And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? 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, Honour your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.”
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “How difficult 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 it said, “Then who can be saved?”
But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:18-27)
He's clearly perfect church material: he's rich, eminently respectable and sincere in his pursuit of righteousness. Who wouldn't want this guy? (That's a rhetorical question: the answer is pretty much everyone, Jesus included.)
What makes the deal go bad? What is the one thing that he lacks? A first glance might seem that material poverty is a pre-requisite: the instruction to "sell all that you have" would seem to suggest that.
But it's not that.
In order to understand what's going on here, I think we need to look at the example of Abraham in Genesis 22:2 "Take your son, your only son, whom you love ... and offer him as a burnt offering." It's a pinnacle at which Abraham's faith in God is most clearly seen: he is convinced that God will honour his promise: that he will give him an heir; make him the father of many nations; bless the world through his offspring and Abraham is therefore willing to obey and offer his only son (Hebrews 11:17-19).
He is convinced that his future is safer in God's hands than his own. He has finally reached the point in his life where he trusts God's strength and faithfulness more than his own.
It seems that the ruler who met Jesus hadn't got this kind of faith. We don't know exactly what it is he loved about being rich - whether it's the prestige in amongst his peers, or the comfort that he can afford to enjoy, or the feeling of safety that such wealth brings. But it's clear that he feels that he needs his wealth more than he needs God.
Or, to put it another way, he doesn't trust God with his wealth.
The problem is not that absence of poverty: it's the absence of faith.
What does this mean for the church's mission in the world?
- We must remember that God is in the business of salvation, not insurance. Making a "decision for Christ" has no necessary correlation with actually trusting him.
- We must regularly idol check our lives - is there something we are trusting more than God?
- We must be careful to describe biblical faith not just in standard kitsch clichés, but with stories and examples that accurately portray how hard it is. Because faith may be simple, but it certainly isn't easy.