For an American aspiring to enter eternal life, whose nation’s bottom 5% lives better than 70% of the rest of the world, the most troubling word he might ever hear was the answer Jesus gave to a rich man’s question: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ bombshell response:
“One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
For myself, as an American living in the upper part of an unprecedented historical bubble of prosperity, who aspires to eternal life, it might be tempting to become very sad (like the rich young ruler) for I too am extremely rich (along with a huge percentile of my fellow citizens).
If what Jesus spoke was intended for all men, I—and every American citizen who looks to Jesus for their salvation—is condemned on the grounds of having not given everything to the poor. This is a troubling thought, apparently so troubling to some they become monks to alleviate their trouble. By giving their belongings away, they are at least clear on that count. However, once settled in their hermitage, they must learn to pray at all times. So they attend various services throughout the day to remain clear on that count. And we know how their vows of celibacy clear them of lust. You probably see my point.
Even the most devout legalist is doomed. Religion will always set the bar such that righteousness, lofty as it is, still appears achievable. Religion then motivates men out of guilt to take fresh runs at various standards of righteousness, hoping they will clear the bar and live lives pleasing to God.
With the rich young ruler, I do not believe Jesus was trying to establish a standard of righteousness where heaven could be purchased by selling all one’s possessions and distributing the proceeds to the poor. No. This would make a sham of the grace by which we are saved. At the same time, I do believe Jesus’ words were a laser-guided bomb that had to be dropped into the rich young ruler’s heart. I believe that with His piercing words Jesus was trying to take out the stronghold of religion that had imprisoned this man in the idea that eternal kingdom life is attainable through good deeds.
I don’t mean to isolate legalistic monks as the sole prisoners of religion. No man is exempt from this struggle. Monks are just the more obvious, thus convenient, examples. Born again believers are quite capable of legalism. More than once I have been liberated from religious mindsets. On one occasion, I was taking a run at a bar with the anticipation I might actually clear it, when, on a dead run, the whole runway exploded beneath me. To say my face-plant was painful would be an understatement. Like the rich young ruler, I was profoundly shaken.
In retrospect, I’m persuaded that, out of His love for me, God dropped that bomb so that I could fully receive the gift. Eternal life is a gift. It cannot be purchased. If we in anyway think our labors earn his favor, his loving crosshairs are painted on our hearts. If we’re fortunate, the missile will find its mark and our religious delusions will be mercifully exploded.
Jesus, not being one to waste a good bomb, allowed others beside the rich man to be hit by its shrapnel. Stunned by the impact, they asked, “Then who can be saved?” As much as any words Jesus ever spoke, I am grateful for those he spoke next:
“The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.”
Whether we live in the top 5% or the bottom 5% of the economic demographic, without Christ, we live in profound spiritual poverty. And try as we may, in our fallen guilt, to appease a holy God through religious observances, we remain impossibly estranged from Him. Our salvation is made possible exclusively though a gift. That gift is purely and simply Jesus. There is no other way to receive what the rich young ruler hungered for other than receiving Jesus. Through a simple yet miraculous embrace of this reality, we are made sons and daughters of God. He has breathed upon us, and His life is once again ours.
The one thing the rich young ruler lacked was not that he was unwilling to sell all that he had. He also lacked the understanding of grace and the understanding that Jesus Himself was the eternal Bread of Life. I believe there is a chance the rich young ruler’s hunger eventually drew him to Jesus and let him see the bigger picture, one in which Christ was the fulfillment of the Law, and one who could dismantle every religious stronghold which opposes the grace gift of God. I believe that after the resurrection, with God’s bigger picture alive in his heart, he may have discovered that all things are in fact possible with God.
I hope that, in light of the great Love that was pursuing this rich man, he changed his mind and surrendered the title of his possessions to God. One day in eternity we’ll discover whether Jesus asked him to give it up after all or not. It would have been a potent testimony for this young man to have remained in the world and not of it by stewarding wealth while living free from its intoxicating and binding influence.
Father, continually lead the captives out of captivity, especially those hearts which have fallen back into laboring for your approval and blessing.