Today I want to begin to talk about one of the most used passages in scripture. It tells of the encounter between a wealthy, moral young man and Jesus.
The story is told in Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 18. They all tell the same story. A man comes up to Jesus and says to Jesus, “Good teacher. What things must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by asking why he calls him good? He says God is good, and if you want to be good, follow the commandments.
The man answers that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth. He does not lie, murder, commit adultery etc. It then says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. He said this, “One thing you lack. Go and sell all your possessions, give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come and follow me.” The man then went away sad because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to the disciples that it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. The disciples were amazed at this. Jesus then continued saying that it is harder for a camel** to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. At this the disciples are even more amazed and ask “who then can be saved?” Jesus says that with man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
Peter then points out that they (the disciples) have left everything to follow Jesus. He then asks, quite boldly in the Matthew account, “What then will there be for us?” Jesus is not taken aback by this question. He states that they, and anyone who has left things to follow Him, will receive 100 times as much at the renewal of all things. But, Jesus continues, many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.
As I’ve said this scripture has been used in lots of different ways. Mostly, in the U.S. it seems to be used as a warning against materialism. This is usually done in a church with a lot of people who all think someone else with more than them probably needs to worry about this temptation. But in all seriousness that’s not a completely unfair application. But it would apply to far more people than realize it, as I’ll get to in a later part of this study. This text require several posts.
For today, let’s take a look at what this probably meant in the context that it happened.
First off this guy seeks out Jesus. That in itself tells you he is searching. He is obviously a decent, fairly moral guy, even if he hasn’t actually followed the law perfectly. So this isn’t some miserly rich guy as it were. After his back and forth with Jesus about “goodness” it says something really key. It says that Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Let’s take an important aside here. Jesus loves each person. God tells us to love our neighbor, even our enemy. He does partly because He loves each of these people. It’s hard for us to get it though our head that Jesus loves the bad guys. He wants them to get it. He loves the pharisees. He loves the teachers of the law. He loves the Romans. He loves His enemies. He doesn’t just tell us to do it. He does it! And get this: Jesus loves the rich, not just the poor.
One of the reasons that Jesus was so shocking to people was not that he hated the rich or the religious leaders, because He didn’t. The shocking part was that He loved the poor and the “sinners”. In that time in most cultures your wealth, health, or position, or lack thereof, was seen as a reflection of how blessed you were. Remember in John when the Jesus heals the blind man, directly before that the disciples asked, “who sinned to make this person blind – this person or his parents?” They say the deformity as a curse that resulted from some sin. This is how many people of that time viewed the world.
This is part of the reason the disciples are so shocked in the story. If the rich moral guy can’t get in, how the heck is anyone going to get in?
Jesus basically ends up saying that no one can get in. “With man it is impossible”. This is basic Christianity. No matter our wealth, health, lifestyle, etc., we can not earn our way into the kingdom. The “best” of us aren’t good enough on our own power. We can’t save ourself.
But with God, through Christ, all things are possible (read all people have an opportunity through Christ to enter the Kingdom).
Therefore one thing we can for sure take away from this story is that regardless of our morality, or condition, we can’t be good enough to save ourselves. It requires a surrendering of our very self to Christ to enter the eye of the needle.
We will consider much more about this story and how it applies to us. Does wealth get in our way of entering the Kingdom? How much wealth would it take to get in the way? Should we expect treasure in heaven? Will we all get the same treasure? But for today it is enough to check ourselves and ask what exactly we are personally counting on to get into the Kingdom?
** Some of the church fathers and many scholars later believe that the word camel here actually was a mis spelling in the greek. Kamelos means camel and Kamilos means rope or cable. While this is fun to consider, neither item is going through the eye of a needle so the point of the saying remains.