A sermon preached on Sunday, July 3, 2022.
A ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor your father and mother.” “I have kept all these from my youth,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he told him, “You still lack one thing: Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” After he heard this, he became extremely sad, because he was very rich.
Seeing that he became sad, Jesus said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” Those who heard this asked, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Then Peter said, “Look, we have left what we had and followed you.” So he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left a house, wife or brothers or sisters, parents or children because of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more at this time, and eternal life in the age to come.”Luke 18:18—30
A lot of people have different kinds of insurance. We can have health insurance, car insurance, home and property insurance, and life insurance. Of course, some kinds of insurance are legally required. But not all. And why do we have insurance of any kind except to have some measure of security in case something happens?
On one level, having one kind of insurance or another is about having some sense of security about our future. If we have a car accident, we’re insured. Or, worst case scenario, we die, and thanks to life insurance our family has some financial security. So a lot of insurance is about the future. And insurance sells because we tend to worry about our future. As human beings, we naturally want to do everything we can to secure our future. And when we think about securing our future, isn’t the ultimate form of security knowing what is going to happen to us in eternity?
That certainly seems to be on the mind of the man who approaches Jesus in our story from Luke 18. He wants to know about whether or not he can be sure he will go to heaven when he dies. He wants some form of heavenly life insurance. Good teacher, he asks Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Now isn’t that a question for the ages? Most people, especially (but not only) if they’re looking their own mortality in the face, want to know what, if anything, is going to happen when they die. How can I know that I will go to heaven?
We’re told that this man talking to Jesus was very rich. No doubt his material prosperity gave him a sense of security and comfort—at least for life in the present. Indeed, in Jesus’ culture, being wealthy was thought to be a sign of blessing from God.
So after the man professes to have kept all the commandments since his youth, Jesus says to him, You still lack one thing. Jesus says, “You tell me you’ve kept all of the commandments. You say you have followed the law, that you have done all the right things. There’s one more thing you have to do.” So Jesus, as he always does, presses back in order to challenge and reveal, to uncover the truth of the man’s heart—and, ultimately, to open the man up to receiving eternal life through him. Specifically, Jesus tells him: Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
We should note that Jesus’ instruction is not a commandment. That is, this isn’t a commandment the rich man had forgotten. It’s not one of the 10 Commandments or found in the law anywhere else. But Jesus here is applying the commandments not merely to the man’s outward behavior but to the man’s heart. And of course Jesus has something else in mind than simply giving the man one more thing to do to make sure he gets to heaven.
And Jesus is also speaking to this man in terms he understands. This man had plenty of treasure. So Jesus basically says: Give up your earthly treasure and you will receive heavenly treasure. “You want eternal life, heavenly treasure,” Jesus says, “then trade in all of your earthly possessions, give away what you have to the needy, and eternal life is yours.” Jesus is effectively asking him: “Are you willing to give up all you have in order to secure eternal life? What do you value more, what you have now or eternal life?” The real question here is how much does the man really want eternal life?
What about us? How important is eternal life to us? How important, do you think, is eternal life to the people around you? Many of us are concerned about having security for our earthy future—for the years we will have in this life. But do we ask the same question as this man?
Now, when Jesus tells this man to sell everything, give the proceeds away to the poor, and follow him, what is his response? Our text says that: After he heard this, he became extremely sad, because he was very rich.
This is the utter, unsurpassed brilliance of Jesus. Jesus knows this man. He sees through the surface of the man’s words straight through to his motives and to his heart. Jesus knew that asking this question would uncover what would otherwise have stayed below the surface.
Simply put: this man’s wealth, his financial security and comfort, were very, very important to him. The thought of giving it up, we’re told, made him extremely sad. The thought of having to give up what he had was depressing and discouraging. And he walked away. Clearly this man’s biggest barrier to faith and eternal life was, as one commentary I read this week points out, a “refusal to abandon his material security.”
This recalls what it says in 1 Timothy 6:10: For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. Elsewhere, in Colossians 3:5, greed is called idolatry.
In only a few moments of conversation, Jesus unveils this man’s heart—his true motivation: he wanted to be sure of his eternal future without having to change anything about his life in the present. More specifically, he wanted to keep his wealth, keep the life he had, with all of its prosperity and ease and have eternal life.
Jesus understands the predicament of the human heart and our motivations. He knows that we have an instinct towards self-preservation, to ensure our safety and security, now and for the future. But he also knows that we usually go about it the wrong way. In Luke 9:24 Jesus says: For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. Living in the kingdom, following Jesus, is counter-intuitive. It’s not a way of thinking that fits into the world’s way of thinking.
Notice how Jesus says whoever loses his life because of me will save it. Because of me. In other words whoever puts Jesus first and reorganizes their life around following him, that person will experience eternal life. Knowing Jesus, being in a relationship with him, is eternal life. Following Jesus and receiving eternal life go together.
So let’s think about this. If this man had responded with faith to Jesus, sold all he had and given it to the poor, who knows how much longer he would have lived? Because it’s not as though the man was going to die the moment he sold everything and followed Jesus, right? He would then have to live the rest of his earthly life without all of the wealth to which he had become accustomed.
This means Jesus was not only challenging this man’s view of eternity but also his view of how he should live in the present. All of his wealth, all of his privilege, all of his social cache, all of his reputation: gone. Would the man be willing to radically alter his life now—to sacrifice everything he had—in order to be sure of eternal life later?
Because this is what it means to follow Jesus. We need to lose to gain, to give up in order to receive. But that’s hard. It’s not what we’re inclined to do. We want to have our cake and to eat it too. With words that are similar to other ones he says, in Luke 17:33 Jesus says: Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.
This man who came to Jesus wanted to secure his future by doing something in addition to what he had already done. He wanted control over his life, his future, his eternity.
Jesus says no. Instead, Jesus tells him he has to give stuff up and let go of control, and in faith come with him into a life of discipleship and obedience. Jesus is saying to him, “If you want to know what eternal life is all about, come with me and I’ll show you here and now. You will, however, have to leave everything else behind.”
Put another way: when we follow Jesus, eternal life begins in the here and now. It’s not only a future reality. The kingdom of God is a present reality. When we put our faith in Jesus and become one of his disciples, we enter the realm of eternal life. In other words, if we want Jesus as our future, we have to have Jesus as our present. How is Jesus the center or focus of your life in the present? What might Jesus be calling you to eliminate from your life to follow him?
After the conversation with this man, Jesus comments: How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! And then he says: For 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.
People listening are completely flummoxed by Jesus’ words. Then who can be saved? And remember: wealth was believed to be a sign of God’s favor. We could reword the question this way: If someone who is blessed by God with wealth doesn’t have a chance, then who does?
Jesus upends this expectation. He challenges the assumptions of his listeners. What is impossible with man is possible with God. In other words, being saved is not a result of wealth, or what we do, but what God does. It is not man’s effort or power that saves, but God’s. Jesus makes it clear. No one can save themselves. Only God saves.
In response to all of this, Peter speaks up and points out how he and the other disciples had given up much to follow Jesus. Jesus acknowledges the sacrifices Peter and the other disciples had made to follow him. His words are not easy words. More than money can become an obstacle to faith, to someone receiving eternal life.
We too have to be willing to give up and to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus. Like with the rich man, Jesus seeks to unearth the obstacles in our hearts. Those of us who are disciples of Jesus know the reality of this. We know the experience of Jesus uncovering the idols of our hearts. We know that following Jesus means putting him first: ahead of our comfort and security, ahead of our popularity, ahead even of our families. In one sense, our whole passage is about examining our hearts about what might be coming between us and following Jesus.
Where have you had to sacrifice to follow Jesus? What idol is Jesus still calling you to lay down to follow him? Is there something—or even someone—you treasure more than him? What could Jesus ask us to let go of that would make us extremely sad, like the rich man in our passage?
Here’s the thing: when Jesus is our future, both our future and our present will be blessed—though perhaps not in ways we expect. Jesus says this outright. Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left a house, wife or brothers or sisters, parents or children because of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more at this time, and eternal life in the age to come. This means receiving eternal life is not simply about having heavenly life insurance. It’s not about trusting Jesus, living how you want now, and then going to heaven. Real eternal life begins now, with following Jesus, and letting him remove whatever gets in the way of his presence and work in our lives.
Do you have assurance of eternal life? Are you following Jesus? Is your present life—your here and now, every day, walking around life—different because of Jesus?
When Jesus is our future, our present life is transformed. Because following Jesus not only means the joy of eternal life in heaven, but a transformed heart in the present, a new way of experiencing life, a journey towards wholeness. It means being grounded in the reality of God rather than the illusory promises of the world. And as Jesus says, while this isn’t possible for us—it is with God. Every person who becomes a genuine disciple of Jesus is a living, breathing miracle of grace.
If you have already become a disciple of Jesus, continue trusting him to guide through this life and into the next. And if you have not, now is the time. Don’t be like this rich man—sad at what Jesus asks you to leave behind. Instead, rest in the promises of Jesus that there is still more—grace upon grace—to come now and in eternity.