This is one of those profoundly disturbing passages.
Jesus challenges all our ideas about goodness and about wealth, and we find ourselves stripped naked before him
He challenges our ideas about goodness
The man calls Jesus ‘Good Teacher’.
Jesus cuts him down, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’. (v18)
That is radical.
Jesus is in fact saying, ‘There is no such thing as a good person’.
There is goodness, but nobody can really be described as ‘good’
That is quite hard to take. Especially for this man who was counting on his goodness to get into heaven.
He claims to have kept all the law: ‘All these I have kept since my youth’.And there is no reason to doubt that claim.
Look at what Jesus lists: murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, defrauding others, honouring your father and mother. He could say, ‘I haven’t murdered anybody, committed adultery, born false witness (in court), defrauded anyone (in a significant way), and I’ve honoured my parents.
You could say that you have either done those things or not done them.
But if you have done what is right by the law, then all that does is make you someone who is good at keeping the law – you conform to the requirements of society. It doesn’t make you a good person.
The goodness that God is looking for is not surface goodness but heart goodness. It is not about just about behaviour; it is about what is going on in here.
And often it is people who we think of as good who would be the first to say that they are far from good. John Stott, an immensely godly, gifted and humble Christian bible teacher who lived in the UK and died a few years ago, was on one occasion introduced to his audience with a glowing introduction. He replied by saying, ‘Thank you. But if you could see into my heart you would want to spit in my face’.
The point is – and even though you may find this disturbing, I also hope that you will find it liberating – however good you are you will never be good enough to get into heaven. ‘No one is good’, says Jesus, ‘except God alone.
I think this man knew that. Yes, he had ticked all the boxes, but he knew that something was missing. That was why he had come to Jesus.
2. Jesus challenges ideas about money
In Judaism, and to be honest, still in our world today, having money is considered to be a blessing, a mark of God’s favour
If you have money you have power. You can make choices, go where you want. You think you have security – at least until those things happen which not even all the money in the world can prevent.
But Jesus seems to be saying here that having a lot of money is not a blessing but a curse. It prevents people from entering the Kingdom of Heaven
‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God’ (v23)
‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’ (v25)
That is something that speaks to many of us here. We may not have the wealth of an oligarch, but by whatever global standards you choose to use, many of us here are wealthy. And money traps us.
It trapped this man.
When Jesus said to him, ‘One thing you lack – sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’, he couldn’t do it.
I guess Jesus is asking him, ‘how much do you really want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven; how much do want eternal life? How much do you want to be saved?’ Those are the three phrases that are used here. In other words, because this is what it is really all about, ‘How much do you want God – how much do you want to know God, and know his goodness, to know his joy and to share in his life – a life which far far bigger than death?’ Do you want that so much that you are prepared to renounce everything that you have in order to get it.
You have to give Jesus this: he was utterly consistent.
He speaks of the Kingdom of God as a uniquely precious diamond. Someone sees it and they want it. They want it so badly, that they sell everything that they have, their entire jewel collection, in order to buy that one diamond.
He tells people who want to come and follow him, but who ask him to allow them first to bury their father, or to even just say goodbye to their family – that if they go back they cannot be his disciples.
He teaches the crowds that if they do not hate their fathers and mothers and even their own life, they cannot be his followers.
He talks of giving up all you have if you wish to follow him.
We need to get this. Before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven we need to be prepared to renounce everything that we are, everything that we have.
We come to Jesus with two suitcases – our goodness suitcase and our stuff suitcase – and we say I want to follow you. And Jesus says, ‘I’ll take you, but I can’t take that.’ First put them down.
We need to stand naked, alone before God – with nothing
That is the symbolism of what happened at your baptism – or, if you have not yet been, what will happen when you are baptised.
As we are washed with the water – in many churches here you will be submerged under the water – it is a symbol that I am dying: dying to this world, dying to my ideas of goodness, dying to my stuff.
And we cannot come alive to God, we cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven, while we are still clinging to this world and what it offers.
But please do not despair.
There are also some tremendous reassurances here.
1. Jesus looked at this man who came to him and, we are told, loved him.
And Jesus looks at you and he loves you. Yes, he asks you to do something that appears incredibly difficult, but he does it because he loves you.
He delights in you. He longs for the absolute best for you – so that you will become the person that he created you to be. He deeply desires to be in communion with you, and he invites you to come into communion with him.
When we surrender all that we have and are to Jesus, we are surrendering ourselves to one who loves us deeply – who loved us so much that he was prepared to go to the cross in order to win us.
2. Jesus offers this man a new life.
He says to this man, ‘Sell what you have .. and come and follow me’.
Jesus invites this man to become one of his followers. He is saying literally ‘come with me’. Go where I go, camp where I camp, to eat what I eat, learn from me.
This man was invited to speak Jesus words and to do Jesus’ deeds.
And for us, it is not just the call to give up the things that we cannot give up, but it is the invitation to live a new life: a life lived with Jesus, as part of his family.
3. Jesus promises that whatever we leave for him, however big or little, it will be returned to us – almost certainly not in the same way – but many times over. And not only then – also now, in this world [vv29-30]
You see this is not just about eternal life. This is about beginning to live the Kingdom of God here and now in this world
That is a promise which many people have found to be true.
Think of people in history who have heard Jesus speaking to them through this passage literally. People who have become monks or missionaries. People like St Anthony or St Francis or St Augustine. People like CT Studd, Jackie Pullinger.
And for others – people who have given up much in order to be obedient to the call of God.
Please hear me when I say that this passage is not the entire teaching of the bible on personal wealth. I don’t think everyone is called to sell everything. That was certainly not the assumption of the early church. But the key point is that if money and the pursuit of money has got a hold on you, for the sake of God you have got to give it up
Clement of Alexandria wrote in Salvation of the Rich Man, “If one is able in the midst of wealth to turn from its mystique, to entertain moderate desires, to exercise self-control, to seek God alone, and to breathe God and walk with God, such a man submits to the commandments, being free, unsubdued, free of disease, unwounded by wealth. But if not, “sooner shall a camel enter through a needle’s eye, than such a rich man reach the kingdom of God.”
4. I’m not sure whether this is reassuring or not, but Jesus also promises us that there will be persecution. I guess it is a reassurance that – when they come - we are on the right track; and if they don’t come, then we can thank God, but also re-examine ourselves and ask whether we are living for the world’s standards on goodness and stuff – or for God’s standards
5. You will receive eternal life.
Imagine that you are this man. You are one of the wealthiest people on this planet. And Jesus had looks at you and says to you, ‘You can buy eternal life. It is very expensive – it will cost you $100 billion’. You think: ‘I could do it. I could get $100bn if I sold everything – my companies, my houses, my football clubs, my islands. It will strip me of everything, and I will have nothing. I could end up homeless. My reputation will be shot to pieces. I would probably have to beg, throw myself on the mercy of others’.Is it worth it? Would you do it?
We’re not talking 15 or 20 extra years of life. We’re talking life in the Kingdom of God – where there is right-ness, mercy, peace and joy – we’re talking life with God. And we’re talking eternal life.
And this is not a theoretical question. Because Jesus looks at you with what you do have, and he says to each of us: you can buy eternal life. You don’t have $100bn dollars but it won’t cost you $100bn. Instead it will cost you all that you have.
Is it worth it? Will you do it?