Last Sunday’s sermon text was the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18:18-30. There, Jesus tells a wealthy young man to give away 100 percent of his money and wealth in order to be saved. Why does Jesus tell him to do this? Because Jesus understood that this man’s money was an idolatrous obstacle that prevented him from giving his heart to Jesus and following him as Lord.
We can speculate why this was true: The man’s wealth gave his life meaning and purpose. It gave him his sense of self-worth. It probably made him feel loved, because as long as he had money, he was attractive to other people. So the Rich Young Ruler served money as a master—and as Jesus warns elsewhere, we can’t serve two masters, God and Mammon.
We need to have a single-minded focus, instead, on loving and serving God alone.
Obviously, everyone isn’t like this young man. Other people have other idolatrous obstacles that stand in the way of their relationship with Christ. Take, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4: In effect, she asks Jesus what she must do to be saved. Yet Jesus doesn’t say, “Sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor.” Why? Because her idol wasn’t wealth; it was relationships—romance, her love life. So unless or until she repented, she also wouldn’t be saved.
Jesus’ command to give away everything, therefore, was specific to this particular man and may not apply to most of us. In the New Testament we have rich people whom Jesus doesn’t ask to give away everything—Joseph of Arimathea, for instance, who gives his tomb to the disciples to be used for Jesus’ burial. Luke’s gospel tells us that women of means were financially supporting Jesus and the disciples. The Book of Acts tells us about a faithful disciple named Lydia, a dealer in purple goods, who was rich.
The problem isn’t wealth per se, and it may not be an idol for everyone—or at least it’s less of an idol than other things.
In my own life, while I don’t deny that I sometimes have an idolatrous attachment to money and possessions, I also know that a bigger idol for me is my attachment to the praise of others. I want glory.
Twenty years ago, my first job out of college was in sales. I was mentored by an older, well-seasoned, and successful salesperson named Alec. He told me more than once that money wasn’t a big motivator for his success: “I want recognition,” he said. Given my own modest commission checks at the time, I thought that was crazy. Now, however, I totally know what he means. Unfortunately.
If the chief end of us human beings is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, I can do neither so long as I’m greedy for my own glory. This is why sanctification—our Methodist emphasis on holiness—can’t be optional. Sin stands in the way of the most important thing we do, the very reason we exist.
In his century-old notes on Wesley’s Revision of the Shorter Catechism, James MacDonald draws this connection between the first article of the Shorter Catechism and holiness:
That which obscures the glory of God in the world is sin; hence the chief end of man is to obtain deliverance from this malignant darkness of sin, which is infected by the poisonous breath of the adversary. The man who is cleansed by the blood of Christ from all inbred and actual sin is called in Scripture language… perfect or mature… This is the aim and consummation of all the purpose, counsel, covenants, decrees, election, and predestination of God. If the Shorter Catechism is freed from the encumbrance of the metaphysical theories of predestination that have clung to it, it will go straighter to its mark in directing man to his chief end: that holiness which glories God on earth, and enjoys him to all eternity.
1. John Wesley, Wesley’s Revision of the Shorter Catechism (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2016), 34-5.