A rich man’s question
16 A man approached him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”
17 Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”
18 The man said, “Which ones?”
Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. 19 Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
20 The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”
21 Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”
22 But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions.
Teaching about giving up things
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you that it will be very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 In fact, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
25 When his disciples heard this, they were stunned. “Then who can be saved?” they asked.
26 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.”
27 Then Peter replied, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?”
28 Jesus said to them, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.
Thoughts on the passage:
Are we there yet? Even as adults, when we go on a long trip we often find ourselves asking this question. For my kids, the question we get asked the most is whether they have eaten enough vegetables to earn dessert. They will take a couple of bites and ask if it is enough. Then they will eat some more and ask again. Once you tell them they have had enough, they will immediately stop. For the most part, vegetables are a means to an end.
In our story today, the rich young ruler is asking a similar question. He wants to know how much he needs to do in order to earn eternal life. He has done a lot already, and he wants to know if that is going to be enough. When he asks Jesus what is needed, he is first asked if he follows all the laws. When he says “yes,” Jesus gives him one more challenge. He is told to give up everything and follow Jesus. Hearing this, the young ruler goes away sad.
I suspect that many of us are like the rich young ruler. We want to know what is expected of us so that we can have eternal life. Unfortunately, like the rich young ruler, we are approaching things the wrong way. We see our good actions and our faithful conduct as a means to an end, eternal life. Instead, we need to see it as a part of the end. Like eating vegetables, there is value in the actions themselves. We do not do good so that we can have eternal life, we should do good because it is good, it is the right thing to do.
At the end of the story, the man goes away sad, because he has a great deal to do. We never hear after this what happens to him. We do not know if he gives up because the challenge is to great, or if he overcomes his sorrow, sells everything, and returns later to follow Christ. All we know is this, following Jesus is shown to not be an easy task. Even the disciples are left to wonder if they have done enough to earn eternal life.
We often find ourselves getting caught in the same trap of how much is enough when it comes to our faith. How often do we need to go to church? How much should we read the Bible? Do we need to pray once a day, twice a day, or like the Muslims should we be praying five times a day? Just like the rich young ruler and the disciples, we want to have a clear understanding of what is expected of us.
The problem is, when we do this we are missing the whole point of our actions. Discipleship is not about checking off boxes or doing the right things. Discipleship is about a life of faith, a commitment to grow in a relationship to Christ. While we can talk about discipleship in terms of what we do and the actions we take, these actions are a part of something greater, a growing and evolving relationship with God. Think about a marriage, no matter how many times you do the dishes, mow the lawn, or say “I love you,” you are never done. The same is true when it comes to a life of faith. No matter how many laws we follow, or good deeds we do, it is never enough, because the actions are not the point. The journey with Christ is the point.
We are in the midst of our annual stewardship campaign and so I want to use money as a way to think about discipleship. When it comes to the pledge cards we fill out, there are a couple of ways of thinking about what to give. One way is to ask what our share should be. After all, all as members of the church, we have promised to the support the church with our gifts, so it only seems reasonable to think of our pledge as a reflection of doing our share. The Bible gives us another way to think about how much we should give. In Scriptures, we find the idea of a tithe, or ten percent of our income. This would be another way to think about how much we are supposed to be giving. Both of these would be the wrong way to approach things, but for different reasons.
First, we cannot think about how much we give in terms of our share. We have over three hundred members in our congregation, but we all have different means. Some of our members are still in high school or away in college. Asking them to pay the same as people who have an established job and steady income might not be a reasonable request. Others are on a fixed income and may even have fixed expenses, like the cost of staying in a nursing home, that limit their ability to give as much. We are all at different places in our lives and there is no good way to determine what our share should be.
Second, when we talk about a tithe, it is important to think about what the purpose of a tithe is. If we see a tithe as simply an easy marker of how much we are supposed to give, we are missing the point of the tithe. The concept of a tithe comes from the Old Testament. It was originally meant to represent the first fruits that were given to God when the people entered the Promised Land. The people offered their first harvest to God, not knowing what more was going to come. The tithe was an act of faith, that they would first give to God and trust that there would still be enough for them.
When we tithe, we must do so not as a way of checking off a box. Instead, we tithe in much the same way that the young ruler was asked to give up everything. We give first, and give generously to God, because we trust in God and we believe that what we need most is a relationship with God. We give first to God because we do not want anything to come between us and God. We do not tithe because it is what we are supposed to do. We tithe because we want to be in a better relationship with God.
How does tithing help our relationship with God? The rich young ruler is not asked to give up ten percent of his income to follow Christ, instead he is asked to give it all up. While we are not told directly why, I think both his reaction to the request, and the comments that Jesus makes afterward give us an idea. The rich young ruler is asked to give up all his money because that money is creating a barrier between himself and God. The money, like his good deeds, is a way that the ruler is looking out for himself. It is a way that he is taking care of himself. Do we trust God enough to let God take care of us?
For some of us, the thing that comes between us and God is money. For others it might be power or the need to be in control. There are lots of things that come between us and God. Many of them are good things, but simply get abused. When I was in college, I was not very good at going to church on Sunday. I have lots of reasons for it, and some of them might be good ones. The reality is, that other things came between me and God. I was gone to fencing tournaments probably every other week. Was there anything wrong with this? No, but by being gone, it made it harder to go to church and so harder to grow in my relationship to God. Did I need to give up fencing to follow God? Probably not, but to grow in my faith, I did need to make sure that fencing was not more important than God.
We all have things that come between us and God and we are all given the same challenge by Christ. If we really want to follow him and be in relationship with him, we need to be willing to give those things up. Our story today reminds us that this is going to be hard. It is hard because relationships are hard. They are not about check-lists of what we do and do not do. Instead, they are about growing together, loving together, and trusting together. Are we ready to give up everything, trusting in God? Are we ready to plant our seeds to yield a harvest for God?
Questions to Ponder:
Did the rich young ruler end up following Jesus?
What barriers exist between you and God?
What do you think Jesus is asking you to give up in order to follow him?
Who is someone you know who has made a great sacrifice for their faith?
God, like the rich young ruler, each of us struggles at times to follow you. We long for a simple list of things we need to do and yet we know it does not work that way. Help us to remember that all that we need is given to us by you. Help us to love and trust you with our whole lives, setting aside anything and everything in order to follow you. Bless us with your spirit that we might be faithful followers of Christ. Amen