A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
I’ve thought about this a lot in recent years. Let’s say I was leading a church and this same rich young ruler came forward after a service and asked me, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How would I answer that question?
For that matter, what if this same person came forward at an evangelistic crusade and asked the same question? What answer would they get?
In both cases, the person would likely be led in a prayer that goes something like the following:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. In your name. Amen.
We would give them some literature and encourage them to become active in the local church, and that would be that. Okay, we might try and interest them in a large gift to the building campaign! This has been the basic shape of evangelism and discipleship in the North American evangelical church for the past fifty years.
Notice how drastically different Jesus answers the question: “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
How do we reconcile such a disparity between what Jesus says and the conventional practice of today? I don’t think we can.
Doesn’t it strike you as a bit dangerous to depart so drastically from Jesus’ approach? All things equal, wouldn’t we be giving the rich ruler a profoundly false sense of security in their eternal salvation? At the same time, I can’t picture myself responding in the same way Jesus did.
So what if this entire sinner’s prayer approach to eternal salvation is all wrong? I mean, it’s not actually in the Bible anywhere, nor do we see it anywhere in the early church or church history for that matter.
On the other hand, surely salvation can’t come down to money and one’s relative attachment or detachment from it. Justification by grace through faith would go right out the window if selling everything one had and giving it to the poor were a requirement. So what gives here?
My take: I don’t think salvation is such a transactional reality. I think it’s far more relational. Can a person come to faith in an instant? Sure. Love at first sight happens. More often than not, though, I think it takes time. Maybe it takes following Jesus for more than a church service or two to be ready to offer up your entire allegiance to him. What if a little bit of discipleship (i.e., following Jesus) actually opens up the door for evangelism to happen rather than the reverse case?
Let me suggest a few assumptions that might change our take on the passage at hand. First, I think it’s fair to assume that the rich ruler was following Jesus. He was in the midst of the people that day and had the courage to bring forth his question. Chances are, he had been there before. Second, we know he went away sad, but we don’t know how it actually turned out in the end. Maybe he came back around. Maybe he realized his wealth actually had him and that Jesus was right and he had to do something drastic to escape its gravity. Maybe he came to grips with the hard reality that his money stood between himself and Jesus.
That’s how I’m thinking about it. What if we didn’t feel like we had to soft-pedal Jesus when he says unreasonable things like this? What if we just let Jesus be Jesus? What if we just listened to him instead of explaining how he couldn’t possibly mean what he said? What if we were willing to let people go away sad when something Jesus says makes them sad? What if we could let them sit in that sadness a bit? What if we could sit with them in that sadness a bit? What if that’s actually what real discipleship is all about—feeling the weight of the cross a bit, counting the cost, weighing allegiances, making hard yet life-giving choices?
I’m obviously still thinking this through. And the more I think about it, the more I am led back to our Jesus prayers.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a son/daughter.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a saint.
Where in your life right now do you need to feel the gravity of Jesus’ teaching and the weight of the cross? Where is his teaching hitting you hardest?
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