Warning, if you are wealthy, you may not want to read this. But then again, if you have a computer and access to the internet, you are probably wealthy. Just about everyone reading this is wealthy – certainly in the wealthiest 20 % of the world's population. I'll tell you what. I'll call a truce. This will not be a rant about the evils of riches.
Twice, we get front seats, as we see Jesus interact with rich people who want to get to heaven. First, in the story usually named, “The Rich Young Ruler.” (Mt. 19:16-30, Mk. 10:17-27, Lk. 18:18-30) And second, in the story of Zacheus. (Lk. 19:1-10)
Neither story uses the word, “gospel.” Yet both stories fit the parameters of my study because they carry explicit reference to obtaining eternal life. The rich young ruler asks the question, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Zaccheus is a conversion story, with Jesus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
The rich young ruler is particularly poignant for me because he baits me right up front. The first time I studied this in depth was in the early days of wanting to take a fresh look at the gospel. When I came to his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I thought, “Aha, I've found it! The question can't be clearer than that. What Jesus says here, will settle it for me.”
You can imagine my horror, when Jesus says, “You know the commandments, 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and Mother.'” (Mark 10:19) Jesus was obviously not trained as an evangelical, because the answer to that question is, “You can't do anything. Salvation is a free gift. All you can do is receive it!”
The rich young ruler's response -- “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” What will Jesus do with that?
When I was in Bible College we did Field Ed. by going into a small Canadian city and stopping strangers on the street in order to initiate a conversation that we would turn into a gospel presentation. I vividly remember getting to, “You are a sinner and your sin separates you from a Holy God,” only to be stumped. More than once the response at that point was, “No I am not. I am a good person.” I would find myself trying to prove to a stranger whom I did not know, that he was in fact a bad person.
I expected Jesus to say, “No you haven't, you just think you have.” “Ever lusted after a woman!” “Ever called someone a fool.” (Cf Mt. 5:21-22, 27-28)
Instead, Jesus accepts the sincerity of the man's testimony.
I use Mark when I teach this story because he alone gives us a window into the heart of Christ at this point. “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him.” (10:21)
The man's question is sincere. He is not one of the skeptics, looking for proof, or one of the antagonists trying to trip Jesus up. He has been watching and listening and recognizes in Jesus a “good teacher.” His soul is insecure, in spite of spending his entire life zealously obeying the law. He wants to know that he will obtain eternal life. And Jesus loves him.
“One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me.” There it is! That's the gospel – the good news.
Oh, Oh! He is walking away, heart heavy. He owns much, and he loves what he owns. The cost is simply too high. (vs 22)
Jesus turns it into a lesson for his future evangelists – the disciples.
“How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (vs23)
“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 to enter the kingdom of God.”
I have heard that there was a gate in the wall of Jerusalem, that was a small gate -- so small that to get a camel through it you had to get it to go down on its knees. I don't know if that's true or not, but I know what Jesus meant, because He unpacks it.
When the disciples hear this, they are doubly astonished and ask, “Then who can be saved?” (vs 26)
Jesus answer: “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (vs 27)
The change of heart that's required can't be had by human effort. It takes a work of God!
So what do we make of this? Is Jesus really saying that one must become poor – literally sell all your possessions and give the money away, poor – in order to obtain eternal life?
Obviously that's what He said to the rich young ruler, but would he say that to every wealthy man or woman? No, He wouldn't. Would He say that to us? Maybe He would.
Why aren't Abraham, David, and Solomon told to get rid of all of their wealth?
A look at Zaccheus might help.
What Zaccheus is famous for, is being short. But he was also very wealthy. Luke tells us that he was “a chief tax collector and he was rich.” (19:2)
The story is short on detail. Did Zaccheus climb the tree because he had already had a change of heart, or did he climb the tree just because he was curious? Perhaps news of Jesus healing the blind man (Lk. 18:35-43) had come to him. All we know is that Zaccheus was short, and resourceful, and not too embarrassed to climb a tree, in order to see Jesus. Perhaps it was the shocking generosity of Jesus – “Today I must stay at your house.” (Lk 19:5) Accustomed to being judged a sinner, scorned and avoided, this desire for relationship would come to him like cool water to a parched throat.
We can't pinpoint when the change of heart happened, but it's obvious that it did.
“Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”
Jesus could've said, “Half will not do! You must sell it all.” Then we could make a case for a formula for rich people.
But He doesn't!
Instead: “Today salvation has come to this house...” ( 19:9) It can't be more clear than that! “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (vs 10) Jesus has accomplished what He set out to do. Zaccheus's heart has changed! He is going to live upside down to the way he used to live.
The point of both of these stories is that there is a space in the human heart in which Jesus wants to dwell. That is the space of our utmost allegiance. If we have something else in that space, Jesus can't live there, and He won't live in any other space. Some of us have girlfriends or boyfriends in that space. Others, spouses and children. Still others, businesses, or professions, or even a well ordered life, or a clean and tidy house, or the respect of our fellow man.
In order for some rich people to be free of the hold money has on their heart, they will actually have to become poor, in order to receive Jesus. Other's will be able to give their riches to Jesus internally -- removing it from the place of worship in their hearts, becoming stewards of His money instead of being mastered by their own.
This also becomes true of all the other loyalties that have a hold on us.
It's interesting that the commandments recited by Jesus to the rich young ruler are all the horizontal man to man commandments. Probably because Jesus knew the vertical one that the rich young ruler wasn't following: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me!” His money was his god!
In all of this, we discover that the gospel according to John the Baptist, and the gospel according to Jesus are, so far, perfectly consistent. Both call for a changed heart leading to a life lived upside down to what it used to be. John hints at the need for a Holy Spirit baptism, Jesus explicitly says receiving Him is impossible apart from God working.
Again it could be that this is an Old Testament gospel, that will change after the cross. But it doesn't change between John and Jesus. It's hard to imagine that Jesus is training His disciples in a gospel that they will need to drop as soon as He dies. And what is the church supposed to do with this, if it's not a paradigm for us to follow?
More, next time. Ya'all come back now ya here!
(Sorry, I lived in Dallas for 4 years)