Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Rich, Young Ruler in Three Scenes

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler” (RYR) is the middle scene in a three-scene narrative. Matthew, Mark and Luke include all three scenes together and in the same order. Notice what comes before and what comes after.
  • First, there is the blessing of the children, where Jesus says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:13-16; see also Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17).
  • Second, along comes the RYR, who asks, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-22; see also Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 18:18-23). Then a brief exchange follows between him and Jesus.
  • Third, after the RYR departs, Jesus says, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23-31; see also Matthew 19:23-30 and Luke 18:24-30).
Let’s take a closer look. In the first scene, Jesus says that only those who receive the kingdom of God as a “little child” will enter it. Now, the thing about a little child is that he has nothing. No position, no power, no possessions — nothing! He is completely dependent upon his parents for his well-being, and apart from them he is helpless.

That is how it is with the kingdom of God. We do not enter it or receive it by anything of ourselves. Neither position, nor power nor possessions will gain it for us. We must come helpless, totally dependent upon God.

And now here comes the RYR. He is loaded with position, power and possessions. But he realizes that there is something he is missing. He wants to know about how he can inherit “eternal life,” which is, literally, the “life of the age to come.” In other words, he wants to know how to receive the kingdom of God, which is all about the age to come (yet which has already broken into this present age). Of course, Jesus has already answered that question in the first scene: The only way one can receive the kingdom of God is as a little child.

Let’s be clear here: the problem is not that the RYR has all these possessions, the problem is that he trusts in them. He depends on them to see him through whatever comes his way. That is revealed when Jesus tells him to go and sell what he has and give the proceeds to the poor. The RYR is quite saddened to hear that because he has a lot of possessions. So he goes away, grieved and offended.

But that is not the end of the story. There is yet another scene. After the RYR leaves, Jesus says to His disciples, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). Obviously, He is referring to the young man in the previous scene. The RYR was trusting in his riches, yet seeking to enter the kingdom of God and inherit eternal life.

On the other hand, here are the disciples, puzzling over what Jesus has just said, and asking among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” Comparing these three scenes, we can see that “saved” means “inherit eternal life” means “enter the kingdom of God.”

So, Peter starts in and says to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You,” as if to ask, “What about us?” The disciples are not trusting in their possessions — they have left all that behind to follow Jesus. They did what the RYR was unwilling to do. Their faith is now in Jesus. So Jesus answers,
Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time — houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
The disciples are no longer trusting in their possessions, yet they will have more than they need for life in this present age — “and in the age to come, eternal life.” Eternal life. Isn’t that exactly what the RYR came seeking? And he could have received it, too, except that he was trusting in his riches. But he went away sad, not willing to give up what he had, yet having no assurance that what he possessed would be sufficient to see him through this present life, let alone the life to come.

Then Jesus adds the kicker: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31). The kingdom of God turns everything upside down. Or right side up, depending on your perspective. The RYR had everything in life — position, power and possessions. He thought he would be a shoe-in to be among the first, but it turns out that he will be among the last. Yet, those who receive the kingdom of God like a little child, who put no trust in position or power or possessions but in the Lord alone, even though they might appear to be among the last and the least in this life, they will be among the first in the kingdom of God.