The Lesson of the Rich Young Ruler
Dear Jesus, there are many things in this life that wrestle in my heart attempting to overtake my love for You. When my love for material pleasure exceeds my love for You, forgive me. Remind me of Your great love for me, so that I will be inspired by the working of the Holy Spirit to love You more. Give me depth of faith, clarity of thought, and constancy in purpose so that I will recognize temptation, flee from it, and love You with my whole heart, soul, and mind. Bless me through Your Word, accept my praise, and hear my prayers. Amen.
God gives material blessings to be used for purposes that are pleasing to Him and which glorify Him. In this collection of proverbs, King Solomon compares those who make use of their blessings to serve God and those who hoard their blessings for selfish purposes. Those who trust in God and make use of His blessings as wise stewards will be even more richly blessed. Those who seek to serve themselves will find that they will be left destitute.
In these closing words to Timothy, Paul warns against two temptations: reliance on one’s own ideas and greed. Proudly following our own sinful thoughts instead of God’s truth leads to destruction. Greedily pursuing the accumulation of material things leads to idolatry and away from God. Rather, Paul says, make wise use of what God gives and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Text: Matthew 19:16-26
Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, 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.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
In Christ Jesus, the Savior who gives us the wealth of eternal life and the forgiveness of sins, dear fellow-redeemed:
Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am? This was a question Jesus once posed to His disciples. The disciples responded by reporting the different ideas that people had regarding who Jesus was and what He would do. Next, Jesus asked: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, through the Holy Spirit’s guidance and inspiration, replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:13ff).
Who do people say that Jesus is in today’s world? We could find the answer, in part, by looking at how people respond to what He says, how they view His ministry, and how they treat His Word. Some would say that Jesus is a model for social behavior—we should be kind to everyone and accept everything they do and how they live. But those who say this are also selective in what words of Jesus they hear so that they seem to forget His clear judgment on sin. Others look to Jesus as a great man and a charismatic church leader with a large following.
When we consider who Jesus is and what His true purpose is we find that many today have a mistaken view of Jesus and don’t understand His true purpose. Jesus, the Son of God, became man, lived, and died with the purpose of saving sinners. Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost in sin (cf. Luke 19:10).
This morning we have heard the story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus looking for salvation. We find through Jesus’ dealing with the man that Jesus’ goal and purpose was to bring him to a recognition of his sin and repentance and salvation. The story ends sadly because the man walked away from Jesus sorrowing. We find that he did not believe the word Jesus presented. He too wanted Jesus to tell him something different.
In this story of the rich man and Jesus there is a lesson for us to learn, and we see the true purpose of Jesus our Savior. This morning we consider THE LESSON OF THE RICH YOUNG RULER I. A man who trusted in what couldn’t save II. A man who loved what wasn’t God III. A man who left in needless sorrow
We hear that one day this man came to Jesus and said: “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” So [Jesus] said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”[vv.17-20]
Jesus begins to seek this lost soul by taking him to the Law, specifically, the second table of God’s Law which is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the commandments Jesus listed deal with our love for one another—do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, and so on. Jesus took the man to those commandments and the man’s response was: “Jesus, I’ve kept them all.”
Jesus directed the man to the Law in an effort to lead him to see his sin, but the man was trusting in his goodness. He was trusting in his ability to keep the Law and couldn’t see his sin because he was so focused on trusting in something that couldn’t save him. This man followed the belief of the Pharisees, namely, that if you outwardly kept the laws you had eternal life.
We have a clue that the man did not feel so confident that he could be sure of his salvation. Even though he believed he had kept the whole Law, he still asked: “What do I still lack?” Even though he was trusting in himself and in his goodness he knew that something was still missing. The man was trusting in what couldn’t save so he still had a guilty conscience that accused him. He still had a sense of insecurity because he couldn’t be positive that he had eternal life. We find in Scripture why this is true. The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans and said, “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:20-24).
God’s Word is again and again very clear that there is no salvation through the Law. If—and it is a huge if—If we were able to be born without sin, if we were able to keep the law perfectly in every detail, in thought, word, and deed, then by keeping the Law we could be saved. But again it is a huge if because we can’t do it. We are born in sin and from the minute we are born we continue in that sin. We are sinners through and through. Therefore, the Law cannot save us because for the law to save it has to be kept absolutely perfectly. God says, “You be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). We are not holy nor can we be so there is no salvation in the Law; and yet the young man who came to Jesus looked to the Law because he felt he had kept it perfectly… but, no. For the Law does not only apply to how we act in public, but how we act in private, and the deeper thoughts of our minds and hearts, and what we say. In addition to all of that God also says that if we sin against His Law in one area, we are guilty of sinning against it all (cf. James 2:10).
There is no salvation in the Law because the Law shows us how miserably we fail in perfectly following God’s will in our lives. Yet, that is where the man put his trust. It was misguided trust because the Law simply cannot save.
The man asked Jesus: “What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” [vv.21-22] The seeking Savior was still striving to bring this man to the realization that he failed in keeping the Law. Jesus had begun by taking him to the second table of the Law—loving your neighbor. The man felt confident in that. Now, Jesus takes him to the first table of the law—loving God with your whole heart, soul, and mind—loving God above all else. Jesus told the man how he could demonstrate such love: “sell what you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me.” The man couldn’t do it. He revealed his love for his wealth and went away sorrowful. He loved what he had in this earth more than he loved God. The law exposed his sin, and he walked away because he was trusted in his wealth.
This man was guilty of idolatry. He put his wealth and the things of this life ahead of his Savior. Idolatry still runs rampant in this world. Many people love much that is not God. In our Confirmation instruction we make the distinction between open idolatry and secret idolatry.Open idolatry takes place when someone openly declares “I am worshipping this god” and it is not the true God. Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of all non-Christian religions are guilty of open idolatry.
We read of a great deal of open idolatry in the Old Testament. For example, the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar built and commanded the people to worship, the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, and the Baal worship promoted by Ahab and Jezebel. We might think that this type of open idolatry is rare in today’s world, but it is not. From huge stone statues to a monkey god in India to false religions that have nothing to do with Christ, it is worship of a god who is not the true God.
Secret idolatry is more subtle. Secret idolatry takes place when in our hearts when something or someone takes a higher precedence than our Lord. This may even go unnoticed, but I guarantee you that each one of us has at various times and in various ways been guilty of secret idolatry. God cautions us concerning this through the apostle John. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17).
As we heard in the Scripture readings this morning, God gives us earthly blessings to use and to enjoy, but not to love. It is secret idolatry when the things of this world are loved more than God. This does not only affect the rich. Anyone, whatever the economic status, is in danger of secret idolatry. No matter how much we have or don’t have we can love things more than God. When possessions and the things of this earth become what makes the decisions in your life, that’s secret idolatry. When those things—the wealth and the possessions, and the entertainment, and the opportunities, and all the things that are associated with living on this globe—when those things motivate and guide our lives, we need to beware lest we fall into secret idolatry.
In Romans, Paul warns against worshipping and serving the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Romans 1:25) and that is ultimately what happens when the things of this world begin to motivate and guide our lives and become our focus. Then we are worshipping and loving the creature—what God has made and given to us to use, but not to love. That is idolatry.
In the psalms we hear, “If riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). It is a great blessing from God if He gives you economic prosperity—Praise the Lord! If riches increase, give God thanks and rejoice, but do not set your heart on them. Do not let those riches become your god.
It does not have to money and things to can become the object of our greater love and secret idolatry. It can also be people. Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
Martin Luther characterized idolatry—especially secret idolatry—in this way: “That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is your god.” For someone who is putting trust in earthly wisdom, that is his god. For someone who is motivated and guided by the earthly accumulation of things and prestige and status and power those become his god. The man who came to Jesus was loving what he had more than God. He was sinning with idolatry.
Our prayer can well be that of Proverbs, where the writer says: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, feed me with the food allotted to me; lest I be full and deny you, and say, “who is the Lord?” Or lest I be poor and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9). We stand guard lest we fall into a love for something other God. We pray that God blesses and enables us to keep Him foremost in our lives and hearts.
…[the man] went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, 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.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”[vv.22b-26]
Over the years there have been a number of ways people have tried to rationalize Jesus’ illustration of a camel and the eye of a needle. One way is to suggest that the word Jesus used doesn’t mean camel, but rather refers to a type of thicker rope that would indeed be difficult to get through an eye of a needle. But, Jesus said “camel” and it means the animal. Another rationalization is that the “eye of a needle” refers to a low tunnel or gate around Jerusalem—an opening so small that it would be difficult for a camel to pass through. But what Jesus said was the literal eye of an actual needle. We don’t need to change what Jesus said to fit our notions. Jesus said what He said and the disciples were greatly astonished—flabbergasted that Jesus would say such a thing. Humanly speaking, it is completely impossible for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, but that is the point. It is impossible for a rich man to get into heaven relying on his riches or on himself; but with God all things are possible.
There were man wealthy children of God in biblical times—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob just to name a few. There are believers today whom God has blessed substantially. Jesus died for rich and poor alike, but what makes it hard for a rich man in particular is that the earthly prosperity creates a temptation and challenge. The challenge is to avoid loving earthly things more than God. It is difficult to overcome the challenge and love God above all things. But what makes it possible—not only for the rich, but all people—to be saved is the “God Factor.” Salvation is impossible for us, but made possible because of what God has done for us.
When the man went away sorrowful as if there was no hope he was walking away in needlesssorrow, because God did send Jesus to be the Savior from sin. God sent Jesus to save all sinners including that man. Though the man’s riches were a temptation away from Jesus, there was salvation, he didn’t need to walk away. Jesus was going to die on the cross for that man and all of us. The man walked away because he trusted in what he had instead of what Jesus desired to give. He walked away because following Jesus seemed impossible to him because life without his riches seemed impossible to him.
The lesson of this rich young ruler to us is to remind us of where to put our trust—not in what we can do, but in what God has done for us. It is a caution to be aware that the things of this world can present temptation. We need continually to be strengthened by the Gospel to resist the temptation to love what is on the earth. Then instead of walking away from Jesus in needless sorrow, by faith we will walk with Him in the greatest of joy. Amen.
—Pastor Wayne C. Eichstadt