The Rich Young Man audio (11MB)
For those who don’t know me, I’m the Children and Families Minister at St Thomas. I’ve been a part of this church for just over a year now and I really really love it (most of the time). Most of you know that, when I’m not here, teaching kids the actions to new songs, or getting glitter all over me, or debating theology with Chris, or causing a stir at staff meetings … I spend a day a week being a completely different version of me, as a volunteer lawyer at a Christian outreach centre.
When people first come to see a lawyer, especially at the place where I work, things in their life are usually pretty complicated. Because lawyers are a bit like pest controllers .. in that, you really never want to call one until you absolutely have to. And people will often put off getting legal advice until the issue that they’re faced with has become so catastrophic that they actually have no choice.
So usually when people first walk in, emotions are high. People are often quite anxious about seeing me and when they first start talking it’s like they’re just vomiting all over the office.
I work with a lawyer called Mike and he’s excellent and very experienced. And the first thing he always says to clients when they walk in …. As they’re just about to open their mouths … he says, “just one moment … what I’d like you to do as best you can, is to tell me in ten words or less, what the problem is …”
That can actually be really hard to do. Especially when a problem is years in the making … when relationships breakdown, the issues can be hard to identify.
I mean, imagine that I’m not a Christian and I don’t understand what the word ‘sin’ means, because I’ve never heard of that concept before … or even if I have, it’s never been explained to me … could you in ten words or less, explain to me why Jesus came into the world … I mean, in ten words or less, what’s the problem that makes him so important?
What’s the problem?
Now, you only have ten words and you can’t use words that a non-Christian would need explained to them … so you can’t say ‘redemption’, ‘sin’, ‘sacrifice on the cross’ … just in ten plain English words or less, ‘what’s the problem that makes Jesus so important?’
I think Jesus does a pretty good summary to the rich young man. The rich young man asks him, ‘What should I do to have eternal life?’ But this man already knows the Jewish answer to that question right … if you want to get into heaven … you do have to obey God’s law. So why is he asking Jesus a question that he already knows the answer to?
Well, we don’t much about this young man, or what his true motives are in approaching Jesus. But we know about Jesus, because the gospels tell us quite a lot about him … and we know that as Jesus traveled from town to town, teaching and healing, he called people to repent and follow him … and he spoke of ‘fulfilling the Jewish law’ .. as though he has something to add to it …
So the rich young man has noticed this Rabbi called Jesus and his new teaching … and he wants to know, ‘(in ten words or less) what’s the problem? We have the law. What more do we need?’
And Jesus gives him an amazing answer, but it takes 28 words. He says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
In other words, and here’s the ten words or less answer … ‘the problem is that the law won’t make you perfect’.
This life isn’t perfect. And Jesus says, you can choose between this imperfect life, or the perfect life that I offer.
The rich young man is a man who knows his life isn’t perfect. He wants to be perfect, because that’s what ‘eternal life’ is – a perfect life with God – a life in which you can live forever, because you are in right relationship with the one who made you.
The problem is, that obeying the law and being a good person, won’t get him there.
What’s the solution?
I met the rich young man just the other day …
Adam and I went to a BBQ with old friends on Australia Day. And there we bumped into a friend of a friend of a friend, who we seem to collide with at social functions every couple of years. I’m gonna call him Tom.
Tom is likeable. In his youth he was always the life of the party. In his twenties he met his beautiful wife and they traveled the world together and had a great time. He’s a musician who often played gigs in pubs, in different parts of the world. Now they are married with two kids and one on the way. Tom is in his late-thirties, and he works in a job that pays a good three-figure salary, and I’d tell you what that is but every time he tries to explain it to me I don’t get it - something about corporate team management and KPI’s and productivity.
He looks really tired. He works very long hours. And, the designer jeans and the cool hair cut don’t mask the sense of exhaustion that he seems to have. He describes himself as being in the ‘rat race’ of trying to balance family life with full time work (many of you know what that’s like). And Tom seems sad to me.
He’s a good man. He loves his family. And yet, his life isn’t perfect. And maybe he’s given up on the idea of ‘eternal life’ … of life ever being perfect … because he’s doing everything he can. There isn’t anything more he could do to make life any better than what it is … which is the point …
When the rich young man asks Jesus, “what good should I do to have eternal life?” (v16) Jesus says in v17, ‘only one is good’ (only God is good).
You see, the rich young man thinks he’s kept all the commandments. He ticks the list: I haven’t killed anyone, or cheated on my wife, or stolen or lied, and I have been good to my parents and friends. And then he asks, “What am I still lacking?” (v20)
And the same narrative goes with my friend Tom. It’s called, ‘I’m not that religious, but I’m a good person. I believe in God. I pay my taxes, I work hard, I give to charity, I’m a good Dad, I care for my friends and family … so why am I tired and sad? Why isn’t my life, at least a little more perfect?’
And Jesus says because you’re not perfect. Only God is perfect. Only God is good.
And even being a good person, and obeying the law as best you can, won’t make you perfect.
But Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give them to the poor … and come and follow me.” (v21)
He says, ‘You can have your imperfect life, or my perfect life’
Tom has three children to support. And here’s something he said to me while we were at this BBQ. He said, “the weirdest thing happened to me the other day. I was sitting with my kids watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” I said, “Oh yeah, great movie, I loved that as a kid.” (it’s a children’s movie that came out in the 1960’s) He said, “well, I don’t know why but I just started crying.” Well, Adam and some of the guys we were with thought this was hilarious, you know, a grown man crying over Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
But I was thinking, ‘it’s not that weird. I think I know why you were crying. It’s grief. It’s grief just like the rich young man, “who went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (v22).
He’s grieving what he can’t do … what he can’t give up … the freedom that he once had as a child that he can’t get back.
You know if I was close friends with this guy Tom, I’d say to him, “Mate you need to quit your job. You hate your job. And you don’t get enough time with your family. And that’s why you’re crying over Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
And he’d say, “I can’t. We need the money. I have a mortgage to pay. I have private school fees to pay, and private health care. I can’t just quit me job. My wife’s pregnant!”
This is why Jesus says, “it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v23)
In fact he says, “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” That was obviously a saying people used back then. In other words it means if you’re rich you’ve got Buckley’s chance of even understanding the idea of eternal life with God.
It is hard for us rich people (coz we’re the same as Tom) to give our stuff up. Because, let’s not over-spiritualise it) it’s not just possessions (as though they are abstract things) … money dictates where you live, who your friends are, what school your kids go to and what opportunities your family has.
When Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all his possessions, what he’s effectively saying is, ‘walk away from your life. Move house. Change your whole identity.’
He makes him an offer. It’s an offer he makes to every single one of us. He says, I can give you a perfect life, if you follow me. But it will cost you. It will cost you your life. You see you can either have your life, or you can have eternal life. You can’t have both. That’s the deal.
Does this seem harsh? The disciples complain that it is – that Jesus is setting the bar too high (who can be saved if this is the case?).
But is too much to ask? That the one who gave his life for us, ask us to choose him above ourselves? Is that too much to ask?
How do we do it? How do we give up our life to follow Jesus?
It hurts. There’s no way around that. It hurts a lot.
Sometimes we approach faith the same way we approach the baptism of a cute little baby (like James). We think it’s nice. It’s a good excuse to get everyone together and give thanks for the gift of life. And when we baptize the baby we all look to see whether he cries as we drizzle a token bit of water over his head.
But you know, in the early church there was none of that. Baptism was uncomfortable. You were naked and cold and fully immersed. It was a symbol of the cost of discipleship … of your life being but to death, so that you can be raised into eternal life in Jesus Christ.
It hurts. It hurt me when the Lord told me to walk away from a lucrative career as a lawyer, to become a priest.
It hurt me when friendships ended because my following Jesus was too confronting for my friends.
It hurt when the Lord told us to move away from our life and friends and financial stability, to go interstate.
It hurt when the Lord told me to leave the church tradition I was comfortable in, to come here.
And what hurts the most, is rejection by my family.
And that’s why the rich young man walks away grieving, because he had many possessions, and he doesn’t want to give up his life. It’s hard. Nearly impossible.
And anyway, how do we know what God wants us to give up? What possessions?
Every single one of us, has that battle going on in our hearts, exactly like the rich young man, who cries when he’s watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with his kids. And that very part of the heart where you wonder what you are still lacking, despite all your best efforts … that part where there is a mysterious grief that you can’t even name … a grief that seems to precede something that needs to happen.
I don’t mean the normal kind of grief that you go through when you lose a loved one, or go through some kind of loss … I mean this grief …
“he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (v22) (show on screen)
The grief that happens when you know you have to make a painful decision to give something up … when you notice that grief in you, there’s a very good chance that that’s the part of your heart where Jesus is reaching in and saying, “give up your life as you’ve known it, and choose my life.”
Be a new person. Be like a child, who trusts completely in the Father’s love.
And all you have to do is choose him. He does the rest.