Let us to take brief looks at various aspects of today’s main text, at Matthew 19:16-30., and also consider the question that this week’s material poses: ‘Can you be rich, and be a Christian?’.
In our NIV bibles, today’s gospel-story is entitled: ‘The Rich Young Man’. Other versions, including the ‘King James’ bible say: ‘The Rich Young Ruler’.
Verse 16., says: ‘Now, a man came up to Jesus, and asked: “Teacher, what good thing must I do, to get eternal life?’.
It seems that the man had it in mind, that salvation depended on good works; upon doing and achieving; rather than upon becoming, through believing.
Although we have no way of proving it; the young man might have been Paul, caught up in his early, spiritual struggles; yet to become a Christian.
This could be so, because the man’s knowledge of the law, and his self-acclaimed keeping of it, exactly match what, later, Paul said about himself.
At Philippians 3; he declared that he was: ‘A Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to keeping the law, a Pharisee; as to righteousness under the law, blameless’.
Whoever he was, the ‘Rich Young Man’ seems to have approached Jesus in order to get approval for his accurate knowledge of the law, and how good he had been; rather than because he really wanted to know how to improve, and better, his situation, with regard to eternal life.
This seems to be proved by his reluctance to accept Christ’s answers to his questions; and to turn down Jesus’ offer to become a disciple.
Christ’s first answer was: ‘If you want to enter life, obey the commandments’. When the man said that he had kept all the commandments, and what else should he do; Jesus answered: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor.
It seems to me that ‘entering life’, and ‘being perfect’, are not the same thing, put in different terms; but two, separate steps, on the same journey. An example of the difference between wanting to ‘enter life’, and wanting to ‘be perfect’, could be this.
Some twenty-seven years ago, I asked Methodism: ‘How do I enter a theological college?’; and I was given a long list of things to do; of people to talk to; of forms to fill, and of interviews to attend, and so on.
It could have been a mere, academic question on my part, and I could have filed the answers at the back of my mind, and soon forgotten them. However, I was never more serious; and did all that was asked of me.
In due course, I asked another question: ‘Now, how do I become ordained?’.
I was told to keep fully involved in the college course; to continue to study hard; to pass all my exams; live through a ‘probationer-minister’ period; do further studies; attend yet more interviews, and then be at Conference on ‘Ordination Sunday’. And all this, too, I did.
The great difference between: ‘How do I enter theological college’, and: ‘Now, how do I become ordained?’; is commitment. The first question could have been asked academically, or even out of idle curiosity; but the second one could only be asked out of a commitment already long entered into.
And this is, I believe, the difference between the answers that Jesus gave, to that young man’s questions.
The academic style of his first question: ‘What good thing must I do, to get eternal life?’; produced, from Christ, an academic style of answer: ‘Obey the commandments’.
But, the answer to his second question: ‘What do I still lack?’; was far from ‘academic’. In effect, Christ said to him: ‘It’s all a matter of commitment. If you really want, what you say that you want; you must be totally dedicated to it.
And there is no greater test of your dedication and commitment, than selling all the possessions that you have previously relied upon; and then committing your life to serving the needs of others; in the same way that I do’.
The rich young man did not like what he heard; felt very sad at the thought of what he would have to give up, if he accepted Christ’s answers; and, therefore, found himself unable, at that time, to become a disciple.
Something approaching 20% of Christ’s teachings relate to the dangers of setting too much reliance upon wealth and possessions; and of the spiritual loss that can be experienced, when people continue to do so.
In his parables and other teachings; Jesus was wonderfully adept at using simple, to-the-point images, to highlight deep, spiritual matters. He told the story of the man who found some treasure, in a field.
Selling all his other possessions; he used the money to buy that field, and the greater treasure that went with it. The Lord told a similar story, about a man who sold his other possessions, to buy the ‘pearl of great price’.
Jesus made the point that, if, in physical terms, people were willing to give up lesser things, in order to obtain greater things; they ought to be at least as willing to give up such wealth and possessions, in order to obtain what, in spiritual terms, he called: ‘treasure in heaven’.
The rich young man approached Jesus with some questions. Jesus gave him direct answers that he was unwilling to accept - and he lost out.
Not so with Zacchaeus! At Luke 19., we read that he, too, was rich; and that he, too, approached Jesus, though in a more indirect manner.
When Christ noticed him sitting in the sycamore tree; invited him to come down, and began to accept him, in ways which demonstrated the mercy, love and grace of God; Zacchaeus responded most positively.
He admitted that he had been a dishonest tax-collector; and said that he was going to make recompense far greater than the law required. More than that, he said he would give half of his possessions to the poor.
Even when a rich man has given away half of his possessions, he remains rather wealthy; and it was of this ‘still rather wealthy’ Zacchaeus that Jesus said: ‘Today, salvation has come to this house’.
In the gospels, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus, are both mentioned as being close disciples of Jesus, and both were wealthy men.
Steeping back, for a moment, to our text from Matthew 19., Jesus watched the rich young man, walking away from him; and then said to his disciples: ‘How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’.
Speaking for the others, as well as for himself, Peter said: “We have left everything to follow you, What, then, will there be for us?’.
But…had they ‘left everything’? At John 21., we read that Christ’s closest disciples; unsure about quite what to do, and how to proceed; went fishing.
The very strong inference is that they went back to the boats and nets that they still owned; or had shares in, at the very least.
The scriptures declare that God is no man’s debtor: that what the Lord appears to take away, he restores, only more so; with added blessings.
For me, one of the loveliest examples of this is found in our continuing text at Matthew 19. At verse 29., Jesus says this: ‘And everyone who has left houses or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother or children, or fields for my sake
will receive a hundred times as much, and will inherit eternal life’. My own experiences bear me witness of the truth of this; and I am sure that your experiences also bear good witness to you, of the truth of Christ’s promise.
In the early days of my ordained ministry, I felt that I had given up everything for the Lord and the gospel; my work; a high income; big house, and all the rest.
One day, at the very core of my being, the Lord seemed to say to me: ‘But, you haven’t given up your wife and children, have you?’; and I hadn’t even thought that I was supposed to do so.
I was puzzled; quite what did God mean? Nevertheless, I managed to pray to the effect that I handed over my wife and children, fully, to God.
The result was immediate. The Lord restored my family to me, only more so! My wife and I, who had always been very close, became closer yet; especially in spiritual understanding. Not only that, my children became even more precious to me, and yet more of a joy.
The Lord is no man’s debtor! What God appears to take away, for the sake of the gospel, he restores - but, as Jesus said: ‘A hundred times as much’.
I thought that I had given up my family, for the sake of the gospel. Instead, the Lord gave to me a large, wide-spread and loving ‘Church Family’.
I thought that I had given up my large, much-loved Victorian house. Instead, the houses of many, many church people were open to me and, in one very large rural circuit, I had keys to some of them; so that I could use their facilities, while their owners were still at work.
It is well worth repeating: “The Lord is no man’s debtor”.
Have we, like the ‘Rich Young Man’, asked the Lord: ‘What good thing must I do, to get eternal life?’; and received a similar answer: ‘Live the Christian life, in the manner that you are called to do?’.
If so, then, like the ‘Rich Young Man’, did we ask a second question: “What do I still lack?”. If we did; was Christ’s answer much the same as the one he gave, all those years ago?
Did he say, in effect, to us also: ‘It’s all a matter of commitment. If you really want, what you say that you want; you must be fully committed to it.
Did he go on to say: ‘There is no greater test of your commitment, than your willingness to view your possessions from a different perspective: to see them as helps only; enabling you to live out lives in which spiritual treasure is more fully received, and more widely shared”?.
The material provided, to guide our thoughts this Sunday, asks: “Can you be rich, and a Christian?”; to which the answer is, as it always has been, from the very beginning of the Church: “In Christ, we are all rich!”. Amen!