Epiphany Encounters: “A Rich Man’s Q&A with Jesus”

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A sermon preached on Matthew 19:16-26 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on February 2, 2020, the fourth Sunday of Epiphany. Part of a five-part series called, “Chosen: Five Epiphany Encounters with Jesus.”

This Totally, Definitely Blessed Man

From the woman with the issue of blood, we now move to the call of Jesus upon this famously rich young man. There are no miracles in this passage, but it is without doubt an “epiphany moment.” It also reminds us that whereas the other epiphany moments result in following Jesus, this one results in rejection. It is worth asking the question: rejection by whom? A financially and morally affluent person.

The people standing around this conversation, watching it unfold, would have thought of this rich young man in positive terms – pious and blessed by God. People still think this way. One idea prevalent today, popularized by the book and film called The Secret is the idea of the Law of Attraction, the idea that you attract into your life whatever you focus on. This is hugely influential. Just look it up on YouTube if you don’t believe me. One such YouTuber promoting this idea is Sales Professional Dan Lok. How many subscribers does he have? 2.35 million. A look at the comments section reveals how desperately people want this to be true of themselves and how they regard others who have obtained the Secret.

Those around Jesus would have seen the rich young man as someone who knew the Secret. Someone with an inside track with God. But here’s the kicker: according to Jesus, this man has not even begun to enter the kingdom of God (v.23) – and that’s the heart of this passage. Understanding this makes all the difference. We’ll spend the rest of our time unpacking this through two rounds of Q&A with Jesus.

The First Round of Q&A with Jesus (v.16-20a)

“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Two things here: the question reveals the man’s heart – both his attitude towards himself and his attitude toward Jesus. What must I add? is the question. And secondly, what is your opinion on the matter, good teacher?

This man takes the view of so many today – he thinks he’s doing pretty well, but he just needs that “extra something” to top it off, fill the gap and make it to the top! But that’s not Christian faith. Christian faith is rather, as Tim Keller says, an explosion! It is an utter break with a person’s old life and ways of thinking. It is a ruinous work that demolishes the old life!

Becket Cook is the author of the book Change of Affection: A Gay Man’s Incredible Story of Redemption. As he describes it, Becket was a successful and reasonably happy Hollywood set designer with homosexuality as his core identity. Until he encountered the gospel of Christ. Through a series of conversations, he got invited to church – and to his own surprise, he actually showed up! The pastor was preaching from Romans chapter 7 that day. As he listened, he said, “The Holy Spirit…flooded me. … I saw the holiness of God and my sinfulness at the same time. … It was this mix of joy and sorrow. Sorrow over my sin and joy over the fact that I just met the King of the Universe. … In that moment I knew that God was real, Jesus was real, heaven was real, hell was real, eternal life was real… God [said] this who I am and this is who you are. You’re now in my kingdom and you are my child.” (Anchored North YouTube Video) That’s what the beginnings of true and lively faith looks like.

Secondly, the very wording of the passage is meant to tell us that the man has no idea who he is speaking with. In Matthew’s Gospel, any time the disciples address Jesus, it is as Lord (κύριος). But here, the man simply wants the opinion of a teacher (διδάσκαλος). Could I have a sound bite, please? Three-steps to life eternal would be great! How does Jesus answer?

“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

It’s interesting that some have used this line from Jesus to call into question his divinity, when in fact, this is very line that reveals who the man is speaking with. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on this passage in The Cost of Discipleship are extremely helpful. “[The young man] will not receive the answer of ‘good master,’ a personal opinion to supplement the revealed will of God. Jesus points away from himself to God who alone is good and at once proves himself thereby to be the perfect Son of God. The questioner stands before God himself.” (pgs. 71-72) Moreover, by the end of the Q&A session, Jesus will call this man to follow him and look to him alone.

Moving on, the man then follows up on Jesus’ answer by asking another question: “Which commandments?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says here that “the very devil lurks beneath this question.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pg. 72) Jesus names a few – in fact, most of the Second Table of the Ten Commandments. The man replies that he has kept these (so he says), but still lacks something. Round one of Q&A is over. Round two begins.

The Second Round of Q&A with Jesus (vs. 20b-22)

What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Mark’s Gospel adds the comment that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (Mark 10:21) And this is where things go to a whole new level. Because the essence of Jesus’ answer is to stay to this man, if you would enter life, you lack one thing: me. In this man’s love of his own piety he cannot see his own poverty! The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me” and the second one is you shall no idols. (Exodus 20:3-5) Don’t miss the heavy irony of this encounter. The Messiah himself, the treasure of heaven is offered to the man – but his god must first be smashed. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer again:

In the moment he takes up the young man’s question, Jesus wrenches it from him. He had asked the way to eternal life: Jesus answers: “I call thee, and that is all.” The answer to the young man’s problem is – Jesus Christ. He had hoped to hear the word of the good master, but he now perceives that this word is the Man to whom he had addressed his question. He stands face to face with Jesus, the Son of God: it is the ultimate encounter. It is now only a question of yes or no, of obedience or disobedience. … The call to follow means here… adherence to the person of Jesus Christ and fellowship with him. The life of discipleship is not the hero-worship we would pay to a good master, but obedience to the Son of God.” (The Cost of Discipleship, pg. 76)

Now, there is no place where the command to sell is generalized for believers. So, what’s going here? Jesus, the great physician, wants to do radical surgery on this man, but refuses to be healed.

“When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” (v. 22)

In short, he missed his moment of epiphany. His love of his trinkets kept him from embracing the imperishable and untarnished wealth of Christ Jesus.

The Disciples (vs. 23-26)

And with that, Jesus turns to his disciples and teaches them. See him, in your mind’s eye, now to turning to teach us, as well.

And Jesus said to his disciples … “I tell you, 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.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

F.F. Bruce writes, “There is probably no saying of Jesus which is ‘harder’ in the Western mind today than the saying about the camel and the needle’s eye, none which carries with it such a strong temptation to tone it down.” (Hard Sayings of Jesus, pg. 183) But it can’t be, and as far we can tell, the picture is meant to be exaggerated and literal. Salvation is not humanly possible. This astonishes the disciples – of all people, this was a candidate for discipleship! This guy clearly knew The Secret – we might say he had the Law of Attraction going for him!

“With God, however” writes Jeffrey Gibbs, “all things are possible. His salvation comes for anyone and everyone, including those who are wealthy. In Jesus, God has broken into the world of sinners, both rich and poor, to reveal that all are alike in their need for God’s gracious reign and all are alike in that Jesus came to save them from their sins. Anyone who is weary and heavily burdened is invited to come to Jesus and to find rest in him, in his cross and his resurrection. Fisherman, tax gatherers, Canaanites, and even a wealthy disciple from Arimathea may become his disciples.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34, pg. 975)

I want to end with a few further points of application:

Parents: do everything you can to guard your children from becoming rich young rulers like this man. Because most of the messages of our culture will be dead set against you. What do we so often hear? I just want my kids to go to college, graduate, get a good job, and be happy. Those are not bad things! And yet, if that’s all it’s about, then we’re actually setting our kids up to come to a point in their lives where they no longer see their need for Christ. Above all, teach them to treasure him as their wealth.

Church: do everything you can to guard the treasure of the gospel. Don’t exchange the genuine article for some cheap, flimsy imitation Western Prosperity Gospel which simply makes Jesus our means to some lesser end. John Piper says it best, “When was the last time [anyone] ever said that Jesus is all satisfying because you drove a BMW? Never! They’ll say, “Did Jesus give you that? Well, I’ll take Jesus.” That’s idolatry. That’s not the Gospel.” (Curious Studios YouTube video)

Continue to be a people who so treasure Jesus that our attitude here is that of C.S. Lewis. Here, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.”

Individuals: if wealth increases, do everything you can to guard your heart. Even as I say this, I must say how proud I am to know so many people who have let go of wealth because Jesus and the impact of the gospel through this church mean more. It’s amazing.

 Let me close with these words from Jeffrey Gibbs, “If greater riches have been entrusted to my keeping, such power is to be used for the blessing of others and not to enhance my own ego or status. Why does it even seem unusual (for it feels that way as I write) to suggest that if one’s wealth increases over time, one’s standard of living should remain essentially the same while the percentage of wealth that leaves one’s hands and goes out to bless others should steadily rise? Why could we not all have as our goal to live on a smaller and smaller percentage of our wages? If it all stays with me, clutched in my sinful hands, it can do terrible damage to me and the people around me.

As one who knows himself to be a child, I can be taught to delight in God’s mercy in Christ, to embrace my identity as just one sinful but redeemed disciple of Jesus in the company of others, and to respond in generosity to others in need.” (Matthew 11:2-20:34, pg. 975)

The rich young man went away with his riches, but he missed out on the treasure of heaven. May we this morning be rich in Christ Jesus and in the wealth of his gospel. Amen.

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