This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Ripple Effect". See series.
There's good news and bad news about our gospel passage. First the bad news: this is one of the most difficult, disturbing, and surprising stories in the entire New Testament. It's not a "nice" story. If you don't read this story and scratch your head and squirm in your seat, then you don't get it. You will learn that Jesus is very dangerous to our conceptions of spirituality, Christianity, and what defines a "decent life." But there's also good news: as we walk through this story, we'll find an offer from Jesus that leads to real life and real freedom. This story leads us away from a decent life and into the best life.
Here's the story in a nutshell: A very rich and decent man excitedly approaches Jesus and asks a simple question: "How do I live a decent life? I'm pretty close, so just tell me how to close the deal." Jesus says essentially, "I love you, man, but you aren't even close. So here's what you need to do: give away all your money, your stuff, your stock options, your cars, your homes, and your status, and focus completely on following me. Then you'll have real life." That's not the answer the man was looking for; crushed and sad, he walks away from Jesus.
The decent life
This story makes me squirm. First of all, I'm rich, and so are most of you. There's an Internet tool that allows you to plug in your annual income, and it will place you in a percentile for wealth across the world. Our family is fairly average for this area in the United States, but we placed in the 99.4 percentile for world wealth. So, yes, we're rich.
Secondly, we'd like to think that we're fairly decent people. Of course, good people don't brag about this, but if God divided the world into two camps?good people and bad people?most of us would be on the good side. We know the rules: go to church, be nice to people, don't murder people, take care of the kids, give some money away, don't shoplift, avoid trans fats, recycle plastic items, and volunteer somewhere. We have our problems and our addictions and our sinful habits, but all in all, we're decent people?much like the man in this story.
So how will Jesus respond to the decent life I'm trying to build for myself and my family? Will Jesus come along and add the icing on the cake of my decent life? Let's see what he does with this decent, successful fellow that we know as the "rich young ruler."
What must I do to be saved?
Verse 17 says, "Jesus started on the way," or literally, "on the road." The gospel writer Mark uses "on the way" or "on the road" as a code word for discipleship. To believe in Jesus is to join Jesus on the road. As Jesus is on the way, a man runs up to him, falls on his knees, and says, "Good Teacher, what must I do inherit eternal life?" Mark tells us that he was a man of great wealth?and everyone back then assumed that wealth was the sign of a decent, blessed life. We notice the young man's enthusiasm and sincerity. He's eager; he's the early bird that gets worm; he's the overachiever of life. The question?"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"?implies a spirituality of achievement. What can I do to get life right? How do I get right with God and stay right with God? Show me the steps?give me the tools?and I'll build my own decent life.
You'd think Jesus would be happy to have an eager, super-achieving, confident, get-it-done kind of disciple; instead, Jesus is rather abrupt with the guy. He starts by saying, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." This has often confused people, because elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus does and says things that imply?very strongly, in fact?that he and God the Father are one. What is Jesus saying here? As we'll see in a minute, I believe that Jesus is challenging this man. Jesus says: Do you even know what good means? You assume you can just run up to me and have me dish out some quick, simple answer to your spiritual quest. Do you really think it's that easy, my friend? Do you think I'm your cosmic vending machine? You better think twice if that's what you mean by saying I'm good.
Then Jesus gives a very traditional, expected answer: "You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother." By the way?do you know which one of those items was not one of the Ten Commandments? It's "Do not defraud." I think Jesus added it to the list just to throw a wrench into the gears of his moral machine. It's very hard to get rich without using or simply ignoring the poor around us.
Our decent, morally upstanding, rich man replies with total sincerity: "Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy." Is he lying? I don't think so. He's a decent guy. Before he met Jesus, the apostle Paul would say the same thing (see Philippians 3:4?-6). Morally speaking, he works hard on the outer shell of his appearance. There are very few chinks in his moral armor.
So, this guy comes running up to Jesus. He's excited; he's inquisitive. You'd think Jesus would be impressed. Instead, out of thin air, Jesus erects a brick wall and let's the guy slam into it. But notice that before Jesus does anything, our story tells us that Jesus looks at him and loves him. Isn't that an amazing statement? The Greek word for "looked at" is an intensified compound of the normal word for look. In other words, Jesus looked intently; he examined his soul; he knew this young man inside and out. We have to assume it was an uncomfortably long look. But notice that it was an examination of love. What would happen if someone looked right into your soul and knew everything about you? Would they be shocked? Would they walk away in disgust? When Jesus looks at you he looks with eyes of love.
But Jesus' love doesn't stop him from telling the truth. It's easy to think that love means minimizing truth. If you really love someone, you should never question their lifestyle or choices. True love tells the truth. Jesus says, "One thing you lack." I'm sure the guy was thinking, Oh good, just one thing. What is it? I can do it. Read the Bible a little more? I can do that. Not smart off to my parents? I can do that. Volunteer a little more? I can do that. Just let me know, Jesus. But he didn't expect Jesus' next statement: "One thing you lack: Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Verse 22 reads, "At this the man's face fell. He went away sad."
The one impossible thing
Why did Jesus say this? Does that mean I have to sell everything too? Is this the prerequisite for discipleship for everyone? In Scripture we find that Jesus doesn't tell every wealthy person he encounters to sell everything. A rich man named Zacchaeus, for example, gave half of his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8). But before we sigh with relief and say, "Whew! For a minute there I thought Jesus was going after my bank accounts and stocks!" we must realize this: Jesus isn't just after our money; he's after us.
When I was a student at the University of Minnesota, someone showed me a picture of a circle. In the center of the circle there was a large chair or throne. Around the edge of the circle, there were different circles representing the activities and priorities in our lives: work, hobbies, school, relationships, sports, music, etc. Whatever sat on the throne, he said, would control the activities around the edge. Then he asked me, "What is on your throne? Either Christ sits on the throne, or you have put something else in that place of priority. It could be work or your family or your marriage or your desire to get married or your hobbies. It could just be you sitting there. But remember: whatever sits on the throne becomes your god and will control the other areas of your life."
Here is what Jesus asks the rich young ruler to do: Put me on the throne. Put me first. Right now you have another, lesser god on the throne?money, status, being a decent person. I don't want a little bit of your money; I don't want a little more of your time; I don't want a little more of your religious efforts; I want you?—all of you. Put me on the throne and I'll give you something better?—much better.
Our decent, successful, wealthy young man doesn't trust that better life, so he refuses to join Jesus on the road. Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "How hard it is for the rich [and the decent, I might add] to enter the kingdom of God?" Verse 24 says, "The disciples were amazed at his words." So Jesus says it again: "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man [like us!] to enter the kingdom of God." In other words, it's impossible for rich and decent people to get saved.
With God, all things are possible.
Now the disciples are really shocked and confused: If this guy, who has met all the measures of success and leads a decent life, can't get in, then who can get saved?
Jesus looks at his disciples?once again, this is one of those long, uncomfortable, soul-searching, but utterly love-based looks from Jesus?and says, "With man, this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." Did you catch that? Jesus is referring to the absolute impossibility of faith. Getting right and staying right with God?trusting Christ with your whole heart?isn't just hard; it's impossible. You can be as rich and as decent and as successful and as busy as you want; you won't score enough points to get right with God. That's impossible. The Bible tells us not just that we have a weak and lethargic faith; it says that we're spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1?-10). The Bible doesn't just say I'm an imperfect person who needs a little improvement; it tells me that I'm God's enemy and I have to surrender my weapons (Romans 5:9?-11). But here's the good news: God can raise spiritually dead people like us. God can change rebel-hearts like ours and make us his friends and his children.
The Decent Way and the Disciple's Way
There are only two options for being on the road with Jesus. I'll call the first path the Decent Way and the second path the Disciple's Way. The Decent Way is all about what is proper, respectable, and natural. It's the path of lukewarm Christianity?it's neither hot nor cold. It goes through the motions but without the influence or power of the Holy Spirit. It's what some people call "cultural Christianity." Along the Decent Way, I come to Jesus because my parents did or because it gives me comfort in the face of death or meaning in the face of a cold universe, or it helps me act decently. This way still allows me to put myself on the throne of my life?or maybe, in the name of Christianity, I've put my family on the throne or I've put being a decent person on the throne or I've put intellectual knowledge on the throne. Regardless, in this way Jesus floats somewhere on the outer edge of my life. He's one of my many life activities.
The Disciple's Way is a far cry from the Decent Way. It begins when you know that Jesus is looking at you with love. That's where it begins. It continues when you hear Jesus say, "I don't want your decent, lukewarm, conventional, safe approach to faith?I want you. I don't want your activity?I want your love. I don't just want your pocketbook?I want the heart that controls the pocketbook." That is how we let him sit on the throne.
C. S. Lewis compared the Disciple's Way to going to a dentist. When our tooth is hurting, we go to the dentist. We just want relief from the pain, but the dentist has a different agenda: the dentist wants to set all of our teeth right. In the same way, Lewis said, "Our Lord is like a Dentist …. Dozens of people go to him to be cured of one particular sin which they are ashamed of … or which is obviously spoiling daily life …. Well, he will cure it all right: but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked: but if once you call him in, he will give you the full treatment."
At this point you might be saying, "But this is impossible! I can't do this! It's too unrealistic because I know my own heart. I keep slipping back on the throne?or I keep putting something else there." Here's where the good news of Jesus comes in over and over again. Here's why we keep coming back to the cross to find mercy and grace. How many times can I blow it and come back? Over and over again.
Now notice how we get from the Decent Way to the Disciple's Way: it almost always comes from a hard word from the Lord himself. Jesus himself looks at us, loves us, and then says: You are so decent, but there's one thing?a major, impossible thing: you don't have me on the throne of your life. This invitation to the Disciple's Way often comes when we hit a wall, an impossible wall. It often comes through a wall called health problems or relationship struggles or loneliness or grief or loss or addiction that we can't shake. It's through this wall, this impossible thing, that the Holy Spirit wants to speak to your heart and say, "This is of me. This is my doing, because I love you and I want what's best for you. You wonder where I am in the midst of this impossible thing. I'm right here and I'm calling you, loving you, disrupting your decent life where you're still on the throne and inviting you to something better, much better."
Why would we follow him this way? Why would anyone give up the Decent Way for the Disciple's Way? Towards the end of this story, Peter asks the same question: "What's in it for me?" We assume Jesus might say, "How dare you? What a selfish question? Never ask 'what's in it for me?'" Instead, Jesus more or less responds with, "That's an honest question, so you deserve an honest answer."
Why pursue the Disciple's Way? One word: joy. Let me quote C. S. Lewis once again: "Keep nothing back. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in."
That's where the ripple effect begins. How will you spend your one and only, beautiful opportunity of a life that God has given you? Pursue Christ. Pursue the Disciple's Way. Surrender your life to him.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.