for your neighbor? Will you demonstrate that love by giving away what you think belongs to you?
“You still lack one thing,” Jesus says.
And the one thing Jesus requires is everything.
Our reaction is the same as the ruler’s. This is too harsh. Come on. Certainly, Jesus does not require us to sell everything we own and give it to the poor. This cannot be a requirement for modern-day discipleship.
But here’s the thing: the requirement for discipleship is exactly the same now as it has ever been. It is simply to do whatever Jesus tells you to do. It’s been this way since the very first disciples responded to the clear call to follow Jesus. Go where he tells you to go. Do what he tells you to do. To be his disciple is to obey the command to listen to him. Shema. Hear and obey.
Obedience springs from a reckless kind of love for God above all else: Affection and allegiance that trumps all others; Worship motivated by holy love. Jesus doesn’t mention the first four commandments, the ones that deal with our love of God. But maybe this is why. This challenge to the rich ruler is a test of ultimate love and trust.
Idolatry is simply misdirected love and misplaced trust. The rich ruler walked away sad because his first love was put to the test, and he would rather walk away from Jesus than walk away from his wealth.
Why does Jesus have to be so demanding? It’s easy to get so caught up in the cost that we often overlook the treasure. Jesus doesn’t only tell him to sell everything he owns and give it to the poor. He follows that up with this invitation: “And you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Yes, it feels harsh. Yes, the cost is steep. But in light of the treasure, the one thing seems like nothing. The one thing is to give up everything and lose nothing.
In the passage we heard earlier from the prophet Isaiah, God says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) Jesus tells the rich ruler, “There’s only one thing you need. The ONE thing is everything, because God is about to do a new thing.”
All through this season of Lent, we’ve been listening to Jesus through the filter of Luke’s gospel. We’ve heard the theme of reversal in every chapter. God is doing a new thing. He’s doing it in your life, and in mine. Jesus is that new thing that turns everything else on its head. Salvation is not a question of “what can I do…” but “what has God done in Jesus Christ on my behalf?” You can’t earn an inheritance. It’s a gift.
Do you get it? He gave up everything, in order to give it all to us. He gave up his own life, so that we might have eternal, abundant life in him. He did it freely. And if you’ve been listening to him these past few weeks, you’ve heard him ask you do to the same – surrender your all, so that you will lose nothing, so that you will gain that richest treasure of all: life forever with the one who loves you more than you can ever know
This message is based on an outline provided by J.D. Walt for the Listen to Him Lenten study series.