We will be looking at the story on page 987, Matthew 19:16, so if you want to follow it you can see how long there is to go in the talk, because we're going up to verse 26 and you'll know where you stand. 'How do I get eternal life?' is the heart of the story. And here's the big question; in verse 16 a man comes up to Jesus and says
'Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?'
Now this guy's mentioned in 3 of the 4 accounts of the life of Jesus in the New Testament. And if you read all 3 you'd find out that he's rich, which is kind of alright, he's young, he's got some kind of authority so he's sometimes referred to as the rich young ruler, and he's very polite. Do you see that in verse 16?
'Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?'
People were often rude to Jesus but this chap's very polite. He's got it all, hasn't he? Rich, young, ruler, very nice. I've got a 25 year old daughter. If she wasn't married she could marry him. He's just missing one thing though, look closely. Rich, young, ruler, very nice, very nice. Missing one thing – if he had that he'd have it all. He's not Welsh! What a shame!
But here's the fatal thing, look at the question if you've got it in front of you, it's on page 987, chapter 19 of Matthew's account of the life of Jesus. Here's the fatal flaw: 'What good thing must I do to get eternal life?' The perennial understanding of Christianity, and of all religion, for many of us as we think about Christianity, is that it's what you do. 'If only I could do better. If only I got the moral equivalent of 7 out of 8. If you get 5 out of 10 you might get to heaven. If I get 7 I'm in. She'll get 8 out of 10, she's a cert.' But it is a fatal flaw. It couldn't be further away from the truth that Jesus teaches. You really couldn't be further away from the truth.
Christianity is never spelt d-o, it's always spelt d-o-n-e. You can't do it; Jesus has done it. Nobody can pass; only Jesus is making it possible for us to get to heaven, because he was perfect and I'm a complete failure before God. Now what's so marvellous about this story is that Jesus is tremendously kind to this guy and he never embarrasses him once, in what is presumably a public arena.
Come with me on the story. You'll see that Jesus gives him 3 chances to see that it was a stupid question. Not 1, not 2; 3. It's like an auction. 3 chances.
First chance, verse 17, you see he doesn't say to him 'what a dull question', he says
'Why do you ask me about what is good?' Jesus replied. There is only one who is good; if you want to enter life obey the commandments.
Here's the first chance. Working on the premise that it's a largely Jewish audience, and Matthew has this audience in mind as he writes, this boy would have known the commandments. He would have grown up thinking that you really did get to heaven by what you do. But he also would have heard as a boy at Saturday School that there's only one who is good, which is God. So Jesus just says to him 'there's only one who is good, why are you asking me that?' In other words, 'It's not you is it? You can't be good enough can you? Because there's only one who is good. The God of Israel, the Lord of heaven is the only one who's good enough'. Strike 1. Is there something in the facial expression? The text doesn't tell us. But strike 2 comes very quickly indeed straight after it.
Second chance; 'If you want to enter life obey the commandments.' Looks like a contradiction immediately. 'What have I got to do..?' Why do you ask me what good thing you've got to do? There's only one who is good. But there's a tact change, a change of position. Keep the commandments. Ah, solid ground! Solid ground! That was the question, he's given me the answer. But we'll see in a moment that Jesus is telling him that so that he can get a second chance at seeing that it was the wrong question. So watch this story, if you haven't got it open have a look, it's page 987. It's so clear what Jesus does here. It may just be that you see something new as you hear Jesus do this. 'Which ones?' the man enquired.' Solid ground see – I know the commandments, there's 10 of them, 10 big 'uns. Tell me.
18Jesus replied 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony – lie – 19honour your father and mother. And love your neighbour as yourself.'
There were 10 major commandments, 4 of them were how we treat God – you shall have no other gods before me, do not make images. 6 of them were how we treat each other. Jesus lists 5 of the 6 social commandments, but he leaves one out. The last one is a summary of the social ones – love your neighbour as yourself. He lists 5 specifics, he leaves 1 out. The boy would have known the 10th commandment. Now he might be wondering 'they call this the greatest teacher who ever lived. He doesn't even know the 6 social commandments!'. Or does he actually know it, but doesn't want to say it, because he's trying to get me to think about the one he's left out.
I'll tell you what it is in a moment if you haven't worked it out. And I'm not expecting that you should, you may never have heard of the 10 commandments – some of you will, some of you won't. You may never have thought about any of this. But it's ok, stick with the big picture here. 'What do I do to get eternal life?' is a fatal question, bad premise – you can't do anything. That's the point of the story; he's misguided. And Jesus is going to show him how, and he can show us.
What will he do? Will he bluff with Jesus? Yes he will! Verse 20 'all these I have kept, what do I still lack?' Oh no! He's bluffing with Jesus. Don't do it son! Just don't do it! I went to a school in Milton Keynes not so long ago, for a Year 10 assembly, for old school people 15 year olds, form 4. There was a young boy of about 13 standing against the wall in the foyer outside the headteacher's office, pale as this pillar. Nobody else there. I said 'excuse me, I'm looking for such and such, I'm doing an assembly.' He said 'you go that way sir'. I said 'thanks very much. Can I just ask, are you alright? You don't look very well at all.' He said 'Oh no, I'm ok sir.' I said 'Well what's the matter?' This was a Tuesday. He said 'Well yesterday it was pouring with rain when it was time to go home from school to the buses. So everyone came through this area to go out to the bus bays. So there were hundreds of people in here and somebody took the fire extinguisher and banged it down and sprayed it for a few seconds over everybody.' I said 'That's terrible'. He said 'Yeah'. I said 'Did you do it?' He said 'I don't know'! He did know, didn't he? He just wasn't sure if the head knew, right?! 'Not sure' he said!
Well this chap tries to bluff it. 'All these I have kept'. Now he did know he'd left one out, he would have known, and he would have known which one it was because he would have learnt it by rote. So now will Jesus say to him 'look, look! I've given you 2 chances. Very polite chap, well done. 'What good thing must I do to get eternal life?' I've told you there's only one who is good and it can't be you, so you can't do it. I've now given you chance to admit that there's one commandment that really flaws you. And you still won't face it. Wise up, push off.' No he doesn't. I don't know how you feel about God this evening. I don't know how you feel about the Christian faith, that God has revealed himself in his own Son into this world, out of sheer love for us. But it is this God who cares enough for every individual to treat them distinctively and uniquely and with respect. Don't confuse what you hear, or even sometimes what you've experienced, and mistake it with genuine, authentic love from God for us. He loves this boy. In fact in Mark's account of this story it says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. No he doesn't embarrass him at all, nor humiliate him.
Third chance, v21;
Jesus answered, 'If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor… then come and follow me.'
What is the worst thing you could say to a tight man? Do you know that word? It means drunk in some cultures, doesn't it? In others it means mean. You know if they get their wallet out there's moths flying around. Do you know what commandment he left out? Do not covet. Do not grasp. Do not chase what isn't yours. Don't be greedy. He left it out. 'Kept them all'. So Jesus says 'I know your fatal flaw my friend. You're a nice lad, but my goodness, you're a greedy man. My goodness, you covet what isn't yours. Gosh, you're never satisfied. So I tell you what, just to let you know that I know without humiliating you, I tell you what; give it away and you're in.'
Whoa, at this moment do you think the penny dropped? Who is this man? He knows everything about me? How does he know that? At this point in the story he has got it. V22;
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
And here's the salutary thing, Jesus didn't say 'I tell you what, I'll do a deal with you – give me 10 grand for the church roof and you might get in'. No, he lets him walk, he treats him with respect, with dignity. He treats him with the respect of his humanity and he lets him walk, he lets him reject. He now understands the question was a bad one. 'What do I do?' My friend, you'll never do enough, however decent you are. It's the wrong question; you don't get eternal life by doing. Well the disciples can barely believe it, vv23-24,
23Jesus said to his disciples, 'I tell you the truth, it's hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you 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.'
That would have been really funny at the time, because they were used to camels walking around. And you'd have been laughing like a drain if you'd been there. 'It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!' It's a tragic thing though. It's a tragic thing. The disciples can't bear it, v25;
When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and asked, 'Who then can be saved?'
And here we're at the heart of Christianity. If you've known Jesus Christ for 50 years, or you would say 'I don't know him at all, I don't even think I believe in him, let alone know him.' Wherever we stand on the scale we are now at the very heart of the message that has revolutionised the world. That brings people into a building on a very wet, cold, ugly winter's night 2000 years after this man was in this situation having a discussion about the meaning of life.
Look at us here. Sometimes you can't step back from this and look in on it, but it is awesome. It is majestic and it's enormous. On every continent of the globe there are Christians; millions of Christians. 100 years ago nearly all the Christians in the world lived in Europe or America. Now nearly all the Christians in the world live in Asia or Africa. The God who put the sun in the sky and the 9 planets that revolve around it, and on which we are on 1, where there's 100 million years to the next set of planets, Andromeda, the next solar system. And so they say, I don't know how, 100 million solar systems.
This is the God, if it's true, who ordained to come onto this planet, in this way, in his own son, to say to this man and therefore to you and me today 'you can't do anything to get to heaven. You've no chance. You're titchy. You're tiny. You can't believe, how can you even think that you could do enough? I made it all. You think that because you get 5 out of 10 and she gets 4 that I think you're miles better than her. Compared to me you're minus 0.' No, there's no such thing! It's impossible, it's just impossible.
Who would ever say the 5 worst things they've ever done in a public setting? Not done in a public setting – who would say in a public setting the 5 worst things they've ever done?! But who would? Who would say the 5 worst things they've thought this weekend? How could we possible be so fooled as to think that anyone could do anything to please a God who's absolutely committed to justice, fairness and rightness, who hates evil. Like we do if somebody goes to court and gets away with something they shouldn't have done. It's horror, if it's close to home.
I read in my own paper this week, in my own city, of a mum whose child had been knocked down. And the man who did it was driving too fast and he'd had a drink. And he was waiting to go to court. He'd never been in trouble, never. He was so full of remorse he visited this person in hospital. The child got better, 10 years old, then he visited the family at home. He stayed all the way through the recovery, even after the fury of the father after the accident. When he went to court he got a custodial sentence of a short period in the end. They interviewed the mother, she said 'he was such a nice guy. But I'm so glad they sent him to prison, because had they not sent him it would have been so wrong because of what he did.' And you read it and thought 'if that was my child, or one of my 2 grandchildren, I'd feel the same', not out of malice but out of justice.
Your inclination to justice is there because there is a God in the universe who is perfectly just. So when he looks at you and me and we say 'what have I got to do to get to heaven?' he says 'you fool! I know the injustices in your heart all the time. I can't have anything to do with them; I must judge them. So the disciples say 'if a bloke this nice can't be a Christian, who's got a chance?'
And then comes the amazing punch line of the story. Who's got a chance? V25;
When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and asked 'Who then can be saved?'
And here's our last verse for this talk this evening. Jesus looked at them and said 'with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.' It's so, dare we say, innate in the human condition, in the broken world, with our feeling that we are superior and that God owes us a favour and if he only got his sums right he'd have to let us in, that we think it's possible that we can do anything. Can you see now, as we read the story, how absurd a starting point it is? The who made it all, who hates injustice, the one who can penetrate my heart with x-ray eyes to see the greed in him, or the anger in me, the lust in us, to see the striving for power or reputation. If that Creator in his justice can see my heart and yours, would we dare say 'What have I got to do?' again? When a person becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, here's the litmus test: they actually understand that they need so much help it terrifies them. 'I've got to have help. Please, God, help me!' Because the miracle is that that God who's so just, who's the author of justice, the embodiment of justice, that God loves us so much that he came into the world he created, with the rebels in it saying 'I'm good enough' and said 'you will be judged, but I will take the punishment'.
People want to separate justice from love. They say 'where is your God of love?' when things happen in the world. It's a big question that will come up this week, for sure. 100 years ago they'd have said 'if God is a just God how can he be so soft and let people in?' The questions always change, but the attack never changes; 'let's split justice and love'. But the God of the Bible will never split them. He is all just and he is all love, and at a cross 2000 years ago love and justice met in the Son of God who dies on that cross. And were that not to have happened it would be impossible for any of us to have eternal life. We couldn't have it. And because it happened eternal life is available to all who will call that Jesus Christ their saviour. And you know tonight, the more you realise you can't do it, the more likely you are to be on your way to eternal life. Doesn't that turn all religion on its head? I'm going to say it once more; the more you realise you can't do it, the more you're en route.
So if there's someone in here tonight saying 'oh my goodness, if they knew me they'd know I could never be a Christian.' Crack on, you're getting close! And if there's anyone here tonight who's going 'That's rubbish, I'm miles better than most of those…' Look again, because the Bible says it's an arrogance. Please don't walk away sad from this story this evening. So there you have it; the rich young ruler. Might I urge you to have a look at Christianity Explored? Tonight you get a monologue; at Christianity Explored you get a much shorter chat, an explanation of a Bible passage and chance to ask anything you want straight away; no question too difficult or too awkward. Might I encourage you to think about that?