By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
“Looking at him, Jesus showed love to him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But he was deeply dismayed by these words, and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.” (Mark 10:21-22)
Recognizing their need for a Savior, there were many who were willing to leave everything to follow Jesus. But the tax collectors, prostitutes, poor, and sick were not the only ones hungry for the truth or in search of healing. Even the wealthy, powerful, and influential leaders of Israel came to see if Jesus was who He said He was. If so, would He be willing to perform a miracle in their lives too? These meetings proved that Jesus had truly come for all and that all, no matter how wealthy, powerful, or influential, are lost without Him. In one such encounter, a wealthy young man approached Jesus with a profound question. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17)?
It’s a question many have asked throughout history. But though the rich young ruler aspired to live a virtuous life and came to Jesus in both humility and reverence, Jesus’ answer left him profoundly disappointed. We might say that he learned the literal and spiritual cost of discipleship that day. But why did Jesus tell the rich man to sell all of his possessions? Are voluntary poverty and a more minimalist lifestyle a prerequisite to following Jesus? How does this story affect current and would-be followers of Jesus when it comes to their attitude towards wealth, giving, salvation, and eternity?
What Did Jesus Mean by 'Sell Everything You Have'?
When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, he came with a seeker’s heart (Mark 10:17) and a desire to live an honest, upright life (Mark 10:20). He even boasted that he had kept the Ten Commandments all his life, but though Jesus recognized and acknowledged his sincerity, no amount of money or good deeds could ever grant him eternal life or save him from his sin. The apostle Paul later wrote that “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified" (Galatians 2:17).
The rich young ruler, like many, wanted a straightforward, easy answer to one of life’s biggest questions. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asked. What steps must I take to earn the ultimate reward? As a wealthy and influential man, he was probably used to buying the things he wanted in life and setting goals that he could achieve through hard work, earned favor, and his own merit. Money and hard work are not bad things. Salvation, however, cannot be bought or earned. It’s not about what we do; it’s Christ’s work alone that justifies and saves.
Jesus cut quickly to the heart of the man’s question by exposing this fundamental flaw in his understanding.
- Would he accept that nothing he did would earn him God’s love?
- Would he be willing to let go of his money, security, and lifestyle to follow Jesus?
- Would he be able to walk away from a works-based way of thinking to accept the free gift of salvation and make Jesus the one and only lord of his life?
The rich young ruler had a golden opportunity (and invitation) to inherit a treasure far greater than any plot of land or earthly possession. He instead walked away disappointed. The cost of surrender was simply too much for him to bear. Perhaps this is why Jesus also warned His would-be followers that, “if anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
By asking the rich young ruler to give away his possessions, Jesus wasn’t setting a precedent for future disciples to follow. Poverty and voluntary vagrancy were not prerequisites for discipleship. Jesus wanted to demonstrate that money and possessions, like earthly power and influence, can become distractions and even obstacles that prevent us from truly knowing God or allowing Him to rule in our lives. Wealth and possessions are not condemned here. Paul later wrote to Timothy that, “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus also said that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21).
Unfortunately, it is the wealthy who are often victims of their own abundance, comfort, and self-confidence, too reliant on material possession and wealth to seek God or even recognize their need for a Savior. Jesus would use His encounter with the rich young ruler to remind His disciples of this very fact and that it is often difficult for the “wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23) He even likened it to a “camel passing through the eye of a needle" (Mark 10:25). Impossible? Perhaps in human terms, but when the disciples asked, “who then can be saved?” Jesus made the theology of salvation abundantly clear, “with people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). This was the point.
“You cannot serve two masters,” Jesus argued. “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:4). We live in a world where the accumulation of wealth and possessions is celebrated and even glorified. Those who recognize their sin and subsequent need for a savior, however, quickly discover that wealth and material possessions are meaningless in the grand scheme of eternity. As the saying goes, “you can’t take them with you.” Money may buy a lot of things, but when it comes to our faith, the apostle James had it right: “did God not choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him" (James 2:5)?
Is This an Attitude of the Heart or a Way We Need to Live?
Jesus challenged His followers, both present and future, to refocus their attention on the eternal rewards of a life committed to Him, not the temporary and corruptible things of this world. Many of Jesus’s disciples had left everything, including their families, careers, and homes, to follow Him. They had made Jesus their Lord and master, and to those who did, Jesus promised, “there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first” (Mark 10:29-31).
At times, Jesus instructed His disciples to travel light, give away their possessions, (Luke 10:4, Luke 12:33-34) and trust Him to provide for their every need (Luke 12:22-29, Philippians 4:19). This wasn’t an excuse to live reckless and irresponsible lives or to squander their money. Jesus instructed us to be wise stewards of the life, the gifts, and the time He has given. This includes our money and possessions. Jesus ultimately taught His followers to place their hope, trust, and treasure in the eternal rewards of obedience and the riches of knowing Him (Colossians 2:2-3), not accumulated wealth, power, or earthly possessions (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
“But seek first His kingdom, and these things will be provided to you” (Luke 12:29-31).
When and How Much Should We Give to Others?
Those who recognize that all blessings in life come from God, understand that the things they own are given by God, belong to Him, and are His to do with as He pleases. They can be taken just as quickly as they were given. In the end, we are merely stewards of all that He has entrusted us with, and one day, we will hand it all back. This kind of attitude leads Christians to become less stingy, greedy and possessive and more generous and compassionate in the process. Throughout Scripture, God reminds Christians that they are to give and give often. They are expected to tithe (Malachi 3:10, Proverbs 3:9), pay their taxes (Matthew 22:20-21), and take care of those in the church and community (Acts 4:32). They are also instructed to be generous with their wealth and give freely to others.
“Give to everyone who asks of you,” Jesus said, “and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30).
“Now I say this,” Paul also wrote, “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows generously will also reap generously. Each one must do just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).
In giving, however, Christians should never be showy (Matthew 6:1-4) or concerned about how their giving compares to others. Generosity is not measured in dollar amount or the number of likes, comments, or re-tweets it receives. God encourages us to give in secret because, unlike man, He looks at the heart, and His praise is far more precious than man’s favor or admiration.
How Does This Message Affect the Way We Live Our Daily Lives?
Knowing this, Christians should always strive to work hard, be faithful with the gifts they’ve been given, and be generous in giving freely to others. We must surrender our finances, like our lives, fully to God and recognize that the greatest treasure on earth pales in comparison to the riches of knowing God. We do so, “that our hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and that we would attain to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3). As it is written, “what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love him—” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/kieferpix
Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.
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