When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell what he has, give to the poor and follow him, he was using him as an example of how attachment to worldly possessions can get in the way of going to Heaven. The few times I’ve heard this scriptural passage preached in a mainstream church, it’s always along the lines of “that message doesn’t refer to us; that was just for the young man because he was rich and cared too much for his wealth. We don’t have to give up anything to follow Jesus. We’re not called to do that.” The preachers don’t use those exact words, but the spirit is the same: They imply that Jesus preached two messages on the same topic – one for the rich young ruler, and one for us.
Only Jesus didn’t do that. When he told the rich young ruler to give everything up and follow him, it was the same message he had given earlier to Peter and to James and to John and to Andrew and to all his disciples, without exception, and they all did what he asked them to do. To claim that Jesus gave one message to one person and another message to everyone else is to preach another gospel.
This is one of those hard Truths that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I would guess that nearly every Christian knows this scripture, but very few actually do what Jesus advises. Jesus did it himself when he left Nazareth, got baptized by John, and then went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights. There’s no indication that Jesus ever did his carpentry work again or that he returned to Nazareth for more than a brief visit. We can only assume that Jesus sold what he had, gave the proceeds to the poor, and hit the road as an itinerant preacher with little more by way of belongings than the clothes on his back.
He was no hypocrite in that regard (Jesus was no hypocrite in any regard); he practiced what he preached. When he told his disciples to leave everything behind, he’d already done it. He not only knew what was required to do it, he also he knew the rewards of doing it. He knew that anything that was not directly contributing to his ministry work was detracting from it, so it had to go, whether possessions or jobs or people.
Have you done it yet? Have you sold what you have and given the proceeds to the poor in order to genuinely free yourself up to follow Jesus? Or do you still have a house and land and possessions and a job and entanglements in a relationship with someone who is not born-again? Do you have a bank account with more money than you need for the next few days or weeks? Do you have investments? Do you have a pension plan? Does even the thought of giving any of these things up – let alone all of them – fill you with fear and dread?
Are you a rich young ruler in spirit?
If you haven’t yet done what Jesus advised the rich young ruler to do, I’m setting a challenge here. The challenge is to read the scriptural passage about the rich young ruler and think about it. Pray about it. Talk to God and Jesus about it. But I’m setting this as a challenge for all those who haven’t yet done what Jesus advised the rich young ruler to do. Born-again Christians claim they want to radically follow Jesus, but at the same time, they cling to their lives. In particular, they cling to the material aspects of their lives. They cling to their job and everything that goes with it. And they cling to their blood relatives and to lovers who do not share their love for God and Jesus.
In his ministry, Jesus’ first order of business was to choose his disciples and to ask them to walk away from their life and everything that had previously defined them. There is no indication in scripture that Jesus chose a disciple who refused to give up his family or his possessions or his job. They all did precisely what Jesus asked of them, and they did it without hesitation. The same process took place after Jesus’ death and resurrection – his disciples directed the members of the early church to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the church leaders to disperse according to need. Those who didn’t do as they were instructed suffered accordingly.
This is a hard Truth, to apply this scripture to ourselves today, but it is a Truth nevertheless. Jesus clearly meant it to apply to all his followers, as he later went on to assure Peter that everyone who gave up their livelihoods and possessions to follow him would receive a better livelihood and better possessions in this world, and eternal life in the world to come. Jesus did not make a distinction between the rich young ruler and his disciples, so neither should we make a distinction between the rich young ruler and us. The teaching applies equally to everyone, whether rich young rulers or not, if eternal life is the goal.
It is worth noting that, when the young man asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, Jesus told him he had to keep the Commandments and treat others as he wanted to be treated, in addition to selling his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor. This is worth noting because Jesus didn’t simply say “You just have to believe in me” or “You just have to have faith in God”. No, he very clearly stated that the young man had to do specific things, namely to keep the Commandments and to treat others as he wanted to be treated. The icing on the cake (or what Jesus called “being perfect”) was to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him.
Like the rich young ruler, most Christians do their best to keep the Commandments and treat others well, but that isn’t enough. Those things are important, but they’re not enough. If they were enough, Jesus would not have had to leave Nazareth and all it represented and the disciples would not have had to leave their lives. If keeping the Commandments and treating others well were all it took to inherit eternal life, then Jesus’ ministry was in vain and his sacrifice on the cross superfluous. But we know that Jesus’ ministry was not in vain and his sacrifice was not superfluous because everything Jesus did and said during his ministry years was directed by God, and God would not have sent Jesus on a wild goose chase. If Jesus, by God’s direction, instructed people to give up their possessions and worldly relationships to follow him, then that’s what people need to do. And not just some people – everyone who wants to inherit eternal life.
I pray that you take this challenge to heart. Jesus’ teachings don’t change because fashions change or seasons change. The teachings remain the same and are equally applicable to Jesus’ followers today as they were 2000 years ago. The scriptural passage that I’m challenging you to read and pray over is the one about the rich young ruler. It appears in three of the four Gospels:
If inheriting eternal life is your goal and you’re still clinging to people, places and things that are getting between you and Jesus, then you know what you need to do.
And the sooner you do it, the better.