SERMON: The Rich Young Fan
SCRIPTURE: Luke 18:18-30
DATE: October 27, 2013
Are you a fan or a follower?
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of two brothers with curious names. One was named “Good Enough” and the other one was named “Well Enough”. They got into a dispute and Well Enough took Good Enough to court. At the end of the trial, the judge passed sentence. He found no fault with Well Enough and told him that he was a free man and could go his way. But to Good Enough he said, “I find you guilty and sentence you to 30 days in jail, and $100 fine.”“But your honor, why? What did I do to deserve such harsh punishment?” And the judge looked at him and said, “You just can’t leave Well Enough alone.”
Sometimes when I consider the story of the rich young ruler, I wonder if his is not a case of just not being able to leave “well enough alone”. After all, what was really wrong with this young man. We know that he kept the commandments. Lived a life that we would probably find exemplary. We would point to him as an example of virtue and righteousness in our midst. And he was by all indications a wealthy man. Many today might say that it was because of the life he led that God had blessed him with such wealth. And he was, no doubt a tither. Wait a minute you say, aren’t you bending the scriptures to make a point about tithing as we move towards commitment Sunday in a couple of weeks? There’s nothing about tithing in this story. But I think it’s implied in the fact that Luke tells us that this man kept to God’s law. And so, if that’s the case, then surely he would adhere to the concept of the tithe. I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. The point Luke wants us to see was that he was doing all that was required of him. So what was wrong with that? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few rich young rulers in the congregation to help us out with our budget? I wonder how we would respond if the rich young ruler walked into our midst seeking eternal life? Wouldn’t we embrace him as we do others? Welcome him. Affirm him for the piety of his life. Even look upon him as an example of how life should be lived in the Kingdom of God? Mark in his gospel, tells this same story, only he adds the information that Jesus loved this man.
And so if all that is true, then What was wrong with this rich young ruler? Was it simply a matter of his wealth and his unwillingness to part with it, that concerned Jesus? Well this may surprise you, because if you’ve been around the church very long, you’ve probably heard a commitment Sunday message based on this passage, but I don’t think that this is primarily a lesson about wealth at all. After all how many of us have given up all of our worldly wealth and possessions in order to be here this morning, in exchange for the assurance of eternal life? Sold our houses. Given away our cars. Emptied out our bank accounts. To be a step closer to eternity. And Jesus did not make that same requirement of everyone who followed him. Zacchaeus the tax collector offered to give half of what he had to the poor but all Jesus wanted was dinner at his house. He did not tell Nicodemus, who was apparently well off, when he asked a similar question, that he had to give up his wealth. You’ve got to be born again He said. And Paul’s letters reveal that there were wealthy people in the early church. He talks of Erastus who was the treasurer of the city of Corinth. And Lydia, who was a trader in purple cloth which was very expensive. So what was wrong with this rich young ruler? I read about an evangelist who was asked to deliver a series of lectures to a large urban church concerning ministry in an urban context. And the first night the evangelist used the story of the rich young ruler as his text and he said: “if you want to improve race relations, sell your big building and give all your money to the poor. Let’s go out on the street and see what we can get for this building. Let’s see what God will do with us.” But is that really the point of this story. Remember when the woman bought the expensive perfume to anoint Jesus with. That was the very argument that Judas used wasn’t it? We could have used the money she spent on the perfume to feed the poor, although he had not done that up to that point and certainly we know that as noble as his words were, his heart was not in the right place. And Jesus said, “You will always have the poor, but you won’t always have me.” It was all about relationship for Jesus. This young man may have been wealthy, but his fortune would only make a temporary dent in the poverty of the people.
Jesus was, and is, concerned with changing hearts and lives. So what’s wrong with the rich young ruler? It was not a matter of wealth. It was a matter of where his treasure was. It was a matter of where his heart was. Define the relationship. The Rich young fan placed more value in the things of the world then he did in following Jesus. And certainly The man’s own testimony concerns only the fact that he has kept the commandments since he was a child. And so I suspect that it is in that testimony that we find the key to understanding what was wrong with the rich young ruler. Because his testimony exposes a theology of excess which is exemplified by his wealth, but is truly revealed by the way he understands faith. What was wrong with the rich young ruler? By all appearances he was a good Jew. And as a good Jew, he believed that because he had kept the law, he was entitled to a place in the Kingdom. It is no coincidence that the biggest opponents of Jesus and the early church were not the sinners, and the poor, not those on the outside. They came to Jesus by the droves. They came out of the poverty of their lives and the poverty of their spirits. And they gave their hearts and lives to Christ because that’s all they had to give. No, the greatest opposition to Jesus were the Priests and the Pharisees who seemingly had everything and who had been taught from youth that the way to God’s Kingdom was in keeping the law, and they could not understand when Jesus came and said that He was the path of salvation. And so the rich young ruler and the others like him, who had lived a life of piety, sought to add on to Jesus teachings. I like how Max Lucado describes it. He says their attitude was Jesus A Lot, but not Jesus Alone. They believed that to follow Jesus, you first had to keep the law and the commandments and that the Kingdom would be their reward. In the early church the attitude surfaced over the issue of circumcision and those who taught that before one could be a Christian, a follower of Christ, you must first become a Jew, which was evidenced by circumcision. That’s what Paul was addressing when he says that those who taught and believed that way were “barking dogs, religious busy bodies and knife happy circumcisers.” Now Paul is never one to mince words and in his letters he has harsh words for sins of all descriptions. But he reserves his sharpest condemnation for these who would seek to add requirements to discipleship. Who taught Christ a lot, rather than Christ alone. Those like the rich young ruler who regarded following Christ as kind of an insurance policy in case the law was not enough. He believed that Jesus plus the law was the way to the Kingdom. That Jesus alone was not sufficient. So what was wrong with the rich young ruler? Well in terms of our church wide study, He was a fan but not a follower.
First, He did not believe that Jesus’ grace alone was sufficient for salvation. That he had to do more than simply believe in Christ, more than accept Him as Lord and Savior. He had to keep the law. Look how Paul responds to that kind of faith. He says to the Philippians,
“You know who I am. I have the very credentials that these teachers think are so important and I used to place great value in them. I was born a Jew. I was circumcised on the eighth day, according to the law. I was a fiery defender of the faith, so much so that I persecuted the Christians. I kept the law. But now all of that means nothing. All that matters is knowing Christ and that I embrace Him and He embraces me.” Paul considered this “Jesus plus” theology to be one of the greatest threats to the early church. And too often in today’s church, without really knowing it, we preach a “Jesus plus” theology. If I just pray enough. If I get up a half hour early every morning to read and study the Bible. Or I go to church every time the doors are open. Or if I just put a little more in the offering plate. Now don’t misunderstand me. None of those things are bad. They are things we ought to be doing, just as keeping the commandments was what the young ruler should be doing. But we don’t do those things to earn our way into the Kingdom. We practice spiritual disciplines in response to our relationship with Christ. They are what followers do. But we must define the relationship first.
The rich, young ruler thought that the more we give,
and the more we do, then the closer we come to the Kingdom.
And certainly scripture teaches that we should give ourselves
sacrificially. Our time and our talents and our tithes. And those are
great, those are things we should be doing as followers, but they are
not the way to the Kingdom. In essence they are the Kingdom.
Our relationship with Christ is the way.
And then, I think that the rich, young fan believed that what
WE do is the path to the Kingdom.
He did what he thought was required of him.
I think that attitude manifests in the church when
we start to emphasize form over substance, ritual over faith, and we
start to believe that to enter the Kingdom we must do certain things,
and not just do them but to do them the right way. Some, for
instance, teach that to enter the Kingdom you must be Baptized and
that there’s only one way to be baptized. Were you dunked, or
sprinkled? Were you an adult or a baby? Or some teach that church
membership is required before accepting the invitation to share in
the Lord’s table or that there’s only one way to worship that will lead
to the Kingdom. Or only one true church whose members will enter
the Kingdom. That to enter the Kingdom, you have to be a Methodist
or a Baptist or a Catholic. But those are not the way. Christ is the
way. To get at the heart of the young fan’s question we need
understand that what he is really saying is, “I have kept the
commandments, what else must I do to be saved.” But, you see,
salvation lies not in the activity of man, but in the activity of
God. It is Christ who saves us. Not the other way around.
But the young Fan did not believe that Christ could save
Him. That there had to be more than that. You see, there are so
many like the rich young fan who have been taught that judgment not
grace is the foundation of a relationship with Christ and so never
experience salvation because they don’t feel that they are worthy.
Maybe that’s where you are this morning. This young man thought
that by following the law, he had somehow become good enough. But
Jesus says to him that there are none who are good, accept God.
In another letter, Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
The mystery (of faith) is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of Him all their lives stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The message is welcoming to everyone, across the board. If you boil down the opposition to Jesus from the priests and the Pharisees, I think it comes down to this, that in Jesus eyes, everyone from the blind beggar at the gate to the High Priest himself were equally welcome in God’s Kingdom. Because salvation comes through our relationship with Christ. We must define the relationship.
And then, one more thing that I think made this young man a fan and not a follower of Christ. Through his statement he in essence denied the power of the love and grace of Christ. Because it is by His love and grace that we are saved. But this young man could not understand such love. He thought it only came to those who earned it. He could not comprehend a God who loved beyond the law and commandments, or perhaps, in his case, in spite of the law and commandments. He believed that it was a love that He had to earn. And by earning that love, eternity would be opened for him. But God’s love is greater than our sin, and greater than our ability to atone for our sin. It is not dependent on our strength, but on His. One writer puts it this way:
God does not save you because you are strong. He loves and saves you because you are His. Can you add anything to this love? No! It is a finished work. Can you earn this love? No. It is a free gift. Then what can you do with this love? You can accept it. And you can spend the rest of your life saying “thank you.”
Fans seek the love of Christ. Followers live it out.
By adding to Jesus, by trusting in Him a lot but not alone, we deny the power of His love and reject the gift of His grace. His is, as the hymn writer said: A love that will not let us go. Whether we keep the law and commandments or not. We know that this young man walked away sorrowful on that day, and we don’t know what happened to him after that. But there is one thing we do know, and that is that no matter where he went or what he did, Christ continued to love him. His love, His grace, never fails, never ends.
It is that love which defines our relationship with Jesus. I recently read about a man and a woman that had been married for many years when she was diagnosed with dementia. And like so many do when confronted with that reality, the husband struggled with what was the most loving way to help her as she became more and more distant. I don’t think there is a clear cut answer to that question. His family urged him to put her in a care facility where she would get the care she needed and he would be able to get on with some semblance of his own life. But he chose to stay by her side, trying to attend to her every need. And even when she no longer even knew who he was, he refused to give her to others to care for her. He fed her and did his best to keep her clean and comfortable. In time, her body began to give out and the doctor told him she had just a few weeks to live at the most. And so this man, who had been through this nightmare as so many have, called the family to their home. And when they arrived they found him there with his pastor and he was dressed in his best suit and she was dressed in the dress she had worn years before on their wedding day, and with the bewildered family as witnesses the minister began reciting the wedding ceremony. And he looked at the man and he said, “Do you promise to have this woman to be your wedded wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?” And the man looked at his sons and daughters and the rest of the family that gathered there, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, he said: “I still do.“
I wonder if the rich young man heard it as He walked away in sorrow, unable to understand and embrace the love of Christ that transcends everything. I wonder if he heard Jesus say: “I still do. I still do love you.” And I wonder if those who stood at the foot of the cross, most blood stained by guilt, I wonder if they heard Him with His dying breath say: “I still do. No matter what you have done. I still do love you.” And what about you and I. When we are distracted by the demands of this world, when we are deep in our sin, when we begin to wonder if there isn’t more that we need, then Christ alone, when we make wrong choices and in those moments when we choose the world over Christ and we walk away sorrowful, do we still hear it? Do we hear Christ say: I still do? I still do love you. Because He does, and He always will. It is that kind of unconditional, grace filled love, that alone which defines our relationship with Him. So: are you a fan or a follower?