A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus asked him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God. 20 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.’” 21 “I have kept all these since I was a child,” he said. 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23 But when the ruler heard these words, he became very sad, because he was very rich. 24 When Jesus saw that the man became very sad, he said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 In fact, 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.” 26 Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible for God.” (EHV)
“I’m OK—You’re OK” is the name of a book that came out in the 1969. It’s still for sale today, with more than 15 million copies in print. The book has some good psychological insights that can be helpful for getting by in life, but most people only know it by the title. And if you apply that title, “I’m OK—You’re OK”, to your spiritual life, you will be in trouble.
Let me explain. The Bible tells us that by nature, we are not OK. On the other hand, it tells us that through faith in Jesus, we’re more than OK. Through Christ we poor sinners are forgiven and righteous saints. Sadly, the attitude of “I’m OK on my own” prevents so many people from fleeing to Jesus for hope. We’re not OK on our own, because God doesn’t accept OK. God expects and accepts only perfection. On our own, that’s impossible! We can’t do it! But there’s good news! Jesus says in our text, “What Is Impossible for People Is Possible for God.” Let’s see how Jesus attempted to teach that truth to the rich young ruler He encountered, and in doing so, relearn what Jesus says about getting to heaven.
No one Is Good, Except God Alone
A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus asked him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God.” Here’s what the young man was really asking Jesus: Just between us ‘good guys,’ do you have any good tips on earning sainthood? He came to Jesus with some common preconceived notions about himself, fellow members of his social class, and even about ‘this Rabbi,’ Jesus. First off, he thinks Jesus is a good teacher of morals, as though if we strive to earn our way to heaven, we just need a few good tips, and why not ask every rabbi you meet for some, especially the more well-known ones like Jesus.
Secondly, He thinks of himself as one of the “good guys,” together with his fellow upper-class associates. This is so contemporary; it could have happened yesterday! Many, many people operate with the exact same two assumptions: 1. That they’re pretty good people, and 2. That Jesus is a good moral teacher, who laid out some nice principles the same way Buddha, Gandhi and Oprah Winfrey have. Put these principles into action and you’re sure to get to heaven.
Jesus puts both of those myths to rest with His initial response: “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one—God.” Jesus isn’t denying He’s good. Not at all! He’s denying that He is a just a nice man who tries to be good like lots of others. Jesus is the One Good Man because He is the God-man, born of a virgin, without inherited sin—unlike all the rest of us. And He is God. No one is good, except one—God.
Then Jesus followed up that response with a quick summary of God’s Law. “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.’” The young man was hoping for some tips on extra things he could do to earn sainthood besides being the all-around ‘good guy’ he thought he already was. Instead, Jesus was telling him, ‘You don’t need any special secret tips on good deeds. The basics are more than enough—namely, the 10 commandments God gave us so long ago’—more than enough to show you that you can’t earn eternal life! But this guy was a tough nut to crack—just as so many are today and have always been. This young man is so filled with clueless pride, that he actually claims he’s kept the 10 Commandments his whole life. “I have kept all these since I was a child,” he said.
You Still Lack One Thing
My, oh my, oh my! How is Jesus to get through to this self-important, self-loving young man, and the millions and millions of others all around us who think just like him? (And how are we going to get through to them as His witnesses?) “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Shock of shocks! I’m sure you could have heard a pin drop. You can certainly picture how his jaw must have dropped.
Why did Jesus say this? Not because He was telling the rich young ruler how to earn heaven, but for the exact opposite reason. Jesus wanted him to know it’s impossible to earn heaven. Since the young man had claimed he had kept the commandments, Jesus started with the very first commandment and showed him he couldn’t keep it and wasn’t keeping it now. He could not love God with all his strength and mind and heart. Jesus was driving home that point, telling him: If you are truly going to keep the 1st Commandment, absolutely nothing can be dearer to you than God, ever, not for a moment, including your worldly possessions. Jesus powerfully drove home the point that if he actually wanted to earn his own way into heaven, it was going to be a lot harder than he thought, because God expects total, 100% perfect dedication to Him every moment of every day. In fact, Jesus was proclaiming in no uncertain terms that it’s absolutely, totally impossible to get into heaven on the basis of your deeds and works.
…When the ruler heard these words, he became very sad, because he was very rich. 24 When Jesus saw that the man became very sad, he said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 In fact, 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.” 26 Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible for God.”
It is impossible to earn your way into heaven. And it’s nigh unto impossible to get the Gospel of Jesus through to a person who thinks they can. But “What is impossible for people is possible for God.”
It is possible, and only possible, for any of us to get to heaven, because One Man did keep all of the commandments perfectly in our place, and He offers us His perfect score as a gift through faith. Jesus is like a volunteer who offered to write our God-test for us, and sign our name at the top before handing it in. Through faith in Him, you are perfect in God’s eyes, because through faith in Him you are covered in Jesus’ perfection. Through His death, your failures are all wiped away and off the record. Through baptism, His death to sin is your death to sin and His Life to God is now your perfect life to God. That’s what St. Paul meant, when he wrote, “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).
“What is impossible for people is possible for God.” Through faith in Jesus—and only through faith in Jesus, your Scapegoat and Stand-in—it is possible to thread the eye of the needle and get into heaven.
Camels and Needles
Among the many other obstacles that Satan and the human heart itself erect, wealth is a big one that can get in the way. Jesus singles it out here as particularly formidable. “In fact, 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.” During my seminary years I spent a summer as a “summer vicar.” That means I went from one church to another in the WELS Michigan District making door to door evangelism calls—a couple of weeks in each spot. Some areas were poor and others rich. It sure was easier to talk to people in the poor areas. For one thing, they didn’t have locked gates and half mile long driveways!
On the world mission front, the same holds true. It’s easier to reach out in India and Malawi than in more well-to-do, developed countries like Latvia, Czechia, or Japan. So just what is it, that makes it so extra difficult for a rich man to enter heaven, that Jesus singles them out here?
First of all, it’s so much harder to acknowledge the doctrine of original sin and total depravity—that is, that we are born spiritually dead and helpless, that all our righteous acts are as filthy rags, and that there is “No one righteous, not even one,” when the whole world thinks you’re great and wise and wonderful, and butters you up. Try to tell a billionaire that all his money is on loan from God and see what kind of a reaction you get.
In the beatitudes, Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:3–6).
So how did this rich young ruler react to Jesus’ pointed, straightforward words? We are told, he became very sad, because he was very rich. Mark tells us in his gospel that the young man left at that point, feeling sad, his face crestfallen. As far as we know, he never passed through the eye of the needle and came to faith. We never hear of him again. It may be that he came to his spiritual senses one day. The Gospels simply don’t tell us. But on that day, Jesus left him with only the law. He didn’t stick around for the Gospel. Jesus called Him to repentance, and He rejected that call, so Jesus couldn’t say, “Don’t worry. It will be alright. I know you’re a nice guy. Is there anything I can do to make the sale? I need more followers. Please?”
Jesus never spoke an absolution to the unrepentant. Sometimes, God has to do that, and sadly, so do we as His spokesmen. It’s called using the binding key—retaining the sins of the impenitent. But when we do that, when we withhold forgiveness and let people know that they are not right with God, we always do so in the hope and with the prayer that the Law festers and sinks in and one day leads to repentance.
We all need to be knocked off our high horse, before we’ll take Jesus’ hand and let Him pull us up. Again and again. As Luther wrote in the 1st of his 95 theses, repentance is a daily, lifelong part of being a Christian. Thank God He has done the impossible in you and made you a believer. Thank God that He leads us to repentance with His powerful Word. Thank God that He hasn’t given you too many riches, so that you might have rejected Him or fallen away. Thank God, that the only One who ever qualified to be called good, credits His perfect goodness to you by faith.
Heed Jesus’ daily call to repentance. No matter how many flattering things people say to you, or how much God blesses you with, resist the temptation to climb back onto your high horse. Stay where you belong—on your knees, so that your Savior can lift you up to heaven. Amen.
Pastor Timothy Buelow
Our Saviour Lutheran Church
Lake Havasu City, Arizona