A couple of weeks ago, at Mercyview Church (the church of which I am a member in Tulsa, OK), one of our Elders, Brad Andrews, challenged us with God’s Word. We’re walking through a series called No Other Gods in which we’re exploring the common idols of the heart prevalent in our culture and even in the Church, particularly in the West. In a sermon called The Idol of Success and the Supremacy of Jesus, Brad did a fantastic job unpacking the difference between two “succesful” men: The Rich Young Man/Ruler (RYR) and Zacchaeus whose stories are told by Luke in chapters 18 and 19 of his gospel. Go listen to it, you’ll be glad you did.
That sermon got me thinking, though, about the beauty and wisdom of Christ’s response to the RYR. In Mark’s version of the story, in Mark 10, we see that Jesus looked at this man “and loved him.” That’s beautiful and remarkable! What Jesus is about to say to this man flows out of His deep love for him. So, what does love do when it encounters a man whose idols include his many possessions?
Well, you probably know the story. Jesus, out of love, said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” I find that amazing. Remember, this man is an upstanding member of society. He had lived an outwardly moral life. If he found his way into your church, you likely would assume that he was a believer, a good man, a follower of Jesus. But, let’s say one day he comes to your office and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do you respond? Let’s look at ways some may respond, and see if you can find yourself on this continuum.
A preacher of prosperity theology may respond by saying something like this: Do you believe in God? Do you really believe…is your faith strong? You need more faith because it is the energizing principle of reality. If you have enough faith, you can have whatever you want. You just have to name it and claim it in Jesus’ name. So, claim eternal life, by faith, in the name of Jesus. And, remember, if you want something from the Lord, you’ve got to give something to Him. You have great wealth, young man. Why don’t you give a faith gift of $1,000,000 to our ministry here as a sign to God that you’re serious about this. And when you do that, He will open the gates of Heaven and give you what you’ve asked for. He’ll have to.
A pastor of an independent, evangelical church might respond this way: Let’s revisit the Gospel. Remember John 3.16 says that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. Do you believe in Jesus? If so, then you already have eternal life. There’s nothing else you need to do. I wonder if perhaps God might be stirring up these sorts of questions in you because He’s inviting you to take your faith more seriously. You’ve accepted Jesus as savior, but maybe you haven’t accepted Him as Lord. Maybe one way you could do that is invest $1,000,000 in our upcoming building campaign.
I wonder if the pastor of a Reformed (thinking broad category here) church might approach the RYR this way: Brother, the work of redemption isn’t something that we do, neither by having enough faith or simply praying a prayer. No, conversion is wholly a work of the Spirit of God. Throughout history, one way Biblical Christians have sought assurance is to look at the work of sanctification the Spirit has done in them. When you look at your life, you can see fruit. That’s why you can say that you’ve been able to keep the law. That’s not your own doing. You know, maybe you should consider enrolling in some theology classes. Our church partners with the School of Reformed Theology here in town. In fact, I’m on their board, and maybe we can talk about you investing some of the Lord’s resources he’s entrusted to you, say $1,000,000, into the school.
Besides the first answer, you may find helpful pieces in the 2nd and 3rd responses. Yes, these are caricatures, but when I wrestle with how I would have responded, my question was this: how can I even lead this conversation in such a way as to land where Jesus landed. He had the advantage of knowing the heart of this man. How do we counsel in such a way as to be able to respond as Jesus would? I think it is by focusing on the heart. At some point we have to be able to say something like the following:
Tell me about your walk with Jesus? What does He think of you? When you think of your relationship with Him, what feelings come to mind? Do you love Him? Not just a vague love or a gratitude, but are you increasingly finding Him delightful? Do you thrill at His trustworthiness and His affection towards you? Do you find that, increasingly, the things you use to depend on or delight in are fading into the background as Jesus becomes sweeter and sweeter to you? If not, where do you go to find your identity? To find fulfillment and security? When life is hard, how do you respond? What’s your go-to for comfort?
When we are examining the HEART, only then do we really know where they may stand with Jesus as well as what idols are lodging in their hearts where Christ is meant to dwell. Only then can we talk about the expulsive power of a new affection. Only then, when we know that this RYR is addicted to wealth, can we challenge him to surrender his idol. Today that might look like a radical break with his career, or it may look like radical boundaries for this brother in the area of finances. It will also include a good deal of discipleship to help him grow to value Christ above all, to get excited by Christian generosity, and to live simply and humbly.
But notice this, you Christian leaders: Jesus didn’t ask him to invest in His ministry, church, or institution. His only concern was the heart of this man. He told him to give it away and then to come and follow/love/fellowship with Him. Jesus said, “I don’t want your wealth, and you’ll die if you don’t get rid of it.” That is pure love. Does that mean this RYR today couldn’t give his wealth to wonderful Christian institutions? No, but it may reveal the idols in our own hearts if that’s our first inclination. We should want him to be free, not to become a donor.