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18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”
19 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 20 You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother” [Deuteronomy 5:16-20; Exodus 20:12-16].
21 Then the ruler said, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
22 When Jesus heard this, he said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 23 When he heard these words, the man became sad because he was extremely rich.
24 When Jesus saw this, he said, “It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
26 Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”
NOTE: If you have a third grader who received a Bible Sunday (or one a few years older who still values that third-grade Bible), read and discuss this Luke passage with him or her.
A seemingly earnest ruler asked Jesus what to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus saw the man’s fixation on wealth as his main spiritual obstacle. But the man went away sad, unwilling to reset his priorities. He wanted eternal life, but not THAT much. Scholar Craig Keener noted that “a needle’s eye back then meant what it means today—a very tiny opening.” But “Scripture was clear that nothing was impossible for God (Genesis 18:14; Jeremiah 32:17, 27), apart from something contrary to his character.”
Lord Jesus, you offer me heaven’s riches. Give me a heart that can accurately assess the treasure of your kingdom, valuing it properly against any other claims. Amen.
A college professor of philosophy once posed an ethical question to his students. Suppose you come across a man drowning in a pond. No one else is around, and if you don’t intervene quickly, the man will die. The catch is that you just updated your wardrobe and don’t have time to take off the expensive shoes and pants you just bought in time to rescue the man. If you jump in to help and save the man’s life, you’d be giving up $468 in quality clothes and shoes you just spent money on. Would you jump in to save the man?
In their written responses, the students overwhelmingly said that yes, they would absolutely jump in to save the man, even at the cost of $468. In the grand scheme of things, $468 is a paltry sum for a human life. The professor then revealed the real reason for the question. $468 is the amount of money it takes to sponsor a child in an impoverished country for one year, paying the cost of education and ensuring that the child has food to eat and clean water to drink. The only difference between this real-world scenario and the ethical problem he posed was that we don’t have to watch the impoverished children die.
Growing up in church, I was very familiar with this parable. It’s memorable, and I think we all enjoyed thinking of this rich man who was so in love with his wealth that he didn’t love God—something that all of us would undoubtedly never do. I don’t know that I ever had a number in mind for how rich you’d have to be for this to be a problem, but it was always something that people far richer than I had to worry about—it was a non-issue for me, because I wasn’t “rich.”
Concepts of rich and poor in America are a bit skewed. I think everyone I know thinks they grew up poor. Rich people were kids whose families owned multiple mansions filled with servants who did their bidding, whose parents had over 20 cars. It was never people like me, and that distinction provided a comfortable bit of padding between me and parables like the one Jesus told in today’s passage.
Here’s the thing: if you live in America, you’re probably very rich. An annual salary of just $30,000 makes you richer than over 95% of the world. A salary of $60,000 puts you in the top 1% of earners worldwide. Most of us are far richer than we believe. The parable of the rich young ruler hits a lot harder when you realize that it wasn’t some obscenely wealthy guy most of us could never dream of being; he was probably a lot more like us than we’d like to admit.
So I’m going to ask you the same question that philosophy professor posed to his students: would you jump in to save the drowning man at the cost of $468? Since you know the trick to that question, I’ll phrase it another way: how are you spending your wealth to prevent people from dying even when you don’t have to see it from your comfortable world? As the professor calculated, that can mean sponsoring a child in an impoverished country, but it can mean a lot of other things: giving to a charity (either locally or globally) that’s saving lives, voting in the interest of people less privileged than yourself even when it doesn’t benefit you, volunteering at charities from your local church or food pantry to multinational organizations—there are a ton of possibilities. And I believe that many of us are already doing those things, and that’s great. If that’s the case, I’ll ask a follow-up question: what’s stopping from giving or doing more next year? Or ten years from now? Do you have a giving plan that matches the ambition of your career plan? That’s the heart of what Jesus was getting at in today’s passage, and I think it’s something every one of us has to think more about.
* Comments on Luke 18:25 and Matthew 19:26 in NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, eBook. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.