Harold Kushner, in his book "When All You Have Ever Wanted Isn't Enough," told the story of a young man who called him very early in the morning one weekend. The young man insisted that he needed to talk to Kushner right away. Before breakfast the young man showed up at Kushner's house. When he was asked what could be done for him, his answer was this: "Two weeks ago for the first time in my life I went to the funeral of a man my own age. I didn't know him well, but we worked together, talked to each other from time to time, had kids about the same age. He died suddenly over the weekend. A bunch of us went to the funeral, each of us thinking, it could easily have been me. That was two weeks ago. They have already replaced him at the office. I hear his wife is moving out of state to live with her parents. Two weeks ago he was working 50 feet away from me, and now it is as if he never existed. It is like a rock falling into a pool of water. For a few seconds it makes ripples in the water, and then the water is the same as it was before. But the rock isn't there any more." And he said, "Rabbi, I have hardly slept at all since then. I can't stop thinking that it could happen to me, that one day it will happen to me, and a few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn't a man's life be more than that?"
That fellow was asking some of the questions of life. He was looking for some answers to those questions. In that way he is similar to the main character in the story that we are going to read from Luke 18. Beginning in verse 18 of this chapter we read, "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, Honor 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 said, 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.' And Peter said, 'See, we have left our homes and followed you.' And he said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house, or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.'"
That great story is told, of course, in Matthew, Mark and here in Luke. And when you put the accounts together, there are really four questions that are raised and then answered by the Lord. We are really not prepared to live until we have answers for these four questions. All of them grab our attention.
In the first place the man raises the question, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Mark says that this man ran to Jesus with a sense of urgency and knelt before him with a tone of humility to ask this question. It was something that was strongly on his mind. He desired deeply to have the answer. How can I have eternal life? I notice that Luke uses three phrases interchangeably. He mentions eternal life in verse 18, he mentions entering the kingdom of God in verse 24, and then he mentions being saved in verse 26. Having eternal life, being saved, entering the kingdom are all talking about the same things. How can I have that?
Jesus answered his question by first raising a question: Why do you call me good? There are some people who have tried to take that as if Jesus was suggesting, "I am not really good myself and I am not really God's Son." That's not what he means! What the Lord is saying to him is more in the nature of "Do you realize what you are saying to me? Do you realize that there is none good but God and you just addressed me as Good Teacher? Are you ready to state your faith that I am deity, that I am God's Son?" It was a challenge to the depth and the extent of this man's faith.
It is interesting that in Matthew's account of this there is also a little different phrase used. There the question is "Teacher, what good thing shall I do to have eternal life?" And Jesus answers him by saying, "Why do you ask me what is good?" He is saying also to the young man not only to recognize his authority, but also, "Do you recognize the extent of the question you are asking regarding yourself? Are you ready to claim that you are so good that eternal life, the kingdom of heaven, and all of that are deservedly yours? Are you ready to claim that you have kept the commandments of the Lord to such a degree that those things are owed to you?"
And then Jesus says to the young man, "You know the commandments." A lot of times we get to thinking that we need some answer that is newer and more impressive than what the word of God has stated. But the Lord just pointed this young man back to what the scripture already said. He called his attention to the commandments under which he lived. He mentions five of these commandments, and all of them have to do with outward actions about how you treat other people around you. He says to the young man, if you notice, "don't commit adultery, don't murder, don't steal, don't bear false witness, honor your father and mother." It seems as though the Lord deals with those outward commands on purpose in his discussions with this young man. The one that he leaves out is "do not covet." And that was the one which would really have searched the young man's inner heart the most. Mark adds "do not defraud anybody" and Matthew adds "love your neighbor as yourself," and both of them are trying to say to the young man, "Remember that these commandments of God have an inner demand in a person's life, too." Remember that we are not just talking about here not going out and not slaying somebody, murdering some innocent victim. What we are talking about is not hating somebody on the inside. What we are talking about is not only not committing adultery, it is also not harboring unclean intentions in the mind. We are not just talking about not bearing false witness in the sense of telling lies or swearing lies. We are talking about saying things that are hurtful to other people.
The New Testament says that those commands of God under the old covenant were intended to be a school master to bring us to Christ, to help us see the need that we have for forgiveness. These commandments shut us up in disobedience so that we are dependent upon God to set us free. The way Jesus answered this young man's question prepares us for the time in the book of Acts when someone will ask, "What must I do to be saved?" And the answer will be given to someone who recognizes his guilt that he should believe in the Lord Jesus with all his heart and then that he should repent and to be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of his sins. This story helps set the stage for that kind of discussion later. There is the first question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? I have to recognize God's goodness, my need, and then to submit to what the Lord requires of me.
The second question then comes up. Matthew tells us that the young man says, "All of these I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?" There is the second question: What am I still lacking? Now this fellow had the things that most people think will make you happy. We learn from the other accounts that he was a young man. How much would people give to be able to maintain youth? Youth is so much celebrated in our society that folks will do almost anything to hang on to it. This man was young. This young man was also wealthy. Mark says he had great riches, many possessions. He was rich. And again, look at all the trouble folks are willing to go to to get possessions and to feel like they are financially secure. He is not only young and rich, but he was also a ruler. He was in a position of prominence. He was well known, respected, had some amount of power. Why, if you could be young and rich and powerful, wouldn't that be nearly enough to just make a person happy from then on? Wouldn't that give the satisfaction and the fulfillment and the completeness to life that all of us are looking for?
This young man's question reveals the lie of the idea that by having physical vitality, material possessions, and social prominence a human being is guaranteed happiness. It is just not so. This young man knows that something is lacking. Maybe he realized that inwardly he hadn't been as successful at keeping these commands as he had outwardly. I don't know. But he knows something is missing or the question wouldn't have been raised.
Look at Jesus' answer to it: "You are lacking one thing." The Lord was good at calling attention back to one thing. At the house of Mary and Martha he told them that one thing is needful. When he told the stories of the hidden treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, he talked about how somebody would joyfully sell everything to possess that one thing that was more important than anything else. And so he says to this young man, "Sell all that you have, give to the poor, come and follow me." There have been all kinds of puzzles over how to take that statement. I believe what is happening here is that Jesus is calling this young man to follow him and to become a full-time disciple. When the disciples are called back in Luke 5 to follow him and let him make them fishers of men, the Bible says they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:7). Later on, in Luke 5:27-28, he went to where Levi was collecting taxes and said to him, "Follow me." and Levi immediately left everything and followed him. This young man is being given the opportunity to let go of what has been hindering him and to follow Jesus as a devoted disciple. That is the opportunity that is set before him. "If you haven't found what you are looking for in your youth and your wealth and your power, let go of that and follow me."
What Jesus is saying to the young man is that when you have been trying and still you find yourself unsatisfied, it is a problem of treasure. The problem is where our real values lie. In verse 22 he says to have treasure in heaven. Someone has written that "your treasure is your magnet." Your life will go in the direction of your treasure. You see the young man's plight, then. When he is asking, "How can I inherit eternal life" outwardly, but when his heart is directed toward treasure which is here on earth, he is going to be unhappy. He is going to be unsatisfied and incomplete. Treasure in heaven means to have as the things that are most precious to you, things that the rust can't consume, things that moths can't eat up, things that thieves can't carry off. There are things that we can keep and take with us, and there are things that we can't. Real treasures need to be treasures that are eternal. That was the challenge to the young man.
The Bible says that when the young man heard these things, he became very sad. He went away sorrowful because he had great possessions. He wasn't willing to make the inconvenient choice that was laid before him here. J.W. McGarvy observed: "That he went away sorrowful rather than angry speaks well of the young man. A man of extreme avarice or of little concern for eternal life or of little faith in Jesus would have been offended at the extravagance of the command. His sorrow shows that he had respect for the authority of Jesus, that he really desired to seek eternal life under his guidance, and that it required a struggle to give up his purpose, even for the sake of his great possessions." All of that is true, but he did give up and he did walk away with eternal life in the balance. He made "the great refusal."
The first questions is "What do I need to do to inherit eternal life? The second questions is "What do I still lack? And the third question comes up in Luke 18:26: Then who can be saved? A common Jewish conception in those days was that wealth was a sign of God's approval. If God had blessed you materially, then it meant that God was happy with you, that he had accepted you, that your life was guaranteed. And here is Jesus saying to the hearers present that it is difficult for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel, the largest animal known to people in that part of the world, to go through the eye of a needle, the smallest opening imaginable to those people, than for someone who has his heart set on his riches to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is interesting that in Mark's account this kind of statement is actually made twice. The first time it has to do especially with wealth, and the second time it seems as though the statement has a wider application. The text (at least in recent versions) seems to indicate that it is difficult for anyone, rich or poor or otherwise, to enter into the kingdom of heaven. These people might have been thinking if this young man, if this young man who is wealthy, if this young man who seems to have been morally upstanding, is not going to be able to enter into life, then nobody can.
Jesus reassured them with one of the great statements of the Bible. He said, "What is impossible with men is possible with God." That is the news of the gospel. When it seems like hearts can't be changed and the direction of lives cannot be corrected, when it seems like no one can let go of what's here for the sake of the God who is there, just remember that what's impossible with men is possible with God. He can change hearts. He can save people. He can bring people to heaven. He can give us treasure there. That is what the gospel says. Anybody can be saved, if he will.
When Jesus died on the cross, among the first people to be impressed were people who were powerful and wealthy. The Centurion in charge that day said, "Truly, this man is the Son of God." The one who took his body to burial was Joseph of Arimathea, who was a man of honorable estate, a counselor, someone who had wealth. It is possible for God to change hearts. It is possible for people to ask, "What must I do to be saved" and then to hear the requirements of the gospel and to be willing to submit to those things, and thus to be saved. That is a wonderful truth that this passage lays down.
That brings us to the fourth question. Peter raised this one. According to Matthew's account, "We have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?" Peter may have begun to think to himself either "maybe we are a little better than this guy" or maybe "our confidence is shaken a little bit, and what about our situation? If this guy can't be saved, what about us?"
The Lord answers with again reassurance, but also a little bit of a gentle warning. The warning is "Peter, watch out for this bargain making mode. Don't get so caught up in thinking about what you are going to get out of it." Mark does it by mentioning the reality of persecution with this, and Matthew and Mark both say "but many who are first will be last." Humility is required in thinking about what we will have.
But the Lord said, "You don't have to worry. No one who has left any of this for the sake of the kingdom, for my namesake, for the gospel's sake and my sake, as the other accounts have it, who will not receive in this life many times more."
I ran across a prayer written by Charles Brewer, a servant of God. He was killed in an auto accident at age 80. Among his papers was found something he had titled, "Postdated Prayer," and it said, "Dear Father, God. The time may come when I will be too busy dying to turn sane thoughts to thee and number all good things you have done for me. Or if I call thy name it may be inarticulate cries of pain from stammering lips and dulling brain. The heart is so intent on beating and mortal life holds on so stubbornly that it would forfeit all treasures past. Lord, I ask thee now to close thine ears to any frantic call that I may make to help extend my time. While my mind is clear, my body free from pain, let me say thank you again and again for all the unspeakable joys attendant my journey in this life. Thank you for all the blessing of my years, for bitter sweet of love and tears, long memories of childhood days, for dreams of youth and testing hours. It was thy hand that guided me, and I was kept within thy power from pitfalls that I did not see. For happy years of wedded life; for gentle, sweet and faithful wife; for stalwart sons, strong in faith; a daughter dear brought by a breath from heaven, a jewel rare in answer to a long prayer; bless them Lord and help them be true to thee. Give them wisdom, grace and power sufficient for each trying hour. Help them with pride wear thy name, not mine. Thank you Lord for a lovely world. Your guesthouse in which you have let me stay so long; thank you for every night and day where I have thy manna from above. Thank you Lord for fellowship of friends whose faith in me has made me stronger. Blot out the spots on the sun made dimmer by the wrongs I have done. Forgive them and in mercy move all shades of night and in this evening hour, let there be light that I may surely know thy love that cleanses white as snow." Isn't that a beautiful statement of the "many times more" that comes to one who follows the Lord in this life?
And then the Lord said, "in the world to come, eternal life." That is what you have. I read a statement made by a counselor in the wake of 9/11 and the events in New York City. This person told of one of the people she had worked with. She writes, "She survived the tragedy of September 11. It was quite a story and she told it well. She talked about running down halls and sidewalks watching people trampled. She remembers the young and the wealthy dropping expensive briefcases and computers as they fled. What was gained they counted lost. She said that while she was fleeing for her life she felt afraid and anxious. She tried very hard to remember some Bible verses. She wanted to comfort and reassure herself with them. Nothing came to her mind. Her brain was not working as well as it usually did. She said, 'I could only remember His name but that was enough.' Then the counselor says, "I do not think I will ever forget that. Briefcases and computers, the stuff of busy lives, dropped and forgotten. Only He remained, and He was enough. How easy it is to lose that lesson in the midst of our busy lives. Money, work, schedules, deadlines, reputations, such things seem so crucial. But when life is threatened, they cannot save nor can they comfort. I pray that the lesson will be burned in my soul so that I may live out of a heart that knows He is enough." That is what I pray we learn from this great passage.
Questions of life have answers. What shall I do to inherit eternal life? What am I still lacking? Who then can be saved? What then shall we have? We hope you will answer those questions in your mind. Remember, the Lord is the answer. Don't let anything keep you from following him.