I try to share my words from the other side of the pulpit. Here are today’s nuggets.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
An old mountaineer was on his deathbed. He was far from a perfect man, crotchety, bad-tempered, grouchy, grumpy, ornery. He called his wife to him. “Elvira,” he said, “go to the fireplace and take out that loose stone under the mantle.”
She did as instructed, and behind that loose stone she found a shoe box crammed full of cash. “That’s all the money I’ve saved through the years,” said the mountaineer. “When I go, I’m goin’ to take it with me. I want you to take that there box up to the attic and set it by the window. I’ll get it as I go by on my way to heaven.”
That night, the old mountaineer died. His wife followed his instructions.
Several days after the funeral, his wife remembered the shoe box. She climbed up to the attic. There it was, still full of money, sitting by the window. “Oh,” she thought, “I knew it. I knew I should have put it in the basement instead of the attic.”
Pastor Jim chose a good week to get away. He is known for uplifting, positive, God-is-with-us sermons and, well, this week’s texts are more suited for Debbie Downers.
It’s not all gloom and doom, but Job isn’t exactly the poster child for sunshine. Paul – or whoever wrote the Book of Hebrews – admonishes us the word of God is … sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow … And Mark details a somewhat sorrowful conversation our Lord had with a young rich man.
Let’s start there.
Jesus had many conversations during his three and a half year ministry. We know that. We also know not all of them have been written down, so when one of these dialogs appear in the gospels, they must be important. This encounter with the rich young ruler is one of them. Not only Mark, but Matthew and Luke also included the interaction in their accounts.
As for the back story, by combining pieces of information from our three sources, we know the man was ruler. The Greek word used in Luke refers to someone with administrative authority. It is the same word used of various Jewish leaders, including those in charge of a synagogue and members of the Sanhedrin. Matthew’ adds he was neaniskos, a relatively young man. Luke also tells us he was a man of great wealth. The Greek adjective used — sphodra – means very.
So, he was a very wealthy man and a young man. His eyes were set on religious matters — on teachers, eternal life, good deeds. He had the look of a seeker. He seemed willing to listen and eager to learn. In short, he seemed like a perfect disciple-in-the-making.
There is so much to admire about this young man. He’s a great example of a person who did almost everything right — but as you know, “almost” only counts in horseshoes and grenade throwing. He came to the right source — Jesus. He came at the right time –when he was young. He came with the right attitude — Mark tells us he came running to Jesus and knelt before Him. He came with the right question – how to achieve eternal life.
And so we find this young man in his fine robes, immaculately groomed, running to Jesus. He is found kneeling in the dirt of the roadside at the edge of town with a burning question on his heart — “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
We know the answer, right? There is nothing WE can do. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will have eternal life.” It’s right there throughout Scripture.
But as He often does, Jesus doesn’t follow script. Jesus’ first words are “Why do you call Me good?” He then adds, “No one is good but One, that is, God.”
That gives us a second clue into the personality of the rich, young servant. He recognized Jesus as a moral man, a man of insight and depth, but he did not recognize His divine authority. To the young man, Jesus was another teacher.
Jesus goes on to tell the young man to keep the commandments, but the young man questions Jesus, Which commandments?
Jesus ticks off the last six of the Ten Commandments, the ones dealing with human-to-human relationships. He did not mention the first four because the Jews of the time were well-versed in the mechanics of the first four commandments, in terms of the letter of the law, so Christ lists the ones in which they were weakest … You shall not murder … You shall not commit adultery … You shall not steal … You shall not bear false witness … Honor your father and your mother. Matthew adds, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The young man is taken aback. He tells Christ he has kept the commandments since he was a child. What else should he do?
It’s here Jesus’ intuition is shown in full display. Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Possibly, this man was adept at keeping the letter of the law, but he was coming up short in abiding by the spirit of the law.
And now for the kicker. Remember Matthew’s addition? You shall love thy neighbor as thyself. Jesus was now going to put this to the test. Did the young man really love his neighbor? Would he be willing to give his riches to his poor neighbors?
Go your way, he tells the young man. Sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.
That was too much for our young man. As our evangelists share, He was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. His face stricken with grief. The man’s face fell, says Mark. He gets up and makes no further eye contact with the disciples or Jesus because he cannot go with them. He cannot go with Jesus, as much as he would love to. Why? Because he loves one thing more, and he cannot leave that to serve God. Not all stories end, “and they lived happily ever after.” This is a tragic story of a young man who committed spiritual suicide.
That led to a teaching moment for our Lord. Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”
How many of you have ever read or heard the “eye of a needle” was a small doorway into the city wall that was so small only a man could enter? It was really hard for a camel to stoop down and enter, but not totally impossible. That sounds good, but there’s only one thing wrong with that — it’s wrong. There’s no linguistic or historical evidence there was ever a doorway in the wall called the eye of a needle.
Respected New Testament scholar Hugh Nibley wrote, “The needle in Matthew and Mark is a raphis, while in Luke it is a belone. Both refer to needles used for sewing. There is absolutely no evidence that there was a gate called the eye of a needle. The ‘gate idea’ was probably invented by some unknown 19th-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.”
To try to explain it away as a doorway completely ruins the point. It’s not hard for a camel to go through the eye of a needle — it’s impossible. A camel was the largest creature indigenous to Israel and the eye of a needle was the smallest opening possible. To answer the question posed by the title of this message, How can a camel pass through the eye of a needle? It can’t. It’s totally and completely impossible.
They [the disciples] were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?”
At this point Jesus has the golden opportunity to answer with something like “The poor can be saved.” Or “Believers can be saved.” Or “Those who follow Me can be saved.” But He doesn’t say any of those. He follows through with the meaning of what He had just said about the camel and the needle’s eye. He says in verse 26, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
God specializes in the impossible. When Moses had an ocean in front of him and an army chasing him, he faced an impossible situation, but God specializes in the impossible — and He made a 12-lane express highway in the middle of the ocean. When Joshua faced an impregnable walled city, God directed him to just march around it a few times. Impossible! But the God of the impossible made the walls crumble. When little David faced a nine-foot monster with only a slingshot, victory was impossible by human standards. But the God of the impossible directed the stone to strike Goliath right between the eyes, then David used Goliath’s own sword to decapitate his fallen foe — he showed everyone there he was someone who knew how to get ahead! When Gabriel visited a teenager named Mary, he announced she would give birth to a son who would be the Son of God, the Savior of the world. Mary said, “How can this be, since I’m a virgin?” Gabriel said, “Nothing is impossible for God.”
So, what chance do I have of getting into heaven on my own?
Zilch. It’s the same for a rich man, poor man, beggar, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. It would be easier to get a camel through the eye of needle than for me to enter the kingdom of heaven based on my own righteousness.
Our Lord’s main purpose was to show the rich young ruler his lost condition, not to reveal to him God’s plan of salvation. You need to get lost before you can get saved. No one is ready for salvation until he realizes his guilt before a holy God. The Lord Jesus skillfully demonstrated to this man he was a guilty lawbreaker. He did not love his neighbor more than his wealth.
Too many are like the rich young ruler. We long for the privilege of everlasting life, but are unwilling to put Jesus first in this life. Not every person is required to give up all wealth, but this young man had made riches his god, and was in fact breaking the first and second commandments. Riches were his idol.
The truth is money itself has a way of polluting us, tempting us to compromise our values in order to gain it and retain it.
What about us? Do we love our neighbor? Do we love our bank account? Do we love our careers? Do we push the Lord to the side? Do we “squeeze in” our time with the Lord … a few minutes each day … an hour on Sunday?
Selling one’s possession and giving to the poor is not a condition for receiving eternal life. Over and over again in the gospels we find the one condition necessary to have eternal life is to believe in Jesus Christ. Repeatedly Paul teaches faith in Christ, and faith alone, is the sole condition for salvation.
Some people spell salvation “D-O.” They believe salvation can be earned by doing things such as taking communion, being baptized, attending church, praying or some other religious act. They believe you will go to heaven if you do enough good deeds. The other way to spell salvation is “D-O-N-E.” In other words, God has already done everything necessary for us to be saved — and we can only accept or reject His free offer.
With us … impossible. With God … made possible.
There is no doubt. Eternal things have top priority. There are many things in this life we must do that are not spiritual — our work, household chores etc., and these we should do to the best of our ability. The way we go about our mundane tasks can be a good Christian witness to the community. But when these things crowd out spiritual things and become all absorbing to the exclusion of the spiritual, they are wrong. As long as the spiritual is top of the list, we have nothing to fear.
In this world of sin it is easy to get our values distorted . Property, money, material possessions or a large bank account seem to give us security, but it is all a dream. We came into this world with nothing and it is certain we will go out with no material possessions. But Jesus in essence says, “The point I am making about the rich is true for everybody. This is not a problem with money. It’s a problem with the human heart.”
To me, this is one of the saddest stories in the Bible. Jesus invited the rich young man to follow Him and he refused. Who knows, he might have become the 13th disciple. There was only one thing he lacked, but it was a big obstacle. The saddest words of tongue or pen are these four words, What might have been?
What is the one thing in your life that may be preventing you from following Jesus? Is there any thing, any hindrance you are unwilling to give up to follow Jesus? You may not be wealthy, but if there is something you possess, or that possesses you, laying it down is a vital part of following the Master.
He must have your all, as He calls gently to you: Come, follow me.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Confidence is the best thing you could wear.