And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 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.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult 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 person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
In Psalm 119:162, the psalmist declares, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.” God’s Word is like an endless treasure chest in which we can spend our whole lives digging. This is especially true of the seemingly “familiar” stories and verses. As Dallas Willard reminds us, “Familiarity breeds unfamiliarity,” so we are wise to look at every verse and story with an excitement about how God might apply His Word to our lives even if it’s a section of Scripture that we have heard many times before. This well-known interaction between Jesus and the so-called “rich young ruler” is one such example. As I look at this passage, here are five life-changing understandings from this short and well-known interaction:
(1) Being rich and popular won’t satisfy us. The young man is morally, socially, and financially wealthy, yet his initial question to Jesus indicates that deep within him, he feels like something is missing. The experiences of current celebrities like Tom Brady (who in a 60 Minutes interview wondered if there was anything “more than this”) Madonna (who admitted that fame was a never-ending quest to “be somebody because I felt like a nobody”), Jim Carrey (who stated, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer”), and Drake (who asks in one of his songs, “Is there more to life than digits and bankin’ accounts?”) align with the biblical truth that being rich and popular will not satisfy the deep desires of the human heart.
(2) We can be extremely religious and still be extremely far from Jesus. In verse 20, the young man shows us that he is confident in his religious performance. In today’s context, he would have been someone who followed all the rules, had a “good Christian” reputation, and never missed church and Bible studies. However, despite his religious devotion, he is lacking a joy-producing, life-changing, purpose-directing relationship with the only source of Living Water (John 7:37-39). The same thing can be true for many of us today as we can easily mistake religious externals for a dynamic relationship with Jesus that radically alters us from the inside-out. It can also be true for us if the basis of our confidence in our relationship with God is our own goodness instead of Jesus’ goodness on our behalf.
(3) The greatest problem in the universe is not moral failure or bad behavior. It’s a failure to love, honor, and know God. This story points us to the biblical reality that humanity’s core problem is not a behavior-problem; it’s a love-problem. Sin is not so much behavior as it is a heart condition that leads to behavior (Romans 1:18-32). This understanding of humanity’s core problem drastically affects where we believe the solution is found—it’s not found in telling people to behave better; it’s found in a heart transformation that only God can accomplish.
(4) To paraphrase Tim Keller, Christianity isn’t something you can add; rather, it’s a relationship that changes everything you have. A relationship with Jesus is not like adding a painting to your house; it’s like totally tearing down and rebuilding the house. Discipleship is about a total transformation.
(5) There is only one way to avoid the deceptive trap of wealth and status that is so prevalent in our culture: look at the ultimate rich young ruler who made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross to save us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Over time, this is what happens when we fix our eyes on Jesus, the greatest treasure who became our great savior:
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full, in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”