Jesus’ teachings quite often go completely against the grain of capitalism. When some preacher gets on TV or wherever to proclaim that God’s wants all of us to be rich (which usually means he wants the preacher to be rich) it goes directly against Jesus’ own statements. In Luke 18 Jesus had just made the pronouncement about children that they should be allowed to come to him “For the kingdom of God belongs to these” when a certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) Obviously he was asking the greatest question a person can raise in life. I wish everyone would ask it honestly of someone who could give them a clear, honest and Biblical answer.
I wonder what he expected the Lord to say. If you look at Mark and Matthew’s accounts alongside Luke we can learn that he was rich, young and a ruler so we’ve often referred to him as the rich young ruler. Jesus didn’t compliment him for the question. He didn’t compliment him at all. Instead he asked him why he called him “Good”. “No one is good – except God alone.” Jesus wasn’t denying that he was good. His point was, the ruler didn’t recognize him as God in the flesh but only as a good teacher so why refer to him as good at all? He then told the man to “Keep the commandments”. Since they were still living under the Old Testament Law that was the appropriate answer. When he asked which ones Jesus gave him several of the commands, adding the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The young man declared he had kept these from his youth. I suspect he thought Jesus would tell him how well he was doing and just to keep it up. He was in for a shock.
Jesus said, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.” I can just imagine the young ruler’s jaw dropping as he realizes just how much of a commitment Jesus is asking for from him. But why did Jesus make such a demand? He didn’t demand the same of anyone else who came to him? I suspect it was because he knew this young man had made his money his god and that if he would be a true follower he would have to give that whole treasure up so he could have real treasure in heaven. What stands out to me in this is the Lord wasn’t all that concerned about him having treasure in the here and now. His concern was that he have treasure in the world to come.
He went away sadly because he was very wealthy. Jesus watched as he left but certainly didn’t run after him to tell him to just come back and lets talk about it. Instead “Jesus looked at him 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” His apostles were amazed. His answer went against the grain of all they had believed. Through most of the Old Testament it seemed that God rewarded those who were faithful to him with great wealth. Think of David, Abraham and Job. All were very wealthy men and God’s servants. So, they like so many in our time believed that if they just did right they would be blessed with riches in this world. The other side is also believed by many that if they are rich it means that God is pleased with them and blessing their life. Jesus words struck at the heart of both those ideas and declared them dead wrong!
Instead of riches meaning God’s blessing they often stand between a person and their even getting into the kingdom. Children have no problem getting in. Rich people have a hard time. Why? Because their wealth often leads them to think they can handle everything on their own power. It is hard to see the need for God when I have all I need or sometimes even all I want.
The disciples responded to Jesus by asking, “Who then can be saved?” Since they thought being rich meant God was pleased with you, if the rich have a tough time getting into the kingdom, it must mean salvation is hard to come by. Jesus noted that with men things that are impossible are still possible with God. Peter picked up on the whole notion of leaving everything to follow him and said “We’ve done that.” Truly they had turned their backs on their businesses, home life and often even family to follow Jesus .
Listen to Jesus answer to Peter and the others. “Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much IN THIS AGE, AND IN THE AGE TO COME ETERNAL LIFE.” (Verses 29-30) Compare Mark’s account of this same speech in Mark 10:28-31. “Truly I tell you no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life.”
God blesses those who give up important things in their life to follow him. He blesses them in the present life and in the world to come. But in his blessings there are also persecutions. Notice in Mark’s account that what God gives back isn’t always in things or stuff but in relationships.
Here’s the driving point! In God’s kingdom money and wealth are not an asset. Instead it is often the case that wealth, prosperity, power and prestige get in the way of commitment to God. Often the higher one goes in their life the harder it becomes to really put God first or even to depend on Him. We tend to think, especially in America we can handle it just fine on our own. Such attitudes make it impossible to get into or stay in the kingdom relationship with God.
Consider one comparison with another rich man that Jesus encountered. The story is recorded by Luke in the very next chapter. There was a tax collector named Zacchaeus. He was short and had to climb a tree to get to see Jesus when he approached. But when Jesus got to where he was, he stopped and told Zacchaeus to come down from the tree because he was going to Zacchaeus house that day. He welcomed Jesus gladly. He then stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8) “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Both men were rich. One left lost. One left saved. It wasn’t the wealth that mattered but what they did with the wealth. It is still how the things work today in God’s kingdom.