Good to Great - First Who Then What

Matthew 19:16-30

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:

When I first read the book “Good to Great” my second year in ministry I remember being frustrated with the chapter “First Who Then What.” In his study of companies that made the transition from good to great, Jim Collins found that the successful ones started by first getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. He noted that many of the companies had demanding standards and high turnover during this period while they worked to get the right people in place. Once they did this, they were able to then focus on where the company was going and begin their journey from good to great.

As a pastor, I found this to be a challenging and frustrating lesson. After all, in a business where your staff are all employees it is easy to talk about getting people on and off the bus. In a church, most of your employees are not actually paid, they are the congregation. While there are mechanisms to fire volunteers and most churches have some way of kicking people out of the membership of a church, not only is hard to do, it tends to feel, well, unchristian. What does it mean to talk about getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus in a church that believes in open hearts, open minds, and open doors? What does it look like to practice this “first who then what” philosophy when you believe in a God of love and grace who invites everyone to the table and calls everyone into ministry?

To start with, maybe we need to rethink what we mean about a loving God who calls everyone. While it is true that Jesus is clear that he wants to reach everyone, he is also exacting in his standards of what is required. In our scripture today we are reminded that everyone might be invited and called, but not everyone is willing to do what it takes. Jesus is quite clear of what is expected to be a follower of Christ and our rich young ruler shows that not everyone is ready for the challenge.

The question that the rich young ruler askes is one that I think we all get. We all want to know what it is going to take to inherit this promise of eternal life that Jesus has been talking about. We all want to know what is required of us. The man in the story asks Jesus what good things are required of him, but where he struggles is with the answer that he gets. At first, he is encouraged because the things Jesus talks about initially are things he has done, but then he learns what he is missing. He needs to sell everything and follow Christ. Ouch, when the man thinks about all that he has to give up, he goes away sad because he has a lot.

Jesus explains that it is going to be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is establishing some expectations. It is not that rich people, or anyone else is being barred from heaven, but to enter heaven, we need to be aware of these standards. The disciples wonder if those standards are too high, “Can anyone be saved?” Jesus is quick to remind them, and us, that what seems impossible to us is not impossible with God. “God does not call the equipped but equips the called” is what our Annual Conference Lay Speaker team has been teaching us.

Think about it this way, who seems more equipped to bring about the kingdom of God, a rich ruler or a fisherman. The first one has been learning about the teaching of scripture and faithfully following them for years. He brings so much, knowledge, resources, and connections to help spread the message of Christ. The other, a fisherman brings little theological training, is a little dense (let’s just be honest), has no real source of income, and few connections. On paper most of us would select the first one over the second, and we would be wrong. We would not know that what Peter possess, that the ruler does not, is a willingness to follow Christ no matter what it means. Peter leaves his livelihood and his family to respond to the call. He is committed to the vision of bringing about God’s kingdom. The ruler is only interested in what it will do to benefit himself.

Jesus knows what Jim Collins learns in his research, that good leaders do not look for the most talented people, they look for the right people. What makes us the right people? We love God and are willing to follow Christ. Does it help if we are smart? Sure. Is it a bad thing if we are rich? Not at all, as long as we do not love our wealth more than we love our God. What are the expectations that Jesus really has for those people who are “on the bus?” He expects us to be committed to God and not to ourselves.

One of the things that gets lost in this story is the shift from what we call works righteousness to an understanding of the need for God. Works righteousness is the idea that through our own actions, our works, we can be made righteous. It is the underpinning of the rich ruler’s question and the concern of the disciples that Jesus has set a standard that no one can obtain. On our own, we cannot obtain that, but what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. Luther, who hated the idea of works righteousness, wondered how any of us could ever really love God when we were always more concerned with ourselves and our salvation. What he realized is that we can love God because God first loved us. Our salvation has been assured to us by God. It is God’s love for us that saves us and it in turn motivates our love for God.

Think about this for a minute, why are you a Christian? If you are like me, it is not because you studied the tenants of Christianity and decided they best matched your own view of the world. Rather, it was because of what God did in your life. You are here, in church, because God first loved you. You experienced God moving in your life and you had to do something about it. You felt God’s love and wanted to share it with us. You came to know God’s grace and wanted more. You saw God at work in the world and you wanted to join in God’s restorative work in creation. We are not here because of us, we are here because of God.

When it comes to being a great church, I think the heart of it is that we are all committed not to our own gain or glory but to God’s. I cannot try and make this a great church so that I look good, but because God needs us to be great. We should not want to be great so that we can be a part of the most successful or popular, or biggest church in Willmar. Instead, we should want it because we believe that God is doing great things in Willmar and we are just trying to be a part of that work.

God needs us all on the bus and all doing our part to bring about the kingdom of heaven. The question is, are we ready to set aside our own desires to serve God? Do we love God more than we love our own success, our own wealth, and our interests? If we do, then we can join together and become a great church. If we are ready to set aside our own personal needs then we can join in bringing about God’s kingdom. It might seem impossible to do, but we know that what is impossible for us is possible for God. So let us respond to God’s call and trust that with God’s help we can bring about the kingdom of heaven.


Questions to Ponder:

What would make Willmar United Methodist Church a great church?

What are the ways that God is calling you to set aside your own needs to serve others?

What does servant leadership look like?

When is a time when you have felt like the rich ruler and been overwhelmed with what was required?


O God, often the needs before us are overwhelming. It is tempting to fall back on what we know, our money, our safety, our own self-interests. Help us to have the courage to give these up as we respond to your call. Give us the courage to know that when we follow you, your love and grace will be more than enough for all our needs. Bless us and be with us as we seek to make this church a great church that brings about your kingdom here in Willmar. Amen