Scripture: Mark 10:17-31
If you recall last week’s sermon, I concluded it by talking about Mark 10, verses 13 to 16, and the way that young children receive Christmas presents. And how they do so with empty hands… Little children, I said, can’t do anything to earn or deserve or pay back the gift-giver for the gift that they receive. They literally can’t… They don’t have any money… or anything of value to give. “If you want to enter God’s kingdom,” Jesus says, “be like them.” But he says it even more emphatically: “Be like them… or else,” Jesus says. “Or else you won’t enter God’s kingdom, you won’t receive eternal life, you won’t be saved.” There’s no other way!
Come to me empty-handed, or you can’t come at all!
The cost of admission into God’s kingdom is no cost… It’s nothing… It’s all grace. If we misunderstand that truth, then we misunderstand the gospel of Jesus Christ… and if we misunderstand the gospel of Jesus Christ, then how can we be saved?
Pastor Tim Keller put it like this in a tweet: “If you want to become a Christian, all you need is nothing—but most people don’t have that. Most of us come with our recommendation letters, our resumé, our morality, our money.”
That’s how this rich man in today’s scripture comes to Jesus… He’s traditionally called the Rich Young Ruler. Why do we call him that? Well, he’s rich, as today’s scripture tells us, he’s young, as Matthew’s gospel tells us, and he’s a “ruler,” as Luke’s gospel tells us. Put them all together, and we have the Rich Young Ruler.
But it’s no coincidence that Mark puts the story of the Rich Young Ruler next in his gospel because if Jesus means what he’s just said, in verse 15, that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” then the Rich Young Ruler is a living embodiment of Jesus’ warning—he’s a cautionary tale.
Because he’s unwilling to become empty-handed, like a child… He doesn’t have nothing; he has something. And this something is intended to prove to Jesus that he’s worthy of eternal life.
Let’s give him this man some credit, though. He asks a pretty good question in verse 17: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
If you know that you’re going to live in this world for probably 70, 80, 90 years—tops—that is only the most infinitesimal blip of time when compared to the time you’ll spend in eternity. So asking about how to have eternal life is the right question. There’s literally no more important question any human being anywhere in the world can ask!
So this man is on the right track, but… there are some problems, at least, with the way he asks it.
First, there’s a problem with the way he uses the word “good” when he calls Jesus “Good Teacher.”
Look at Jesus’ response in verse 18. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Why do you call me good? What a strange thing for Jesus to say! Is Jesus denying that he’s good? Of course not! If anyone was ever good, it’s Jesus. Jesus is perfectly good. In fact, Jesus says, no one is good except God alone. So if Jesus is good, guess what that means? Jesus is God, God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity. So here we have in Mark’s gospel a hint about Jesus’ true identity. So when the Rich Young Ruler calls Jesus “good,” he has no idea how right he is! So there’s great irony here in his words.
But Jesus’ response to the young man should have stopped him dead in his tracks. Because the young man has no idea at this point that Jesus is God. He believes Jesus is merely human—just like everyone else—which is also why he calls him “teacher,” by the way. But the young man knows Jesus is good; he’s seen Jesus in action; he’s heard Jesus teaching; he knows that if anyone will inherit eternal life, it’s going to be Jesus. “So,” he thinks, “I better find out from Jesus how to be good… so I can be just like him!”
But here’s the problem: Jesus just said “no one is good except God.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Your question is flawed. The premise of the question is wrong. You think that good people will inherit the kingdom. And that’s true, in theory… If you could only be good, you would obey all of God’s commandments, which would be a sign that you’re truly righteous and worthy of the kingdom. But guess what? You can’t do this! No human can! You are helplessly sinful. You are—apart from faith in me and my atoning death on the cross—hopelessly sinful.”
At this point, the young man should have fallen at his feet and begged Jesus for mercy and forgiveness and grace.
But the Rich Young Ruler doesn’t do that; in fact, he misses Jesus’ point entirely. So Jesus tells the man, in so many words, “If you think that it’s up to you to be ‘good enough’ to inherit eternal life, if you think you have it within your power to do something—or to do many things—to make you eligible for inheriting eternal life, then it’s very simple: keep the Ten Commandments. That’s the one and only standard of what qualifies for being ‘good.’ If you’re truly good, you’ll do that! Just like me… because I am good.”
Look at what Jesus says in verse 19: “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.’”
Now, these aren’t all ten. Jesus cites commandments five through nine. He doesn’t explicitly cite number ten—against coveting—but instead he says, “Do not defraud,” which is something you’re tempted to do when? When you covet something. The point is, these are all commandments that make up what’s called the “second table” of the Ten Commandments… the six commandments that govern human relationships.
Okay, but what about the first four commandments… the commandments that govern our relationship with God? Is Jesus saying that the Rich Young Ruler—along with the rest of us—doesn’t have to follow those?
By no means!
In fact… when Jesus tells the man that he needs to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, he is exposing the deepest sins within the heart of this man: The Rich Young Ruler is breaking commandment number one… he is putting another god ahead of the one true God. And he is breaking commandment number two… he has made an idol for himself, and he is, through his lifestyle, effectively “bowing down and serving it,” instead of serving God.
And Jesus, of course, has already discerned what that idol—or god—is for this man… And Mark identifies it for us in verse 22: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
Now… When we hear these words, are any of us in this room right now feeling smug… Any of us feeling morally superior to this young man… Any of us feeling self-righteous… Any of us tempted to wag our fingers and say, “Shame, shame, shame on this man” for refusing to do what Jesus asks of him?
I’m not… In fact, let me just come right out and say it: I am terrified of what Jesus asks this man to give up! After all, I have “great possessions,” too. Less than some, to be sure, but more than many others. And then, of course in global terms just by virtue of living in the United States most of us are among wealthiest two or three percent of the world’s population!
But my point is, I already have enough possessions to know how difficult it would be sell all of them—and give that money away. Don’t you?
Besides, here’s what I know for sure… Jesus has never asked me to give up literally everything, the way he asked this Rich Young Ruler. Instead… Jesus has asked me to give up a lot less than everything… and I have often, often, often… said “no.”
How about you? So who am I to feel morally superior to this man?
See, those things that we have a hard time giving up, or we wouldn’t ever want to give up, or we hope Jesus never asks us to give up, are the very things that are like the “great possessions” of this Rich Young Ruler: they are idols.
Indeed, our idols are anything—other than Jesus—that we think we need in order to feel good about ourselves, to be happy, to feel worthy, to feel fulfilled!
By all means, like the Rich Young Ruler we may make money and possessions into an idol. And Jesus knows—and God’s Word warns repeatedly—that money is uniquely powerful and seductive as an idol. In college Bible study this week we looked at Ecclesiastes 10:19: “Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, but money answers everything.” Solomon is not saying that this is the way things are supposed to be; rather, he is describing life “under the sun”: This is the way our sinful and fallen world works, and in our sinful and fallen world, money greases the skids; money solves problems; money gets you out of trouble. Money is the most practical, useful thing of all. It doesn’t do one thing—like bread and wine—money does everything, and if you have enough of it, you can seemingly do anything.
So it’s no wonder that money sets itself up as a rival to Almighty God. Because it promises that it can give us what only God can give us. It doesn’t deliver on its promises… but it does promise!
So money becomes the most powerful, seductive idol of all. But it’s hardly the only potential idol…
Did you hear about the Facebook executive who recently appeared before Congress and blew the whistle on some of Facebook’s business tactics and practices? Facebook bought Instagram many years ago, because Facebook has become the social media platform of choice for older people like me, whereas Instagram appeals to young people—and Facebook wants to reach young people. Among other things, we’ve recently learned that Facebook conducted internal research that revealed to them just how harmful Instagram is… for young people in general, and for teenage girls in particular.1
For example, according to Facebook’s own internal research, thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, their “body image,” Instagram made them feel worse. Instagram is shown to increase significantly the rates of anxiety and depression among young people. And among teenagers who’ve thought about suicide, a significant number have done so because of Instagram. It’s almost like a drug addiction: young people often realize Instagram isn’t good for them, but they keep on using it anyway. And the company that owns Instagram knows this, and is counting on this… for business!
But speaking of idols, you tell me how you feel when this thing you carry around in your pocket gets lost or misplaced. How do you feel when you wake up in the morning, and the first thing you do is reach over to the nightstand and see what’s happening in the online fantasy world of social media. What power does this device have over your feelings of wellbeing and contentment and happiness? What power does it have to affect your mood?
My family was watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond last week—one of the greatest TV shows ever made—and in this episode, a celebrity radio psychologist was coming over to interview the Barone family for her show. And so Debra is frantically getting the house ready, cleaning the living room, desperately wanting to make a good impression on this famous psychologist; she doesn’t want the psychologist to judge her unfairly. She tells Raymond, “I’m going to move the TV out of the living room. I don’t want Dr. So-and-so to think that TV is at the center of our life.” To which Raymond responds, “What do you mean? TV is our life!”
Twenty years ago, when that episode was filmed, that was true for many people: just judging by how much time we spent watching it, “TV was our life!”; how much more are these devices at the center of our lives… have they become our life? [hold up phone] If you have an iPhone, you know about that message you get about “screen time”? How much screen time have you had over the past week?
You gotta admit it’s out of control! Is this an idol?
Anyway, in this article on Instagram, a psychologist said that people go to their phones, and go to social media and ask themselves these questions: “How do I stack up next to this person I’m looking at? Am I good enough?”
How do I stack up next to this person? Am I good enough?
These are universal questions that everyone asks! Our idols are what we use and trust in and depend on in order to “stack up” next to others… in order to feel as if we’re good enough!
And by all objective measures, the Rich Young Ruler stacked up very well next to others. He already had good reasons to believe that he was “good enough”: His wealth made him feel that way!
See, in the ancient Jewish world of the first century, this young man’s wealth would not only have made him the envy of most people, it would have been viewed by most people as a sign of God’s favor, a sign of God’s approval, a sign of God’s acceptance, a sign that he was righteous—indeed, a sign that he was “good enough.”
This is why, in verse 26, the disciples are “exceedingly astonished” when Jesus talks about how difficult it is for rich people to be saved. Because these disciples weren’t thinking—as too many modern disciples do—“Those bad, selfish, greedy rich people… serves them right, not being able to enter God’s kingdom!” No! The disciples were thinking something like this: “If even the wealthy people in our world, whose wealth serves as a sign of their righteousness—if even they can’t enter God’s kingdom, then what hope do we have!”
After all, if Instagram existed in the first century, the Rich Young Ruler wouldn’t have to scroll through pictures of friends and acquaintances and wonder how he measured up to them… He would already know! He was already on top! He had everything, as far as everyone else was concerned. And his great wealth proved it. He could look at his great possessions and say, “See! This proves that I’m good enough! This proves my worth! This proves my value! This proves how special I am! Here’s the evidence of it!”
And yet… here’s the darnedest thing… He still felt empty inside… His wealth wasn’t satisfying him… this idol was promising a lot, but it wasn’t delivering on its promises… We may rightly sense a note of frustration in verse 20, when the young man says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” In other words, “I’ve been doing all these things forever, I’ve been trying, I’ve been working hard, and I have all these things to show for myself… yet I still feel empty. I still feel like I’m missing something.”2
And indeed… he is missing something.
Jesus puts his finger on on the man’s biggest problem—indeed, everyone’s biggest problem—in the most famous verse in today’s scripture—verse 25: “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.”
Okay, not to burst your bubble, but chances are, you’ve heard and maybe even believed some fanciful but misguided “alternate” interpretations of this verse. One of them says that the “eye of the needle” was actually a short, narrow gate in the wall around Jerusalem. And a camel would be unable to pass through the gate unless you removed the burden it was carrying on its back… or unless the camel got down on its knees to enter it.
I’m sorry, this interpretation is complete nonsense! And one of you said, “Yes, but I googled it, and it said that there was this gate…” Right. And that goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read online!
There’s no such gate called “the needle’s eye,” and besides… this interpretation completely misses the point! Jesus’ point is this: From a human point of view, it’s not merely difficult for a rich man—and for anyone else—to enter the kingdom of heaven; it’s impossible… as impossible as it is for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle. We know that Jesus is describing an impossibility—not just something that’s really difficult—because of what he says in verse 27: “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
He wouldn’t need to say that in verse 27 unless it were humanly impossible for us to do anything to inherit eternal life!
And it’s impossible because of who we are… because of what’s in our hearts… because of our sins… Humanly speaking, it’s impossible for anyone to enter God’s kingdom and have eternal life, unless God gives us new hearts… unless we are re-created… unless God works a miracle on the inside of us… Elsewhere, Jesus calls this miracle being “born again.”3
In Isaiah chapter 36, the southern kingdom of Israel, Judah, is being invaded by the much larger, much more powerful, Assyrian army. The Assyrian king has sent a high-ranking army officer, called “the Rabshakeh,” to negotiate the terms of surrender. Humanly speaking, Judah has no chance against the Assyrians; Assyria has already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, so why don’t God’s people just go ahead and do the sensible, practical, reasonable, common-sense thing and surrender now—that will prevent a lot of death and destruction and misery later on? The Rabshakeh’s message is, “Just surrender! There’s no way you can prevail against us!”
The problem is, the word of God said otherwise. The prophet Isaiah gave this message to the king of Judah: “Don’t surrender, don’t put your trust in the Rabshakeh and his army, and don’t put your faith in foreign allies. Trust in the Lord. He will take care of you.”
But the Rabshakeh is clever. And he asks the people of Judah an excellent couple of questions, in Isaiah 36:4 and 5: “On what do you rest this trust of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?”
Mere words… By which he means the “word of the Lord.” The promises of God… which for us today would be holy scripture! He’s saying, “You cannot trust that God is telling the truth in his Word!”
And it occurs to me that this is the nature of literally every test of faith that you and I face in life. We are given a choice between “resting our trust” on what seems like “mere words”—God’s Word, holy scripture—or resting our trust on what we can see with our own eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch and feel with our hands… what our reason and common sense and worldly wisdom tell us. The Rabshakeh says, “You’ve got mere words… But look behind me… and look all around the walls of Jerusalem… I’ve got a powerful army that’s going to destroy you. Which are you going put your trust in? Be realistic. Be sensible. Be practical. You can’t believe mere words!”
This is the test of faith that the Rich Young Ruler is facing, except… instead of choosing between trusting in the word of the Lord and trusting in the Rabshakeh’s “great army,” he’s choosing between trusting in the word of the Lord and trusting in his “great possessions.” The word of the Lord is saying to this young man, “This earthly treasure on which you’re ‘resting your trust’ isn’t nearly as good as the ‘treasure in heaven’ that I’m offering you. Trust me… Trust what I’m telling you… My heavenly treasure is better! It’s infinitely better! The problem is, you won’t know it until you give it away!”
I shared this on social media, and I think it’s worth sharing with you… I saw this box in a church closet last Friday. Notice the logo on the left. I had a co-op job with a Canadian company called Northern Telecom 30 years ago, when I was in college my first time around. The company is long gone now, but seeing that old logo filled me with nostalgia and memories.
And I was struck by this thought: I did not become whatever I aspired to be back then—not by a long shot! I wanted material success! I wanted earthly treasure! I wanted recognition for my achievements… And most of all, I wanted to show the world how good I was, how valuable I was, how worthy I was—money and material success would be the indirect measure of my worth!
Those dreams did not come true. In a way, I failed. God was gracious enough to ensure that I failed.
Because here’s what I know for sure… and I’m not just saying this because I’m a pastor: I have in these intervening thirty years—and especially in the last ten… I have learned to love and treasure Christ in a way that I couldn’t imagine doing back then. And that reality far exceeds whatever dreams I had for myself… back then.
That’s what I want for all of you, by the way… I want you to find your supreme treasure in Christ. He’s worth everything!
But in order for you to discover that, you have to lay down whatever you’re treasuring in place of Christ… and treasure him instead!
And our church is giving you an opportunity to do that starting today.
You received with your bulletin today this stewardship commitment card. I am inviting you to fill it out and return it on stewardship commitment Sunday, which is November 21, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
One measure of the extent to which you treasure Christ above all else is your generosity with the resources that God has given you. These include more than your money—which is why we are asking you about the stewardship not only of money, but of your time and talents.
But they also include your money.
So here’s my invitation to you over these next four weeks: I invite you to take this card and ask yourself this question: “If I treasure Christ above all, how is this reflected in what I do with my money… And how is this reflected in how I serve him through my local church… And how is this reflected in how I treasure him in worship and Bible study attendance… And how is this reflected in how I use my time?”
Dear Lord, melt our hearts to treasure you above everything else. Enable us to lay down the idols that prevent us from doing so. Amen.