READ : Matthew 19:16-30
Would you give up everything to follow Jesus? Could you? In a famous encounter with a man who had everything, Jesus made a dramatic demand. He could do the same thing to you.
Here is a lovely scene from the 19th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “Then children were brought to [Jesus] that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven'” (vv. 13-14). Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. The Sunday school song has it exactly right. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross, but he stops long enough to bless some children who were brought to him by their parents. What parent wouldn’t want their child to be picked up and prayed over by Jesus? How comforting to think that we can still bring our little ones to Christ in prayer, to know that he wants us to do that, and that he delights in blessing them! So Jesus rebukes the officious disciples, who thought he was too important to be bothered with a bunch of kids. He proclaims instead, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
That is touching, and it has provided the subject for many a nursery picture, but let’s not miss the important theological point Jesus is making here. This wasn’t simply a gesture, like a politician’s baby-kissing photo-op. In his blessing of the children Jesus is trying to say something important about salvation, and how to receive it. In the ancient world children had no status or importance, which is why the disciples were turning them away. In the world, “nobodies” don’t get to spend time with important people; only “somebodies” do. But in the kingdom of God things are different. To be somebody there, you have to acknowledge yourself first to be a nobody. If you want to be saved you must give up all your pretensions to importance: your achievements, your status, your possessions. To enter the kingdom you have to receive it the way a child receives everything, not as a reward or a prize, not as a result of your own efforts, but simply as a gift from God’s hand.
One Who Could Not Enter
But this little scene of Jesus receiving and blessing the children is really the prelude to an encounter that follows immediately afterwards. Just as Jesus was finishing with the children, someone else approached him. “And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him . . . ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ . . . The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:16-22).
Each of the first three gospels tells this story of a young man who approached the Lord Jesus with his question. Luke describes him as “a certain ruler.” Matthew calls him “a young man.” All three gospel writers mention his wealth; hence the popular designation for him: “the rich young ruler.” Think of him as a successful young businessman, an upwardly mobile professional, a rising politician. The encounter this man had with Jesus offers a powerful illustration of the truth that Jesus had just been emphasizing: that the only way into the kingdom of God is to humble yourself to become like a little child, to receive it as a gift.
But this guy, we have to admit, is a very appealing figure; in fact, one of the gospels says that when Jesus looked at the man he loved him. The man seemingly had it all: social position, prestige, money (lots of it, according to the Bible), a good character. His claim to have kept all the commandments was probably true, at least in a superficial sense. So the rich young ruler was attractive. He was wealthy. He had status and he had moral integrity. He was the sort of person everyone could admire, even envy.
And on top of all that, as if that weren’t enough, he’s serious-minded. He’s religious. The rich young ruler was interested in spiritual things. He came to Jesus with an earnest inquiry: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now that is an important question. But Jesus reacts to it in a rather surprising way. “What are you asking me for?” he says. I think that Jesus is trying to get this man’s attention right from the start, even shock him, shake him up a little bit. Reading between the lines, it looks as though the young man was lacking a bit in the humility department. It would be understandable if he did. I mean, look at all he had going for him. The man must have been used to people falling all over him with praise his whole life long. I think that Jesus wants to break through the young ruler’s rather self-satisfied attitude, to rattle his complacency. Perhaps the man’s tone in approaching Jesus was more than a little smug. “Well, Jesus, you and I, good people that we are, we know what morality is. In fact, we embody it. So let’s have a nice theological conversation about eternal life.”
Another thing that surprises me, though, is that the rich young ruler would ask Jesus this question at all. I mean, don’t you think most people in his place would have assumed that they already had eternal life? He was morally upright. He had kept the law from his boyhood, or at least he thought he had. No rebelliousness in this man’s past. He was pious and devout. He respected God. He knew the Bible. He was respected by others. He was obviously blessed in every way, including even financially. So what made this man think that he still needed anything? Why did he believe that something was lacking in order for him to be sure of having eternal life?
Maybe he didn’t. Not really. I wonder if the man was truly serious when he asked his question, or whether he was really looking not for instruction but for reassurance from Jesus, maybe even for praise. That’s what we often do, isn’t it? You ask a close friend what they think of your appearance or your performance and what you really want isn’t constructive criticism; it’s affirmation. Maybe this man expected Jesus to respond to him along these lines: “What must you do to inherit eternal life? Why, nothing, my boy! A fine young man like you? You’ve already got everything you need; you’re in! I wish everyone could be just like you.”
Or did the young man somehow, deep down, feel that something was still lacking, that he did still need to do something? Was all of his morality and all of his wealth somehow not able to satisfy him? Perhaps it was even seeing and listening to Jesus that caused this man to feel like he was missing something, that made him uneasy in the midst of all his accomplishments and forced him to admit that, no, he didn’t quite have it all just yet. So he came to Christ looking for more.
He was quite right to do so, for despite all that he was and all that he had, this young man did lack the crucial thing. What he lacked, in fact, was the one thing necessary to be sure of eternal life, and that “one thing” really is everything. Jesus tells him how to get it. Actually it’s really quite simple: just “Come, follow me.” That is the gateway, the door, into salvation and everlasting life. The one thing the rich young ruler was missing for eternal life was Jesus himself.
The Key To Entering
But first something had to be removed. There was an obstacle standing between the young man and Jesus. He had to be humbled, like a child, to be stripped of everything in which he was putting his trust. To receive the gift of eternal life you must allow yourself to be given it. Jesus once said that the door to the kingdom is narrow and the way to heaven is hard. He meant that we have to give up all the baggage we’re lugging around and stoop low to enter that narrow gate, Jesus himself. If anything is more dear to us, more precious or important to us than Jesus, we can’t follow him. So Jesus puts it to the man straight: “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
It turns out that the rich young ruler couldn’t do that. There was something that this man loved more than Christ, something he wanted even more than eternal life, something he did not feel he could leave behind in order to follow Jesus. That something was his money. Jesus told the man he had to give it up; and he couldn’t do it — or wouldn’t do it. So he turned away in sorrow. So what about us? Should we sell all that we have and follow Jesus? Perhaps. Some of us should, at least. But all of us have to do that in some sense or other. Does that mean we earn salvation by the sacrifices we make? No. Not really. I like what Dale Bruner says about this story. “How, then, finally, do we come to eternal life? By “keeping the commandments!” How do we do that? By giving up our gods. How do we do that? By following Jesus. This is the . . . full answer to the question of eternal life” (F. Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 2, p. 301). If there is anything that’s keeping you from following Jesus, you need to sell it today!