I have always loved the portions of the gospels where Jesus tells a parable or talks one-on-one. They are always so rich and full, so much truth from which to glean. And it doesn’t hurt these words are coming straight from the mouth of God.
I have been meditating on one of these passages for some time. It appears in three of the gospels and is usually referred to as the story of the Rich Young Ruler. It appears in the following passages:
Here is the text from Luke’s version of the story:
Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.'” The man replied, “I’ve observed all these commandments since I was young.” When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich. Luke 18:18-23 (NLT)
Is This About Money?
I imagine over the centuries this passage has been used for teaching on money and charity. I’m sure I’ve even heard such teaching at one time or another. I’m also sure there are great teachings on wealth, poverty, giving and such related topics, using this story.
Some may read this story and think Jesus is telling us to not have money or possessions. One could even bolster this idea by coupling with scripture such as:
But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head. Luke 9:58 (NLT)
There might be valid arguments against wealth, but I believe this passage is addressing something else.
What Is It About?
As I meditate on this story the question that keeps coming to me is: “Where do you get your identity?”
The man is clearly a religious man, he tells us as much when he says he has kept the commandments since his youth. He also shows us something else in his statement, he finds his identity in what he can do.
His first question to Jesus is: “…what should I do to inherit eternal life?”. He understands Jesus is the one who knows this answer, but he doesn’t realize that Jesus is the one who gives eternal life. However, instead of a hand out the man wants to earn his eternal life. His whole life has been about earning what he has, about going out and taking what he wants. Now he wants eternal life so he goes to the one he believes can instruct him how to obtain it.
What Does This Have To Do With Identity?
This story is called “The Rich Young Ruler”, so even the title points to how this man identifies himself. He is known among the people in this manner. He has created an illusion of who he is and offered that to those around him.
It is in his possessions and power that he finds comfort and security.
When asked, Jesus gives him the correct answer. To obtain eternal life you must keep all the law of God. The man is known to be a religious man and has devoted his life to keeping the law, but no man is capable of keeping the whole of the law.
Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law. So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. James 2:8-13 (NLT)
The man says he has kept all the law, but Jesus proves he is guilty of the law with his next instruction.
Jesus tells the man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.
When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.” Luke 12:48b (NLT)
This man was entrusted with a great deal of wealth, power and responsibility. When God entrusts these He expects them to be used, not hoarded or squandered. In the passage above from James, it states that favoring one person over another is sin, because the law says to love your neighbor as yourself.
When Jesus commands this young man to sell all he has and give to the poor, he is asking him to show the same compassion and favor to those less fortunate than him as he does to his peers and equals.
The man’s identity is in his power and wealth, not in his keeping of the law or following of Jesus.
I Don’t Have Any Money
This story is not so much about the money the man had and would not part with. Instead it is about where we put our trust, where we gain our identity. Do we identify our self by what we have obtained? Or what we have accomplished? Or do we identify our self by our faith in Christ?
I am an IT Professional. I have been learning that trade since I was 8 years old, and I have been working professionally in the field for nearly 20 years. It is a major part of my life, where I get my paycheck, it’s what I do.
Many in my shoes, when asked to identify them self, would say: “I am an IT Professional” or “I am in the computer field”, etc.
I also am the son of a Pastor, the brother of an EMT and a hairdresser, the uncle of students, on and on this list could go. And there are many who would use one or more of these titles to identify them self. I have friends who are actively involved in the entertainment industry, some would use that to claim some entitlement, privilege, or honor. I have met people at many levels of importance and prestige within society. I have walked with giants and ate with derelicts.
And like the rich young ruler, I have strove since my youth to keep the law of God. But like him, and like everyone else, I have been unable to keep it fully from birth to death. And as James tells us, to be guilty of one point of the law is to be guilty of the whole law.
So for me to reach to any of the many connections, skills, talents, gifts, vocations, etc that I have would be a waste. They identify what I do and who I know, but they do not identify who I am .. or rather I don’t want them to.
Instead, if someone asks me who I am I want to be able to say, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ”. For that to be the thing that identifies who and what I am.
A Great Example
I came across an amazing story that illustrates what this can look like. This excerpt is from the book, The Parables: Understanding What Jesus Meant by Gary Inrig:
Bill Borden was born a blue blood and brought up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents were both descended from British aristocracy, and his father had made a fortune in real estate in Chicago and in silver mining in Colorado. Bill was already worth a million dollars by the age of 21, an amount in 1908 equivalent to about 40 million today. He was also handsome, intelligent, well-educated, and popular.
But in 1912, at the age of 25, Bill Borden did two things that made headlines. First, he gave away his entire fortune, half to God’s work in the United States and half to missions overseas. Second, he chose to set sail for missionary work among the Muslims, first in Egypt to learn Arabic and then, ultimately, to a remote part of China.
To the public, and the media, and even to many of his Christian friends, Borden’s actions seemed incredibly wasteful, especially when he died of cerebrospinal meningitis shortly after reaching Cairo. He had apparently thrown away his money, his career, and even his life. To what end?”
I read more about this man and I think this answers that question:
After his death, Borden’s Bible was found and given to his parents. In it they found in one place the words “No Reserve” and a date placing the note shortly after he renounced his fortune in favor of missions. At a later point, he had written “No Retreat“, dated shortly after his father told him that he would never let him work in the company ever again. Shortly before he died in Egypt, he added the phrase “No Regrets“
- No Reserve
- No Retreat
- No Regrets
This man had clearly found his identity. It was not in the success, power, and wealth which the world tells us to clamor after. Instead it was in total surrender and complete obedience.
When Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had give it to the poor, Jesus did not care about the man’s money, did not need it or need him to sell and give. Instead Jesus needed the man to be sold out, in total abandon.
NO RESERVES – NO RETREATS – NO REGRETS
The reason Jesus is so adamant about followers surrendering everything is because the reality is this: the one thing we are most reluctant to give up is the one thing that has the most potential to become a substitute for him. Really what we’re talking about here is idolatry. When we are to be following Jesus, who is ahead of us, but find ourselves looking behind us, we are revealing that we are substituting something or someone for him. (Kyle Idleman – from Not A Fan)