In our Gospel reading this morning we find a rich young man talking to Jesus about a very important matter. This young man is deeply concerned about eternity and wants to know what he must do to achieve everlasting life. But when Jesus tells him what he must do, the young man is not ready to take that step.
Jesus wants the rich, young man to take a good look at his present life, at his priorities, and start thinking about changing some of them in order fulfill his desire for everlasting life. Part of what Jesus expects from him is sacrifice.
It is misleading for this young man and us to think that salvation comes without a price. Remember the struggles the disciples went through and the price they paid for following Jesus. They gave up a lot for their salvation. Some of the disciples abandoned their homes and families, others their businesses, to follow Jesus. Did not Peter say that “… we have left everything and followed you. What are we to have then?” (Matthew 19:27)
Jesus knew exactly what was important to this rich young man. This young man’s biggest obstacle was that he valued his wealth more than God. So, Jesus tests him to see how serious he is about following Him. To change the course of his life, Jesus tells the young man to sell all he has and follow Him.
Having said that, do you not find it odd that the commandment Jesus gives the rich man does not include the words, "You shall honor no other God but me.” Instead, Jesus tells the rich man to sell all he has and give his money to the poor. Why do you suppose Jesus left out that first and most important commandment? Well, actually, Jesus does allude to that commandment but in a roundabout way. By selling all his possessions and giving it to the poor, Jesus was, in fact, saying to the young man, “Get rid of your false god and accept the true God.” The rich man needed to let go of his god of wealth so that he could allow the one true God to come into his life. But to change his lifestyle, the process had to begin in his mind first. We call this metanoia. In other words, repentance, and conversion of heart.
Towards the end of the Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to enter Heaven. Jesus knew that it is almost impossible for a rich man to give up his wealth even for life everlasting. Jesus said it like this, "Where your treasure is there will your heart be also." If our treasure is in this world where moths consume and rust corrodes, our life will pass away just like our treasure. In order to achieve Eternal Life, we must seek the "things that do not pass away, that moth and rust cannot consume or thieves break in and steal," That is our number one priority.
Once we put our priorities in order and decide to live by them, then and only then will our lives change. That is how Jesus was dealing with the young man. After He advises the rich man to get rid of his wealth, his god, then Jesus beckons the rich man to follow Him. Had the young man followed Jesus’ advice, eternal life would have been his. But, he bows his head and walks away saddened. So, what is it about money that can lead us to lose our salvation? Is money really that evil?
You see, there are two basic attitudes about wealth in the Bible. In the Old Testament wealth is considered a blessing from God. God chose Abram and promised to bless him and make his name great (Genesis 12:1-3). Solomon's wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor (1 Kings 3:13;). Does this mean that God hates poverty? No! Does He begrudge us having money? No!
When Jesus talks about money in the New Testament, it is done mainly with stories or parables, which show the dangers of wealth. For example, the parable of the seed and the sower. (Luke 8:14); the destructive nature of wealth in the story of the rich farmer (Luke 12:16-21). But in our world wealth and success are a measure of one’s worth and status.
Jesus considered money or wealth a spiritual power (Matthew 6:24), an object of worship, and a rival to God. That is why He often asked people to turn away from it not because it was money as such but rather because of the adverse effect it has on some people. Look at Zacchaeus. He offered to give half of his possessions to the poor as a sign of his desire to follow Christ. (Luke 19:8). So, the only way to defeat the power of mammon is to give it away (Acts 20:35).
St. Paul also warned against the power of money. In 1 Timothy 6:10 he says: “For the love of money is the root of all evils, and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.” Paul may be implying that people who love money will do anything to get it. The desire for money has a way of enslaving the person seeking it. By this parable, Jesus is teaching us that we should never allow money to be our master but rather a servant used for ethical and noble purposes.
Christians are to recognize that God's kingdom is more important than money (Matthew 6:33). God, the owner, gives us material wealth to use, and to share with others in stewardship. Just because we worked hard to amass a sizeable amount of wealth, we must not let that be a justification for spending it all on ourselves. At all times, we are to keep in mind that we will one day give account to God for the use of our wealth.
It is perfectly acceptable for Christians to possess money. But, we must not be possessed by it or enslaved to it. The pursuit of wealth as an end in itself shows that we are truly materialistic individuals. We, as Christians, must guard against the persistent idolatry of materialism that focuses on the material stuff of this world and not on God.
Now, I have a question for you. How much are you willing to give up now, in order to have it all later? Before you answer the question, be sure you think about what you had to endure to get what you have. I am sure it has been a lifelong journey over which good friendships and meaningful relationships have been sacrificed. You put your name and reputation on the line and whatever progress you made has come with great difficulty – and you have got the baggage and scars to prove it. But through it all, you survived. You made it! Now: how much are you willing to give up?
This question confronts the young man who approached Jesus. Perhaps he realizes that no matter what he has done, who he knows, where he has been, or how hard he has tried, there comes a time when the trail of ambition dead-ends because of human limitation.
I dare not minimize the choice to be made, but I do suggest that the time will come when our best efforts fail. And when the time comes, God’s grace will breach the gap between human limits and God’s ability. Of this point in life, John Newton wrote, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”
Commonly defined as God’s unmerited favor, grace is the act of God giving us what we do not deserve. In Ephesians 2:8, Paul informs us that grace is a gift of God. And, in Romans 5:15, he tells us that grace is God’s free gift which cannot be earned, neither does it require repayment. Our Gospel lesson this morning intersects the point where human ambition gives way to God’s grace. And here the question is raised: What happens when human ambition meets God’s grace?
When ambition meets grace, we are reminded of what really matters. The young man in the Gospel almost had it all. He kept the commandments, he kept up appearances, he kept striving for more, and he kept keeping on. But in all his doing he realized that one prize kept eluding him, and that is where his despair began.
The young man pressed Jesus to tell him what to “do” to “have” eternal life as if he could just try a little harder, increase his portfolio’s diversity, pay off the right people – or maybe he could pray more or harder, or get to temple five minutes earlier. With human agency, this young man attempted to possess eternal life. But he discovered what really matters: God gives eternal life and as such, eternal life must possess you. Eternal life must inform human activity.
Eternal life should drive us to empower the existence of others above and beyond our desire to accumulate “stuff”. In verse 21, Jesus makes the point: since you have everything you need down here, and since you say your concern is with the weightier matter of eternal life, sell what you have and give it to the poor. Since God freely provides access to the kingdom of God when we die, we ought to be about the business of establishing access to the kingdom of God while we live. That means we should give of our excess and not merely what is “just enough.” We should bear one anothers' burdens. We should speak life to one another. If we want God’s kingdom to come, then Mahatma Gandhi had it right, “We must be the change we want to see in this world.” Let the Gospel change you! And use the Gospel to empower someone else, now!
What really matters is also seen in the way we embrace eternal rewards above temporary possessions. Jesus is clear in verses 21 and 22: if you adjust the way you think about what really matters, “you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow Me.” In response, the young man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Jesus offered treasure in heaven and companionship on this side of heaven, but the young man was unwilling to let go of stuff that could be corrupted by moths and rust, and over which thieves could have full reign. He embraced the wrong thing, and for all, we know his tombstone would read: Here lies one who walked away from Jesus. He was rich but his material possessions could not withstand the call of death.
On the question of giving up now or gaining later, I suggest you embrace your eternal reward. When ambition meets grace, we can receive the blessing of God’s kingdom. In verses 23-26, Jesus points His disciples to the ultimate and final blessing to be enjoyed by God’s kingdom: God’s potential. In a dialectical manner, Jesus presents God’s potential over and against a portrait of the impossible. On the one hand, we see the preposterous notion of a camel passing through a space that is much too narrow for it to pass through in one piece. On the other hand, Jesus points the disciples to God who is able to do even the preposterous. Yes, God can do the preposterous.
Verse 25 introduces us to the blessing of God’s kingdom. The disciples asked: “Then who can be saved?” In God’s kingdom, whoever receives God’s free gift of grace – apart from anything they bring to the table, void of the things that bring fame and fortune in this world, free from the bondage of bad ambition – these are the ones who can be saved. I wish the young man had not walked away as fast as he did. If he were still around, he would hear Jesus say, “but for God [and might I add, the One who acts preposterously] all things are possible!”
God can lift us from the bondage of excess and greed. God can open our eyes to the reality of hope. God can reorder our value system. God can cause the dispossessed to hold their heads up high and dare to dream. Jeremiah affirmed it in Jeremiah 32:17. Jesus confirmed it in verse 26 of this morning’s Gospel, and I’m saying it now – there is nothing too hard for God!
When ambition meets grace, we are also required to examine our relationships. As one whose life’s mission was to do the will of the Father, surely Jesus knew the separation He required of the disciples was no small thing. But, in case Jesus needed a reminder, in verse 27, Peter said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” By reordering their relationships, the disciples indicate what matters for eternity. They put Jesus first and demonstrated their readiness to receive the grace of God’s kingdom.
Our loved ones are summoned home by the Lord, or removed from us by time, distance, or experience, and we struggle with this because life is unimaginable without their love. But even here, by God’s grace, heaven has a way of reimagining reality for those who have lost it all for the cause of Christ. In God’s eternity, whatever has been lost in this world will be restored. And, if I read verse 29 right, we come out ahead. God fixed it so that whatever we reorder in our life to follow His Son will be returned to the tune of a value that is too large to consider.
That is why when it looks like following Jesus on the slow, straight, and narrow path will lead you to a last place finish, Jesus triumphantly declares you the winner! The judge is able to review your record, and because you ran with patience the race set before you; because you ran with faithfulness when other folks laughed and mocked you; because you stayed with Jesus when others took what looks like the easy way out, Jesus says: “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of your Lord.”