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The rich young ruler (Summer Encounter 2011)

These are my notes from the talks at Summer Encounter, the annual conference of CMS in South Australia.

Dr David Williams is the head of development and training in CMS. His talks covered the three parables in Luke 18:1-30.

3. The rich young ruler

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: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor 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 very wealthy. 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 the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with human beings is possible with God.” Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:18-30)

David Williams has rarely heard this parable preached in churches, and when it is, most sermons try to explain that it is not actually a command to give away everything. However, given our wealthiness, the very thing we should not be doing is watering down or qualifying this parable! We need to take this seriously (Matthew 6:24, 1 John 3:17, 1 Timothy 6:9).

At the rich young ruler’s question, Jesus immediately takes offence: ‘Why do you call me good?’ Why this sharp response? The ruler is playing an honour-shame word game: by according Jesus respect, he hopes that Jesus will respond in kind. He’s fishing for a compliment. In honour-shame cultures, seeking and receiving compliments like this is a normal, everyday part of society. For example, when introducing an Australian bishop to his Kenyan friends, David Williams made a point of highlighting the bishop’s title — the Kenyans would be embarrassed otherwise. Yet the bishop, like any other Australian, kept insisting, ‘Please, just call me Peter!’ — a real culture clash!

The ruler asks about inheriting eternal life. We may understand that this life cannot be earned, but the story makes clear that the disciples don’t understand this. Yet Jesus takes the ruler at his word: ‘Okay, what about these commandments…’ Why does Jesus refer to this particular block of commandments? These are the commandments particularly concerned with families and and local community relationships. This is right where the ruler is confident — and, within his own frame of reference, he’s quite right. The ruler is answering with a clear conscience. But this is where Jesus blows him apart. The rich ruler thinks he’s obeyed these commands with reference to his own community, but Jesus tells him that community must be redefined around Jesus, according to God’s terms, not ours.

Unless we get out of our Western mindset, we will miss the radical extent of Jesus’ command to sell everything and give to the poor. We believe that we as Western individuals can own things, and that those things become ‘mine.’ That ownership may have some corporate dimension, but increasingly, husbands and wives hold possessions quite independently, with reference only to themselves. For the ruler, however, the call to sell everything is a shock at every level, at a depth that we struggle to comprehend.

First, it’s a theological shock. The ruler thinks that material wellbeing is a meant to be a sign of God’s blessing (Deuteronomic promises).

Second, it’s a relational shock. Because ownership is joint ownership, Jesus’ command involves selling everything possessed by his entire extended family clan. Because ownership is corporate, a single person wouldn’t even have the right to sell those things! It would be much easier for the ruler to transfer ownership, but to give it all away would be an abandonment of his whole family.

Third, it’s a personal shock. The ruler’s personal status and identity is wrapped up in this, and his obedience he will mean losing his honour in the community, becoming neither rich nor a ruler. And all this when he was just fishing for a compliment!

Jesus’ call to him is the same as God’s call to Abraham in Genesis 12: leave your land, leave your tribe, leave your family. When in Kenya, David Williams was often asked, ‘Where are you from?’ But that’s a complex question, meaning something more like, ‘Where are your roots? Where do you belong?’ For Kenyans, identity is defined by land, tribe, and your father’s house (family name). This is much the same as how Abraham’s reality is defined — yet God calls him away from them all, offering a new land, a new name, and a new nation, all defined in terms of God’s grace. Likewise, Jesus is asking the ruler to give up his entire self-understanding and define himself in relation to Jesus.

This is rebirth, rediscovery, a new person, total abandonment to Jesus, becoming a person defined solely by grace. Hence Jesus’ words: ‘No one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much.’ Receiving the great promise involves letting go of everything.

The ruler’s response is not surprising: sadness! Yet, ‘What is impossible with people is possible with God.’ To abandon everything — possesssions, family, community, status, identity, self-understanding — is humanly impossible! It takes the miracle of grace to change us to understand that following Jesus and receiving grace requires everything.

But we dare not ignore Jesus’ warning to the rich. It is impossible for everyone, but somehow it is harder still for the rich. Why does Jesus single out wealthy people? Well, is it because money is a particular idol? No, because poor people can worship wealth just as much as the rich. Instead, it’s about the spiritual wealth/poverty. The Bible’s call for dependence on God is a call for spiritual poverty. And the materially poor know their spiritual need because they need to ask for help. But the rich are self-sufficient and self-reliant — they don’t ask people for help because they can seemingly solve their own problems. Spiritual poverty is the stance of the tax collector in the previous parable. Spiritual self-reliance is like refusing to let go of fistfuls of garden dirt when you’re being offered a pearl.

David tells of a woman who lived in Cape Town. Her husband and son were killed in a car accident. After grieving them, she decided to make a new start. As a fully qualified nurse, she thought she’d get a job in Johannesburg. She took a bus there, but she was mugged as she arrived and had everything taken but the clothes on her back. She had to sleep rough for an extended period of time, sleeping in the station and eating scraps. A church was running a soup kitchen and a woman from there gave her a loan to get ID, and began to meet with her. The woman came to Christ and got into the community. She says: “I’m so much richer now”. She had lost literally everything but had found Christ. That’s what this is like.

3 commands for rich Westerners

1. Treasure Christ. Jesus holds out his hand to the ruler, inviting, ‘Will you take hold? Will you follow me?’ But the ruler can’t take hold until he lets go — let’s go of everything. Only when we let go can we truly treasure Jesus and truly value him above everything. And this isn’t super faith for ‘super Christians’ — this is the normal Christian life, normal faith. And that is the source of satisfaction and contentment. The spiritual diagnostic question: ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

2. Be terrified of the desire to be rich. This passage warns us of the danger of wealth and possessions. We live in such a materialistic culture, yet we hardly ever warn people of the corrosive, terrifying power of wealth to deceive! The desire to be rich is spiritual cancer; ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.’ David Williams acknowledges that he’s struggled with this himself over the last couple of years, catching himself daydreaming about what he’d do if he won the lottery. The desire to be rich is cancer — and don’t rationalise by claiming you’ll be more generous! David began praying, ‘Please give me a heart that doesn’t want to be rich.’ But Jesus’ radical words imply a truly radical prayer: Do not make me rich. If I can pray that prayer, then perhaps my heart is on track. Are we willing to pray this?

3. Model this message passionately and prophetically to the Australian church. David gives great thanks to God for the radical, sacrifical generosity of CMS members. This is not a matter of money but a matter of hearts. Will put to death anything that gets in the way of healthy hearts? Will we be people who truly know that our lives are so much richer with Jesus? A challenge: why not sell something you own and give the money away. Not because that act is itself special, but because it turns our hearts in the right direction.

David’s first cross-cultural experience was a visit to Kathmandu as a student. His memory is an overwhelming sense of spiritual oppression at all the idols throughout the streets. Yet African Christians feel exactly the same way about Australia when they visit our shopping malls.

If we model this, people ask, ‘Why are you so content? What is this peace?’ We will be able to say that we’ve put to death the idol of materialism.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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