Luke 18:18-25 “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No-one is good– except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.’ ‘All these I have kept since I was a boy,’ he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’”
Here was a man that seemed to have everything. It is Matthew tells us that he was young, “in the very May-morn of his youth, ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises” as Shakespeare says. How envious media people are of the young, and thus so is our entire civilisation, but what a dangerous and lengthy period it is – those long summers and dark winters – probably the most perilous of all times, great choices having to be made at a time of immaturity, vulnerability and depressions. There is an author called Kate Figes writing in the Times some time ago describing her own youth, “We had fun and felt carefree, and yet we weren’t. The great paradox of adolescence is that between the great highs of singing through the street and feeling more independent are the great lows: deep loneliness, boredom and that terrifying new awareness of how small and alone we are in the world. As the mind and body mature, the full reality of human frailty becomes apparent and it’s scary.” How youth needs Jesus Christ.
It is Mark who tells us in his gospel who tells us that this man came running up to Jesus. So he was a man full of energy and health; he wasn’t bothered with asthma and bodily weaknesses. He wasn’t one of the thousands who sought out the Saviour to be healed. He had a raw vitality and energy, physical dexterity and strength. He could sleep at night, enjoyed a good appetite; there was nothing he was unable to do because of some physical weaknesses. What a blessed man he was. There does not seem to be a news bulletin without a feature about illnesses and scientific breakthrough and more money needed by the National Health Service. How obsessed we are with the body beautiful.
Luke also tells us “he was a man of great wealth” (v.23). Again we know that this is the ambition of almost every young person. You ask them what they want out of life. “I’d like to have money, and fame, and see the world,” they say. This man had all that; he had no money worries at all; he could buy anything he fancied. He was the envy of all his generation in Israel. But more than that, this young wealthy man had power. People looked up to him and did what he said. What natural man could ask for anything more?
Luke also calls him “a certain ruler” (v.18). He might have been the leader of the local synagogue, or a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. Wherever he was he displayed a certain authority and the bearing of leadership. People listened to him; servants came when he beckoned.
What is more this man had a very attractive personality. One reads of the exploits of the soccer millionaires. What unimaginable wealth they have, and they are the fittest men in the country. What power they have; women come running to meet them, and yet what disdainful men many of them are with their gambling and drunkenness and lust and foul language. This man in Luke was not at all like that. He was a good man; he valued moral living not indulging himself in the lusts of the flesh. He had sought to keep all the commandments of God throughout his life, and although we know there must have been a certain superficiality in his self-confidence it is plain that no man could point a finger at him and say that he was a hypocrite, an immoral and irreligious man. This man could claim, as Saul of Tarsus would do so in one of his letters, that as far as the law was concerned he was blameless. He had not been a prodigal son; he had not fallen into any kind of debauchery, any loose or riotous living; he’d never given his parents sleepless nights. He’d retained his own integrity and basic decency. He was a clean-cut youth.
More than that, this young, wealthy, moral ruler had a piety that instinctively draws out the admiration of those of us who are Christians. When he reached Jesus it is Mark who tells us that he fell on his knees publicly before him in a posture of the deepest respect and admiration. He was more than courteous before our Lord, he was almost worshipping him. Though he was a man of high morality yet he recognised there was an evident gap between himself and the Saviour. He did not expect Jesus to fall at his feet. He fell before the Son of God and addressed him like this, “Good teacher!” (v.18). He came as a disciple; he knew he needed to be taught by this man Jesus of Nazareth because Jesus had an ethical quality of goodness about him, and he taught about living the good life – the very best life, and he lived out what he taught. “Good teacher!”
Yet there is even more that we appreciate in this man, that he seized the opportunity of a personal interview with Jesus of Nazareth to address him with one of the greatest questions. He didn’t ask our Lord about social conditions, the Roman occupation of the land that had lasted for 100 years and taxation. He didn’t want to know “How can I feel better about myself? Can you give me any tips about finding a wife? How do you think I should invest my money?” and so on. He wasn’t interested in betterment, and in remodelling his life, but rather in what is surely, at the last, the only important question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v.18). How concerned he seems to be to get the right answer! He has heard about Jesus, maybe he has heard his preaching. He has thought about what Jesus says and makes up his mind he must have a talk with him, and this day he hurries along searching for Jesus, eventually breaking into a run on the final stretch when he catches a glimpse of our Lord. He doesn’t come in a moment of privacy but in this prominent place where they would be surrounded by many onlookers. He can’t come quietly by night like Nicodemus for a private consultation, he comes at the double with a pressing need constraining him to get the answer to his great question.
We can all to some extent identify with this man and his question, but what I want to consider is the way the Lord Jesus handled this man, because that is the most fascinating part of this interview. I want to ask how we would have answered this man. Wouldn’t there be a quiver of subdued excitement and anticipation among the deacons as they see the expensive car pulling into the church car park and a well dressed young man walking purposively to the entrance? What a boost for a congregation for such a man to become one of its members, a local leader, a self-made millionaire, a man with a good reputation, a man without a past. In some churches there would be leaders who would think, “We need to learn from him, not him from us. He can tell us how to get riches and power.” Many of the deacons would be thinking to themselves, “Let’s make sure we give him a sincerely warm welcome to the church. We wouldn’t want to say or do anything that would discourage a man like this from becoming a member of our church.” How would we have treated this man? What would we have said to him as he approaches us with this questioning spirit? How would we have helped him? Let us keep this thought constantly in our minds and contrast our imagined approach with Jesus’ actual response, which is of course the model way, the archetypal way to approach this particular man. Before us is the only correct way for this man to have been dealt with, though, please understand, it is not the exclusive approach to every single person to whom the Saviour spoke. But to this man no one could have dealt with him more helpfully that Jesus dealt with him. So how did our Lord counsel this man?
THE LORD CHRIST STOPS THE MAN SHORT.
“‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone’” (v.19). Why? Was he trying to buy the approval of Jesus by flattery? Did he want the Lord to assure him that all was well between him and God? Our Lord Jesus knew his heart while we can only raise the question. Was he a young man who believed that he had achieved a solid state of goodness in his life? Was he like the young policeman who sought to prevent a friend of mine preaching in the street because, he told him, he was offending people by his language? My friend was telling them that they were sinners. My friend asked the policeman, “Would you be offended if I called you a sinner?” “Oh yes I would,” said the policeman. That attitude you must bear in mind as you come to see how Jesus deals with this rich, young, healthy, moral ruler who is running to Jesus and begins the conversation with a flattering word, addressing a man who was a little older than himself. “I know what goodness is and you are good,” the youth seemed to be saying.
Maybe he was also deflecting any criticism that he has felt in the probing sermons of Jesus about repentance. People can listen to a preacher and be convicted. They might feel that they are being personally criticised, and yet they have to admire the preacher’s sincerity. So they feel that flattery is the best way to avoid any follow up, that he won’t ask them whether what he’s been saying is true of their souls and their lack of relationship to God and so have they repented yet. They erect around themselves a wall of complements about the sermon and the preacher. “That was a good sermon. I like your sincerity . . .” But what if you say nice things about me and keep ignoring my Saviour? That is no encouragement to me.
How does Jesus respond to this praise? What does he say? “Why do you call me good?” answered Jesus (v.19). Our Lord was as straight in personal conversation as he was when he stood in his pulpit. He spoke as honestly to men on an individual basis as when he publicly denounced pharisaic religion as a religion suitable only for a nest of snakes meeting in white-washed sepulchres. So here is a likable young man who comes and calls Jesus ‘good.’ In the culture of that day only rarely would a rabbi be addressed as ‘good.’ They had many titles of respect, but, for fear of blasphemy against the God who alone is perfectly good, even they didn’t welcome being called ‘good.’ They too knew their own hearts. Why was this young man breaking the code of etiquette? Why was he calling Jesus ‘good’? The sentence structure in the original suggests Jesus’ emphasis in replying was this, “Me? Why do you call me good?” So he sets this man a thinking – “Yes, why did I call Jesus good?”
Then the Saviour follows up the question with a great theological statement, reminding the young chap, “No one is good – except God alone” (v.19), that is, except the one true and living God. He is a good God. The world was created by a good God. The world is sustained by a good God. All the blessings you have known in life are because of the goodness of God to you. You go into God and he is good. You go in, and in and he is good. You go in, and in, and in and he is good. You go in, and in, and in, and in and he is good. You go in, and in, and in, and in, and in and God alone is good in every single aspect of his being. Shine the light of his own omniscience through every part of him and there’s not a speck of anything discoverable that isn’t 100 % good, not one single bad molecule in Father, or Son or the Holy Spirit. He is the triune God of absolute goodness. Alas we feel that throughout the world there are a few men and women in the public eye whom we believe to be good men and women, people of integrity, who do not abuse an expense account system, who are unbribable and will always speak the truth to their own hurt, who do not hold grudges and will forgive those who have abused them, who resist sexual sin. There are such men and women, but they do not see themselves like that. They are conscious of their own weakness and falls.
What does Christ do when this young man tells him that he judges that Jesus is good? He immediately stops short this man, and confronts him with the living God whom we know to be his Jesus’ own Father. Our Lord is saying something like this, “Please pause before you go any further. Don’t lightly talk about goodness and me being good.. God alone is the completely good one.” Let none of us today talk easily of God, his name and his attributes; let’s not get over-familiar. Let’s always take the living God very seriously. The ground on which you are standing is holy.
How important is Jesus’ seriousness in his reply? It is utterly essential, especially in the way the church addresses the world regarding the living God whom the church adores. The Lord Jesus immediately responded to this man who calls him a good teacher with words we can paraphrase like this, “If you mean good in the ordinary sense – ‘good morning,’ ‘good dog,’ ‘have a good day,’ – then that’s too ordinary to apply to the God the Son. It is almost like saying, ‘You’re a nice chap,’ but use the word ‘good’ in its real sense of absolute integrity, perfect righteousness and utter graciousness and then your whole approach to me from your heart to your words, should be different. If you think for a moment, you’ll realise God alone is good. There is only one totally good Being; God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”
We Christians are not very good people at all. We quickly acknowledge to you that we are sinners and we need a Saviour. Please don’t flatter us; don’t call us good. We need a Saviour because we are not very good people. We are far too selfish and proud and vain and greedy. And for the same reasons you also need a Saviour too because there is none good, no not one; none of you reading this today is good; God alone is good. The Lord Jesus spoke like that. He could be very confrontational if that approach wass needed.
When our Lord spoke to Nicodemus, though this leader of the Jews was a very moral and religious man, Jesus laid it on him immediately that he had to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. When Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, although he was so respectful to women he told her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband” (Jn. 4: 17&18). Jesus told her that she worshipped what she didn’t know; she was giving the worship of ignorance and that was quite unacceptable, and that salvation was not from the Samaritans whose inspired Scriptures were just the first five books of Moses. Redemption didn’t come from Samaritan religion. They were sincere in their religion but sincerely wrong. The Messiah was not sent to Samaria; salvation came from the Jews. All roads do not lead to God. Again, when Jesus addressed those Jews of Jerusalem who rejected him he told them, “You are of your father the devil.” Pow! What we meet in Jesus Christ is a deep seriousness when it comes to the relationship of God with man. Of the sins that Christ hates (and he hates them all) he despises the honeyed words and rose-water of religious sycophancy, because such a posture is a wall which a man builds between his heart and the God who knows the heart. Let all blarneymen keep silent in Jesus’ presence. You can hide nothing from God. That is where Jesus begins. This is not an encounter between two equals. This is a relationship in which Jesus is the teacher and we are hearers and obeyers. He instructs us and we learn.
2. THE LORD BEGINS TO PROBE THE MAN.
Now there is no doubt that deep down in the Lord’s heart there was an immediate gladness on a human level that this man had come to him. It is Mark who tells us very plainly that “ Jesus looked at him and loved him”. The man himself was so impressive, glowing with health, unblemished by any dissolute past, kneeling there at his feet, sincerely bringing this mighty question to him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We look at the scene and we cry, “Oh that many, both young and old, might run to Jesus to find the meaning of life and eternity.” Yet how significant it is to notice that the Lord Jesus didn’t lift him to his feet and assure him that all was well! He didn’t sweetly smile, pat him on the head and say, “Great to meet you. All is well in the best of all possible worlds. God is love, my son,” sending him on his way with his blessing. The Lord begins to probe him and direct him forward; the man has to deal with Almighty God, as all men have to deal with the great Creator of the cosmos, on the terms that Christ Jesus lays down. “No man comes to the Father but by me,” says the Son of God. This man has to come to God, but he has to come to him by the influence and life of God the Son.
So our Lord probes him about his knowledge: “You know the commandments,” says Jesus (v.20). There is no punctuation in the Greek New Testament, and so this statement could well be a question: “Do you know the commandments?” Christ is saying, “You know the commandments, but do you really understand them? You come here inquiring what you have to do to inherit eternal life, and you address me as good, when God alone is good. You don’t know all you think you know.” Our Lord is suggesting that there is a certain superficiality about this man, and maybe a certain insincerity also in his manner. Often people choose a pulpit to sit under where they will be comfy, where they will have their prejudices rearranged and verified.
There are other people who never go to church, who claim that they are not Christians because the Bible isn’t clear, that men can make it mean whatever they want it to mean, that how to inherit eternal life is not made lucid in the New Testament. They have given up the search for eternal life because it’s a fruitless quest; “everyone’s opinion is equally valid,” they say. That is not the case. Everyone knows God from the glories of his creation bombarding us every second, and everyone knows right and wrong from the conscience God has given to all of us which constantly addresses us. We know we have sinned against a great holy God. So man is without excuse.
There is no point before God in claiming we don’t know what to do to inherit eternal life because in Wales, through an earlier grace in our land, everyone knows. There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. Why are you running away from him? What has he said wrong? How is Jesus bad? I read a brief life of one of the Beatles, George Harrison. They called him the most religious of the Beatles because he believed in meditation and eastern religions – though those things could not deliver him from the nicotine addiction which killed him. His friend knew him well and said, “George spent his whole life searching for the truth but he never found it.” If you reject the one who said, “I am the truth,” and try to find him everywhere else except in the Bible then you will end up like George Harrison. The revelation of God is clear in creation, conscience and in Christ. We know whom we should believe in. We know God’s requirements only too well. The things of the law are written in our hearts. We know God’s demands. We know that our lives and souls need to be saved. In Wales we know that God sent his Son to be the Saviour. We have no right before God to pretend that there is some complication, that the way back to God is shrouded in mystery, and that our estrangement from God is totally justifiable because . . . “we don’t know . . . who knows?” What complaining whining lying words!
Jesus is saying. “Don’t you know the commandments?” Can we genuinely pretend before God that we are in ignorance about this great question of what we have to do to get eternal life? Can we really pretend that a genuine reason for our unbelief, and the real cause of our absence from Christ is that “We don’t know . . .”? Isn’t it the case that we do know thoroughly and comprehensively our own lostness? Don’t our consciences convict and condemn our lives? I speak to an alcoholic and even he can recite to me, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” Men know that there is but one God and one Mediator with him, the man Christ Jesus. There is no other way to God, and we know it, and we have no right to plead that it is ignorance keeping us away. We have no right to persist a moment longer in the inquiry, “What must I do?” We have no right to pretend that if only we had more light, and the answer to one question, or just a little bit more information that then we’d be vital growing children of God. Jesus is saying to us, “Don’t you know already the will of God? You’ve come here claiming that you are seekers, but you understand the truth, many of you for long years, and you are guilty of mystifying it, compounding it, and darkening it in this way, because you know . . .” So our Lord stops the man short and probes him.
3. THE LORD EXPOSES THIS MAN’S COMPLACENCY.
Here is a sinner who stands before God in Christ who tells Jesus that he has kept all of God’s commandments since he was a boy (v.21). Think of it – this man actually believes that he has never had any other god save the Lord, that he has never made an idol of anything whatsoever, that he has never taken the name of the Lord in vain, that he has worked for six days each week to God’s glory in whatever he turned his hand to do, but kept one day in seven which he constantly gave exclusively to the Lord – the whole day, that he has honoured his father and his mother, that he has not shown violence to another with his actions or even with his tongue, that he has not been guilty of any sexual sin at all, that he has never stolen anything, that he has always told the truth, and that he has been satisfied with everything God has given to him, never coveting anything that was his neighbour’s. In other words, here is a man who believed that he actually loved God with all his heart and that he loved his neighbour as himself. This man considered himself to be a blameless man. There seems no twinge of remorse for his conduct, and not one iota of awareness of moral failure or any sins of omission. He’s kept all the commandments. Could that possibly have been the case? Do we have here in the rich young ruler a man as holy as God himself? Has there been another man to have walked this earth as undefiled as the Son?
So Christ says to him again so bluntly, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me” (v.21). The Lord is saying this, that if he loves his neighbour as himself that then his neighbour will be as important to him as his own self. Your poor neighbour will have as much claim upon your wealth as you yourself, if you truly love him as you love yourself. The Lord is beginning to expose this man’s complacency about his own self-conscious claims to be absolutely righteous. Jesus is testing him concerning the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” Coveting is dissatisfaction with what you’ve got and an aching longing for what is someone else’s. The rich young man was a covetous man and he discovered that when Jesus told him to get rid of everything he had.
Quite apart from this particular command our Lord stands today before every human being who is inquiring about salvation, and he is searching each heart. All human self-delusion must be stripped away. How is it between you and the Holy One? It is a disturbing thing to draw near to the living mighty Creator where we discover we’ve been deceiving ourselves. If we have . . . then let us find that out today and not on the day of judgment when many will say, “Lord, Lord, we did many mighty things in your name,”Depart from me I never knew you.” Think of that today! Christ is saying to this man, “If you think you’re blameless then there is no possibility of your finding eternal life. If you can stand before the glory of the divine Son of God and tell him that you have loved God with all your being and have been loving your neighbour as yourself since you were a boy then you don’t have the slightest idea of who God is nor what you yourself are like.” How many of us are so complacent? Are we pretending before God that all is well between us? because the Lord, we know, will reply, “
The Lord tests him to the very foundations of his being, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor,” he commands this man. Is it, after all, such a tremendous mystery today why we are not all Christians? Don’t we love money more? Has there been any urgency and passion in our coming to God in Christ? Have we bravely declared that whatever the cost may be – we are prepared to pay it? Whatever the price – we will pay it? Whatever the sacrifice – we will make it? Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small – have we sung that? Are our words true? Are we not in fact trying to serve God and mammon? It cannot be done. How anxious are we to be reconciled to God? How earnest are we about walking with God?
What is the real reason we are not Christians this day? What is the price we are not prepared to pay? Is there secret greed for things that are more precious to us than Christ? Are we afraid of men? Are we fearful of the consequences of following Jesus? Will we lose any chance of promotion, or of popularity? Might it be far more serious, so that it might mean persecution for us? Might it mean death? What is more important, your life or Jesus Christ?
1st January 2012 GEOFF THOMAS