Yesterday I asked the question: “How would we deal with this rich young man if he were coming to us today?”
Well, let me suggest that most of us would reply inadequately, at least measured in the way Christ answered. We would say, I suppose, “Well, you have to admit that you’re a sinner, first of all. You acknowledge that Jesus Christ was perfect and you are not.” Here the young man you’re talking to will say to you, “All right. I admit that. It’s true I’m very moral and I keep the commandments as best I can, but I know that I’m not as good as Jesus Christ.”
Then you continue by saying, “The next thing you have to do is believe in Jesus Christ.” He wants to know what that means, and so you tell him. “Well you have to believe that he’s the Son of God. You have to believe that he came to this earth to save you. You have to believe that he died on the cross in your place. And then you have to believe that he rose again from the dead.” And the young man says, “Well, I guess I believe that. All right. I believe it. What then?” At this point we say something about the need to pray to receive salvation. And you proceed to walk him through this prayer. After he is done praying we tend to give some kind of assurance that he is now saved and no one can take that away from him.
Now I don’t want to minimize that because that really is the essence of a personal commitment to Christ. Jesus knew that, and therefore called for personal commitment. But what Jesus knew that we apparently by our methodology so often do not know, is that men and women can do that, that is, they can go through the steps and not really be born again because from where they’re coming they haven’t the faintest idea what that means. They may have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” but don’t really know the costs that must be paid if one is going to be a committed disciple because it wasn’t covered in the little gospel presentation you gave him. They don’t understand that their life is going to radically change if they truly embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are things they do which will need to stop. There are other things they will need to start doing that they have perhaps never done before. Priorities and goals are going to change. Friendships and other relationships are going to change. Their employment might need to change.
Now that is exactly the problem the rich young man had, and so Jesus began to deal with it. The man needed to know what was really involved in following Jesus. To do this, Jesus goes to the Ten Commandments, and even a step beyond them, to show the man that he really wasn’t even keeping the Ten Commandments as he thought he was. The young man wanted to know the gospel and how to be saved; but Jesus knew he wasn’t ready for the gospel till he had the law.
Jesus tells the young man he must keep the commandments. The man wants to know which ones and Jesus goes to the Ten Commandments. I notice that when Jesus began to talk about it he didn’t even talk about the first table, that is loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, as that is spelled out in the first four of the Ten Commandments. He began with the second table, and he began to list them: “Do not murder” (number six). “Do not commit adultery” (number seven). “Do not steal” (number eight). “Do not give false testimony” (number nine). Jesus then goes back to number five: “Honor your father and mother.” He leaves out number ten, and you know what that one is: “Thou shalt not covet.”
That was the young man’s problem. Jesus skips over that, and instead he substitutes Leviticus 19:18, which says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If Jesus had quoted number ten about coveting that young man would have no doubt said, “Yes, that is what I also keep. I do not covet riches. I have a lot. I spend a lot of my time getting them, and I like having as much as I do. But I don’t covet them. After all, I’m a good Jew and I obey the law and I’m moral.”
But Jesus took a different approach to get to the heart of the matter as concerned this young man. He asked him, “Do you love your neighbor as yourself?” You see, that’s really the bottom line when it comes to riches. Because if we hold our riches in trust from God as something by which we can serve other people, then it is true that we are loving our neighbor as ourselves in the way we use our resources. But if, on the other hand, we find that kind of a demand by Jesus Christ offensive because we want to spend them on ourselves, then by definition we do not love our neighbor as ourselves. That was the young man’s problem.
You see nowhere in the Bible does it say you can’t be rich and be a Christian, but it does say that it is difficult. And nowhere in the Bible does Jesus say in stronger language that it is difficult than he does here. When Jesus presented the case, it was really the case for discipleship, and the young man went away brokenhearted but not saved.
In Matthew 13, the Lord told a parable that explains in very clear language what was going on here. It’s the parable of the sower that went forth to sow. He threw his seed into the air and it landed in all sorts of places. Some of it landed in ground where it sprang up initially, seeming to give great promise of success, but in which the thorns eventually choked it out. Jesus said that these thorns are worldly cares and the deceitfulness of riches, which choke the seed of the gospel. That is exactly what had happened with the rich young man. He had heard it, you see. He had heard about Jesus. He knew his teaching. He knew enough to come to him, and he was earnest in coming. But the riches of the world choked the good seed out. And what does Jesus say after the young man leaves? In verse 23 he says, “I tell you the truth that it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”