This one may get a little long, and I’m going to try not to let it get complicated, but here it goes.
Growing up in the American church, being saved was always about what happens to you when you die. When we read about the kingdom of Heaven in the Bible it was always about pearly gates and meeting God. Furthermore, when we’re doing a class on poverty alleviation and we ask, why did Jesus come to Earth, the answer we inevitably get is the one I would have given growing up. “Jesus came to save me from my sins so that I can go to Heaven.” It’s an incredibly self-centered, egotistical view. This view made it very hard to understand a lot of what the scriptures were trying to tell me. As I’ve been learning, you have to know what you don’t understand before you can begin to understand.
The story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus with questions is one of those stories. It goes as follows.
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.”
And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”
But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
We learn a number of things from the rich young ruler in this passage. First of all, he’s rich, but he’s also young, which likely means he didn’t earn his wealth, and he grew up rich. We also know that he doesn’t know enough to ask the right question, also because of his wealth and upbringing.
So why did Jesus come? We find that elsewhere in the scriptures. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his ministry.
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is vastly different from what I was taught. Yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place we will see in the future, but it is also now. You see, a kingdom is a place where the authority of the king rules, and as long as we walk in the authority of the king, the Kingdom of Heaven is now and it resides wherever we are. So when the rich young ruler asks “how can I obtain eternal life?” he is doing what we so often do and asking “how can I obtain the benefits of salvation later without doing what’s required of me to bring about God’s Kingdom now?
But what does being rich have to do with any of this? The obvious answer I was always given was that his riches were more important to him than following God. And yes, that’s true, but it’s a simplistic and simple answer, and it misses so much. And once again, it comes from the perspective that Heaven is a place we go to and not a Kingdom that is here and now.
For the rest of the answer, let’s go back to why Jesus said he came. “Preach to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, free the captives, sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed.” The rich, (and let’s face it, if we’re Americans there’s a very good chance we’re rich by historical or global standards). As I was saying, the rich know nothing or very little of being poor, or brokenhearted or captive or blind or oppressed. Here’s the problem, the rich THINK they understand these things, but all of these concepts are only known second or third hand. I see this in Facebook posts and hear it in conversations all the time. Listening to white Americans discuss poverty and oppression is like listening to a couple of lifelong vegans discuss what would make beef wellington taste better. They might think they know, but they just don’t.
Covid has been hard on many people in many ways. But as Christians, especially Christians in the richest nation on earth, we have been given an opportunity to partake in some of the poverty and suffering that our brothers and sisters overseas see on a daily basis, and in so doing begin to understand what we do not. Yes, you read that right. I said opportunity. If we are truly to be effective in the gospel, we must be imitators of Christ. As it says in Philippians 2
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
If Jesus had to make himself of no reputation and make himself a servant, how much more us? How much better can we be a servant if we truly understand the struggles and the needs of those we are to serve?
As I’ve written in a previous blog, the only thing worse than going through a trial is going through a trial from which I learn nothing. Covid has been a wake up call for the church. I just pray we don’t hit the snooze, roll over, and go back to sleep. Let’s use this opportunity to be more like we were created to be.