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the rich young ruler

the rich young ruler

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Published by Bill McLella

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Published by: Bill McLella on May 08, 2008
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02/01/2013

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Luke 18:18-30
Bill McLellan, 6 December 2008

1Death loomed before him like a black hole, a massive abyss at the center of his life, ready to
suck him in along with all of his weighty accomplishments. Even though he was still a young
man, he felt his life spinning around meaninglessly, tethered to the certainty of death. Others
sped around with him, oblivious to their fate, but every day the constant pull of death grew
stronger in his mind. It was laughing at him. It mocked him for his youth and his wealth, for his
status and influence in society, and for all his righteous efforts and hopes for a better world.

He was a good man. He had not stolen from anyone or harmed anyone unjustly. He had earned his wealth fairly and built his social power honestly. He had worked hard, made wise decisions, and behaved ethically in all he did. Regularly, he had given some of his extra money as alms to the poor\u2013an especially noteworthy act because he loved his money and disliked parting with any of it. Even when it hurt, he followed the demands of morality whatever they demanded. No one could accuse him of any wrongdoing, and most people admired him. Clearly, God was blessing him for his goodness.

But the daily thought of death robbed him of his happiness. He had built for himself wealth,
power, a good reputation, and a clear conscience, but he still felt that his life lacked one thing:
the promise that it would not end. He knew that death reduced both great and meager men to the
same nothingness. He knew that after he was gone, others might squander his wealth or undo his
accomplishments.

A different kind of teacher was traveling through this rich young ruler\u2019s home town. For three years, Jesus of Nazareth had been announcing everywhere that in him, God\u2019s rule of peace and justice had finally come to earth, and he had even told people that through him they could have eternal life. So with great hope and an outpouring of emotion, he ran up to Jesus, fell at his feet, and cried out: \u201cGood teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?\u201d

Today we\u2019re going to talk about capitalism in connection with Jesus\u2019 answer to that great
question. You might think this is a strange connection. What does salvation have to do with
capital? I want to assure you that I don\u2019t believe you have to adopt a particular ideology about
capital in order to be saved, and you certainly can\u2019t buy salvation with your extra money.

In Luke 18, we meet Jesus traveling on the road to Jerusalem just a few weeks before his
crucifixion. He is explaining to people along the way how to receive God\u2019s salvation. In a story
about a Pharisee and a tax collector, Jesus teaches that in order to be justified, or declared
righteous before God, we must humbly confess our sins instead of arrogantly pretending to be
better than others. Then, he taught his disciples that in order to enjoy the benefits of God\u2019s rule
on earth, people need to humbly receive that rule like little children. Finally, in our text, Jesus
gives a surprising answer to a man who is begging him for the secret to eternal life.

Please read with me, Luke 18:18-30.

Our young capitalist had the right question with the wrong motive. He cared most of all about
investing in his own future, in his own little empire of wealth and power and, now, spirituality
and immortality. Around the world, rich and poor alike have felt the sting of impending death
and sought to escape from its nothingness. For too many of us, eternal life can become the
greatest stone in the fortresses we build around our own personal empires. We may have wealth,
power, social prestige and moral superiority, but we know that we have got to get eternal life, or
it\u2019s all worthless. The selfishness of this quest for eternal life is the number one problem that
Jesus identified in the young leader he met and in our lives as well.

We live in a world where increasingly, capitalism is becoming the global economic system.
Capitalism is a system where many different people and groups, rather than one central
government, use wealth to create more wealth. Stuff and time and effort are invested in creating
things and services that people want and have the power to buy. But besides being an economic
system, capitalism is also becoming more and more a controlling ideology around the world.
We\u2019re sometimes told that money invested in the poor is money poorly invested. Liberating
money to be invested only where it will produce the greatest amount of extra money is supposed
to solve all kinds of human problems, from poverty to violence, disease, political oppression and
juvenile delinquency. People don\u2019t need God in this ideology, because instead of redemption, we
have economic development. Our world is a lot different than the world of the Bible, but I still
think Jesus understands our world, and I also think that his encounter with this young ruler has a
lot to teach us as we try to live in a capitalistic environment. I want to suggest for you that we
should all invest in the poor instead of in our own empires.

As he walked away sadly, our young leader may have had a couple objections bouncing around
in his head. He may have been thinking, \u201cShould I really do what Jesus asks? That\u2019s not really
what God requires!\u201d Or, he might have been thinking, \u201cCan I possibly do what Jesus requires?
He\u2019s asking me to do something that violates human nature.\u201d In response to these possible
objections, Luke shows us Jesus\u2019 call and Jesus\u2019 power.

Jesus\u2019 Call

Jesus calls us to follow him. But what does that mean when it comes to capital and the poor? To
answer that question, I\u2019d like to introduce you to one of the most influential economists fighting
poverty around the world today and one of the most famously righteous rich people in the history
of the world. The first is 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed Yunus from Bangladesh.
He\u2019s the founder of the Grameen Bank, a group that makes tiny loans to poor entrepreneurs,
primarily women, who then use that money\u2014sometimes as little as $20 up to a few hundred
dollars\u2014to start a business, improve their home, or educate their children. Yunus founded the
bank because he saw money lenders cheating people out of their profits, and traditional banks
weren\u2019t interested in making microloans to poor people. Everyone needs a little capital to get
started making money, and these borrowers almost always make good on their loans. Today, the
Grameen Bank has loaned more than US$ 6 billion to over 7 million people.

Poor people often lack the necessities of life: clean water, plenty of food, adequate housing, basic health care. But they also lack access to capital, and without capital, they can\u2019t play the game the rest of the world is playing. They can\u2019t participate in the world\u2019s economic system without

affordable loans, deeds to their land and homes, education, employment, or the opportunity to
employ themselves.

Jesus\u2019 call to follow him challenges any system that keeps capital from the poor. Jesus is
recruiting all of us to his cause, a cause he calls the kingdom of God, which simply means God\u2019s
will being done on earth as it is done in heaven. This call to follow Jesus can look differently in
different contexts, but it is a call to invest capital in the poor. In Luke 18, we see a man come
with a question about eternal life, and Jesus starts talking about God\u2019s commandments. When he
responds, \u201cAll these I have kept from my youth,\u201d Jesus keeps going with the moral imperatives:
\u201cSell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then
come, follow me.\u201d When Jesus said, \u201cSell your possessions,\u201d he didn\u2019t mean, \u201cGo pawn the
shirt off your back.\u201d He meant, \u201cGive up your capital, your fields, houses, and extra stuff.\u201d The
rich young ruler had watered down God\u2019s commandments so they could easily be checked off a
list. In fact, he saw his wealth as God\u2019s reward for his good behavior, as God\u2019s agreement that
he was morally superior to others. Jesus showed him, however, that in order to truly keep God\u2019s
commandments, he had to put the present needs of the poor before his own luxury or his own
future security.

Some people have concluded that Jesus\u2019 call applies only to this one rich man, or maybe just to a
few of us who want a superior level of spiritual experience. Some have said that Jesus\u2019 words
here apply only to a few non-Christians whose pride in wealth keeps them from feeling their
need for Jesus\u2019 forgiveness. However, throughout Luke\u2019s gospel we see Jesus issuing the same
difficult call to everyone. For example, in 12:33, Jesus tells all of his disciples: \u201cSell your
possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old,
with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.\u201d Following Jesus without investing in
the poor is just not one of our options.

In the Old Testament, too, keeping God\u2019s law meant meeting basic needs and making capital
available to the poor for their economic development, whether that meant a free loan, the return
of the family farm after fifty years, or fair employment. Job was a good rich man who
authentically followed God with his whole life; then the bottom fell out of his world. His four
friends, the theological geniuses they thought they were, reasoned that if God let Job loose his
whole family and all his possessions, he must be punishing him for something. After going
around in circles, they finally accused Job of something specific, even though they had no
evidence: Job must have angered God by cheating or neglecting the poor around him. Not at all,
Job replied. That may seem radical to us\u2014I don\u2019t even know how I could possibly live like that
\u2014but that\u2019s what Job meant when he claimed to have lived a righteous life. John Calvin argued
almost five hundred years ago that Jesus merely required the rich young man to keep the tenth
commandment against coveting. He said that when we horde our own wealth while others suffer
from poverty, we actually covet what God intends others to have. Jesus\u2019 call to follow him is a
call to invest capital in the poor.

But let\u2019s say you are poor or you\u2019re just barely making it and don\u2019t have any extra money: how could you answer Jesus call to the rich young ruler? Well, first of all, there are many other ways to follow Jesus will all that we have, but allow me to suggest one more way relating to poverty.

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