Give it up & come follow me

Chatswood Baptist Church

Matthew 19:16-30

Seeking an answer

Sometimes we seek a professional opinion about something, but we go with certain ideas about what kind of answer we want to hear. You go to the doctor, they tell you what they think the problem is (or isn’t!), but you don’t like what they’re saying, so you go to another doctor. And it’s not just professional advice. Maybe you ask your friend for relationship advice, but what you’re really asking is for them to affirm what you want to do – maybe what you’ve already decided to do! I remember Philip Jenson, the chaplain at UNSW when I was a student, sharing about a woman who came up to him asking if the Bible says it’s ok for her to get a divorce. And pretty quickly he realised that the reason she was asking himwas because she didn’t like the answer she’d got from the previous five pastorsshe’d spoken to already. Whether it’s doctors, friends or whoever else… sometimes we come asking for answers, but really looking for particular answers. Whether we’ve realised it or not, we’ve set up boundaries in our mind around what kind of answer is acceptable to us.

What must I do to get eternal life?

The particular question our passage from Matthew’s gospel focuses on today is ‘what must I do to get eternal life?’ It’s a well-known story found in Matthew, Mark and Luke about a young man – an impressive, wealthy young man – who comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to get eternal life. It’s like every preacher’s dream – people just streaming up to them and asking what “Please tell me! What must I do to inherit eternal life!?” So far, no one has fallen at my feet here in Chatswood to ask me…

But although we may not ask the question so explicitly, it doesn’t mean we’re not looking for the answer… I was sharing a few months ago about the modern quest for eternal life in silicon valley – the very real ambitions to overcome the problem of death through technology. Apparently pop-culture stars like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have been signing up to be cryogenically frozen when they die so that scientists can eventually thaw them out when they’ve solved the problem of immortality. Then we will all get to enjoy Britney and Paris forever! Hooray!

Every culture and religion has something to say about dealing with death, and offers some kind of hope for securing the good life into eternity (even if it’s just being frozen till we figure it out!). And many of us are attracted to the Christian faith because it promises eternal life so confidently through Jesus Christ. And we, kind of like the wealthy young man in this story, come to Jesus wanting to know what we really need to do to confidently claim it.

But this passage in Matthew 19 actually confronts us with how much we reallywant to know what we need to do to get eternal life. Do we reallywant it? Do we really want to know what Jesus says about that? Or are we coming looking for a particular answer?

You see the answer Jesus gives us through his interactions with this earnest young man is pretty confronting. It brings together what we’ve heard from Jesus over the past two weeks, as we consider what it means to follow Jesus in our time and place. The challenge to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus comes together with Jesus’ blunt teaching that we can’t serve both God and money. Jesus makes it clear that if we really want to receive eternal life, for most of us it’s going to involve a painful process of letting go of our wealth in particular as a rival god so that we can give our hearts to Jesus alone as our Lord and Saviour. Are you willing to listen to Jesus’ answer? When it comes to our wealth, are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, or are we going to choose to cling to our wealth and walk away from Jesus?

What good thing must I do?

As we take a closer look at the passage, you’ll notice that the conversation between Jesus and this young man first revolves around the idea of what good thinghe must do. And this first part of the conversation reveals a couple of important things: firstly, this guy is impressive, and if there is any good thing we can do to secure eternal life, surely he should be up to it; but secondly, that asking what ‘good thing’wecan do to earn eternal life is misguided…

An impressive young man

So notice first of all that this guy is pretty impressive. Socially, he’s towards the top of the ladder. We find out he’s wealthy – he likely owns a substantial amount of land. In Luke’s gospel, he’s described as a young ruler – someone with authority. But he’s not just rich and powerful, he seems like a good guy, and like he’s concerned to do good. He comes up to Jesus concerned with what God requires of him, he wants to know what he needs to do to have eternal life. He doesn’t want to just squander life away! He’s not content with just going with the flow and making assumptions, ignoring the bigger questions of life and just drowning himself in work, sport or entertainment… he wants to make sure he’s on the right track! 

And when Jesus brings up God’s commandments, the covenant the Jews needed to live by to be faithful to God, he can say that he’s carefully kept them all! There’s no hint that he’s lying or pretending to be someone he’s not. If being a respectable, conscientious religious person is what you need to do to be assured of eternal life, then this guy has it sorted!

Why are you asking about what is good?

But right from the outset, Jesus hints that there’s something off about this young man’s approach. “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good.”

The young man’s question is like the text-book purpose statement of all human religion: What ‘good thing’ can and should I do to be rewarded by God in this life and the next? And Jesus’ reply jumps straight to the problem with all human religion – why are you asking what ‘good thing’ you should do when you’re not good yourself? His assumption is that he has the inherent goodness, the capacity to do the good thing God requires of him. But the problem is that only God is good. There is only One who is good, and it’s not me or you. Christianity – the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus and the way of life that embraces it – is the only worldview or ‘religion’ that takes seriously the darkness and sinfulness of the human heart. You and I are not good, so whatever we need to ‘do’ to receive eternal life, it better not be a ‘good thing’ that shows we deserve it – because that will never work.

Now bizarrely Jesus seems to immediately contradict himself by saying, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” But I think what Jesus is doing is, after firstly indicating that there’s a problem with the man’s assumptions, he goes along with his question for now. “You want to know what ‘good thing’ you should do? You know already don’t you? Obey God’s commands! You know the Law.” And when the man is not content with vague answers and wants to know which commands, Jesus lists off the second half of the ten commandments given by Moses, which focus on our observable interactions with other people, and tacks on the command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, which is like a summary of the others. Jesus is saying, “You want to know what ‘good thing’ you should be doing? Why would you look any further than God’s commands about how to love your neighbour?” 

What do I still lack?

But this impressive young man seems to realise that there must be more to the story. “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

And now Jesus gives it to him straight. “You want to know what you lack? You want to be ‘perfect’? Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Not another ‘good thing’ to do

Now we need to be clear that Jesus is not just giving the young man another ‘good thing’ to do – the ultimate ‘good thing’ that will really earn him a place in heaven. Even though being generous to the poor is a good thing to do, and even if this young man’s wealth was perhaps evidence that he hadn’t loved his needy neighbours quite as much as he’d loved himself, and so giving it away to the poor would be a more radical obedience to the law… even though this is true, Jesus is not saying that the one thing that will really secure a place in heaven is giving away all your earthly possessions.

No, he’s telling this young man what is lacking in his approach to life and to God. The word ‘perfect’ really means ‘complete’, i.e. lacking nothing. So Jesus is not prescribing a way to be a perfect human being, and thus ‘earn’ favour with God. He’s answering the question. He’s explaining the missing ingredient to the young guys’ religion. And what’s missing is a heart that is free to worship God and accept eternal life from God’s Messiah. His heart isn’t free to accept eternal life by following Jesus, because it’s still captivated by his wealth.

Satisfying God with religion, Serving money with your heart

You see Jesus exposes the reality underneath this impressive young man’s religion. Underneath his earnest desire to satisfy God’s demands and do what is necessary to have eternal life is a heart that is captivated by earthly wealth. Underneath his respect for Jesus as the great Teacher, and his desire to know what he has to say about eternal life, is an even greater respect and deeper trust in his own wealth for happiness and security. He’s trying to satisfy God out of necessity, whilst serving money. 

And so Jesus cuts straight to the real issue and challenges him to give it away and to come follow him, choosing treasure in heaven over treasures on earth. When Jesus says (in Matthew 6) not to store up treasures on earth, but rather treasure in heaven, and that we can’t serve both God and money, he meant it! And we see the reality of what it looks like to wrestle with these choices as this wealthy young man absorbs what Jesus is saying, and then walks away shaking his head with a sinking feeling in his heart, unable to let go of his great wealth.

Have you heard how people use coconuts to trap monkeys? They cut a hole in the coconut just big enough for a monkey to slip its hand in, but small enough that it can’t pull it out when it’s bunched into a fist. Then they tie the coconut to a tree and put some bait inside, like some fruit. The monkey comes along, sees the fruit, slips its hand in to get it, closes its hand around the fruit and begins to pull it out. And that’s when it starts freaking out, because it can’t get its hand out – it won’t fit. And then even when the hunter comes walking up to the monkey, instead of letting go and running away, it just pulls harder and harder, unwilling to let go. All it has to do to save its life is let go of the fruit. But it won’t. The monkey effectively chooses to lose its freedom rather than let go of its prize. Greed blinds it from making a rational choice.

You see this guy did need to ‘do’ something to have eternal life, but it wasn’t some ‘good thing’ that would show he is worthy of eternal life. The heart of Jesus’ answer is that to have eternal life all he really needs to do is to come and follow him. Jesus offers eternal life simply by submitting ourselves to him as our Lord and trusting him as our saviour. But of course, to do that – to really do that, and not just pay lip service to the idea – he needed to let go of the god he was currently serving – his money. He needed to stop serving money and merely trying to satisfy God with religion. 

You don’t want to be a greedy monkey. You don’t want to choose wealth over life itself like this young man. Seems like such an obvious choice watching from the side lines, but when you’ve got your hand wrapped around your prize possession, it’s hard to let go. 

Do we need to give it all away?

Now you can’t help but ask yourself as you read this story whether God is asking youto sell everything and give it all away to follow Jesus. Is Jesus saying anyone who wants to follow him can’t spend anything on themselves or own anything?? Can you be a Christian and own a house?

I’m guessing you’re 99.9% sure that this passage is NOT saying you haveto give everything away to be a Christian… and you’d be right. Even when Jesus was travelling around proclaiming the news of God’s kingdom and calling people to follow him, he had disciples who were quite wealthy and remained wealthy. Jesus and his travelling disciples actually depended on the wealth of people like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the wealthy wife of Chuza (Luke 8:3) and the ‘rich disciple’, Joseph of Arimathea (who had Jesus’ body taken down and buried properly after he was crucified). And as I mentioned last week, the Bible is very positive about working hard to earn money to provide for ourselves and for others.

But then, if that’s true, why did Jesus say it to this man?? Why did he tell thisguy to sell everything if it’s not really necessary? Was he just feeling a bit extreme that day?

Well I think part of the answer is that Jesus was inviting this guy to join him and his band of travelling disciples. He was literally inviting him to leave behind his old life, just as Peter and others left their fishing nets, and to join him, to learn from him, and to share in the privilege of proclaiming the kingdom. Jesus didn’t invite everyone to join him like this, and it’s not exactly an option for us today.

But even so, I think the main reason Jesus said this is because, in a very real sense, we do in facthave to give it all away to follow him. Even if we don’t actually liquidate everything we own and give it away, we need to hand it all over to God and be ready and willing to use our wealth in service to God and his plans for our life. Many of Jesus’ disciples may not have given away all their wealth, but that doesn’t mean they lived in luxury and just continued to build their own empire. And I think Jesus could see how this young man’s wealth had captured his heart, and that to truly ‘repent and come follow me’, he needed to break free from it.

Will you give it up and follow Jesus?

So I guess the question is what does it mean for you to give over your wealth – your whole life really – to God and to follow Jesus? Are you willing to let Jesus call the shots with what you do to earnmoney and how you spendit? Or do you call the shots according to your own desires and concerns while Jesus is contained to a particular little section of your life? Jesus wants us ‘all in’ and he expects that to have tangible expression in our life. 

Some of us try to have one foot in and one foot out with Jesus. Like someone who’s got one foot in a boat and one foot still on the wharf. We’re not really trusting in the boat, or giving ourselves over to going with the boat, wherever that might be, if we’re trying to keep one foot on the wharf, are we? But that’s going to end badly. And as the two slowly drift apart, you’re going to have to make a decision. Do you step off into the boat, or do you stay where you are comfortable and feel safe? And if you don’t make a decision, you will get very sore and very wet…

Jesus doesn’t want us to fool ourselves. If we really want eternal life, if we want to enjoy life with him as God’s good king in his good creation for eternity, then we need to stop storing up treasure on earth – stop trusting in worldly wealth and satisfying ourselves in worldly comforts – and set our hearts on what God is offering us in Christ.

You see there’s a very real warning here for us in the reaction of this young man. For all his earnest questioning, pushing deeper for the ‘real answer’, I don’t think he really wanted to hear anything new. 

I think ultimately he wanted to be reassured that he wason the right track, and that he just needed to keep going. At most he wanted to know what other ‘thing’ he could add to his life to seal the deal.

I’m sure deep down, he was hoping (banking even!) that Jesus would say to him, “Look, I appreciate your concern, but if you’re keeping the rules, then you’re fine! Don’t worry son, just keep doing what you’re doing and everything will be ok…” And then he could have breathed a sigh of relief … walked off and worshipped money in his heart, whilst carefully keeping up his religion…

Is that what you’re looking for from Jesus? You’ve got a lifestyle that you’re really comfortable with, and you’d like to have a bit (or a lot) of religion mixed in to endorse it as all ok in God’s eyes… We really want to hear Jesus say to us, “Hey, don’t change a thing! Just keep cruising along and keeping up the Christian stuff.” 

Are you coming to Jesus looking for a particular answer? Or are you ready to hear what he really has to say about receiving eternal life? Are you ready to do what he says, no matter what? Will you give up your life, your wealth, whatever your clinging onto and follow Jesus? Or will you walk away, sadly realising you can’t have it both ways… but still not quite willing to let go. 

Is it possible?

Now I know this is hard. In fact, Jesus says it’s pretty much impossible doesn’t he! Watching the young man walk sadly away, unwilling to part with his great wealth, Jesus comments to his disciples how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. More than hard. Actually, says Jesus, it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Basically it’s impossible. When we own much, when we’ve accumulated lots in this life, when we are aware of all that we can enjoy because of our wealth, it’s so hard to look past it. It’s so hard to loosen our grip and walk away. 

But when the disciples react in shock, wondering then what hope there is for anyone, Jesus explains that whilst it really is impossible for us human beings, with God all things are possible. We still have a choice to make – will we let go or not? This young man made his choice. God doesn’t force a choice. But God enables what would otherwise be impossible. His Spirit loosens the grip wealth has on our hearts. He loosens the grip of our hands on our money. And he enables us to see the surpassing worth of following Jesus – to get up, take up our cross and follow him. 

And it’s important to recognise that God has done this miraculous work in many of our lives. Many of us have wrestled with the call to give our wealth over to God, to choose Jesus over anything else, and by God’s grace we have made that decision and begun living it out. I thank God for the generosity and the faith that I see in many people in this church. We may still be very aware of the struggle and feel we have a long way to go, and so it’s good to hear these words of Jesus… With God, all things are possible – in my life, in yours and in those around us.

Is it worth it?

And of course, what motivates us to make these impossible choices is when we are convinced we’re not missing out on anything. What God actually does in our hearts and minds to free us from the god of wealth and follow Jesus is enable us to see the surpassing worth of the life he’s offering us in Jesus. We don’t let go of our wealth and follow Jesus because we’re good people – we do it because God has enabled us to see that life through Jesus is a far more precious treasure than anything we can earn in this world. And that’s what Jesus reminds us of in the last few verses of this passage.

After Jesus speaks about the difficulty of the rich entering into heaven, the disciple Peter speaks up, pointing out that they haveactually all made this decision to leave everything to follow him, and then he asks, “What then will there be for us?”

There’s something a bit off about Peter’s question. Perhaps a hint of smugness about their response to Jesus compared with the rich young man. Perhaps a sense of entitlement – “we’ve done all this for you, what are you going to do for us? What are we going to get out of it?” But I think it’s also just Peter having no filter as usual, and voicing his concerns – “What about us Jesus? We’ve left everything! What’s going to happen to us?”

And because Peter asks the question, we get to hear the answer without asking the awkward question ourselves! (thanks Peter!) And Jesus says three things in response which all emphasise that it isworth it – those who make sacrifices now to follow Jesus will not miss out at all.

“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Now there’s more I could say about these verses – and feel free to ask me afterwards if you’re keen! – but the clear and emphatic point is that the cost will be worth it. In the end, the tables will turn, and whatever social, relational or material cost you’ve paid in this life, in this world, it will be overwhelmed by the glory of what’s coming your way. Those who’ve been ridiculed and sidelined will find themselves in positions of honour alongside Christ. Those who’ve grieved over the pain of loved ones rejecting them for their faith in Christ will find their hearts overflowing. What we’ve sacrificed will be repaid 100 times over into eternity. The eternal life that the impressive young man was so earnest to secure is given freely to those who make the call to follow Jesus. And even here and now, for those who throw their lot in with Jesus, they will find the rewards and joys of belonging to God’s family far outweigh the cost of following him. Yes, it’s worth it. No, you won’t miss out, even though it seems to cost you everything.

Will you let go and follow Jesus?

Now I’m expecting that this passage has challenged most of us here today. Hopefully it’s been an encouragement to those of us who have made difficult choices with our possession and wealth as we seek to follow Jesus, come what may. Hopefully you’ve been encouraged that it’s possible to keep following Jesus like this in God’s strength, and that it’s more than worth it. 

But maybe you’re here today, and as you’ve considered this confronting scene between Jesus and this young man, you’ve realised that you need to make some hard decisions about Jesus. 

Perhaps you can see that you’ve been trying to satisfy God with religion but really serving the gods of wealth and comfort with your life. Maybe you’ve been considering becoming a Christian and hadn’t realised that Jesus demands so much from us! Maybe you’ve been coming to church for years with a nagging sense that, like the young man, there’s something lacking in your approach to life and to God, and you can see what it is. 

I want to encourage you to see that eternal life through Jesus is worth far more than whatever else you’re tempted to cling onto instead. I want to encourage you to listen to him, to give it away and follow him, choosing treasure in heaven, rather than walking sadly away, clutching the stuff of this life. 

Jesus tells us: “Give it away, and come follow me”.