“The Rich Young Ruler and Grace”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Sermons

Last week, a Facebook friend of mine posted a lengthy complaint about what they perceived as too many rich elders and rich preachers in the brotherhood.  Their discussion of Scripture focused on the story of the rich young ruler, and they illustrated the post with a cartoon of a camel trying to force its way through the eye of a needle. 

As you might imagine, this post caused several things to come to my mind, but one of them was my conviction that there is more to the story of the rich young ruler than we commonly think.  Simply because two different gospel writers tell the same story doesn’t mean they’re using it for the same purpose, and I believe that the story of the rich young ruler is one that is used differently in different gospels. 

In Mark and in Luke, it’s about the problems associated with wealth, no doubt, but in Matthew, something else is going on.  Matthew tells the same story, but he adds a parable to it, and that parable should transform the way we understand his account.  This morning, then, let’s consider the connection between the rich young ruler and grace.

Not surprisingly, we’ll begin with Matthew’s discussion of THE RICH YOUNG RULER.  It is found in Matthew 19:16-22.  This is a familiar story, but I want to highlight some different elements this time through.  The first concerns the rich young ruler’s problem.  If you ask any of our Bible-class kids what his problem was, they’ll probably tell you, “He was rich and loved money.”  That’s true, but it’s incomplete.

Let me suggest to you, in fact, that his most serious problem is the one that reveals itself from the first time he opens his mouth.  He asks, “What good must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In other words, he wants to save himself through his own good works.  This sounds praiseworthy, but it’s impossible.  We should read everything else that Jesus says to him as an attempt to get him to see that he’s trying to get to heaven on the wrong road.

The rest of the conversation unfolds from here.  The ruler brings up all of his spiritual strengths, but Jesus zeroes in on his spiritual weakness—greed.  Let’s not miss the forest for the trees here, though.  Greed happened to be the ruler’s problem, but it didn’t have to be greed, and no matter what it was, the conversation would have gone the same way.  There is something in every one of our lives that we don’t want to give up, and we know that there is because we haven’t stopped sinning.  If we came to Jesus wanting to justify ourselves by works, He would be able to call us out on our weaknesses too—because wanting to justify ourselves by works is the problem.

Next, Jesus’ conversation shifts to THE APOSTLES.  Let’s follow this through Matthew 19:23-29.  Once again, this is a familiar text, and here we encounter the camel-and-needle’s-eye comparison.  Some of you probably have heard that the needle’s eye was a narrow gate in Jerusalem, through which a camel could pass with great difficulty.  However, there are a couple of problems with this claim.  First, there’s no solid evidence that such a gate existed.  Second, both Jesus’ discussion with the ruler and His later words make clear that this isn’t about great difficulty.  It’s about impossibility.

It's impossible for a rich man to enter heaven through his good works, but you know what?  It’s impossible for a poor man too.  Indeed, it’s impossible for all of us.  We all must depend for salvation on the God who makes all things possible.  Without Him, we are in camel-through-needle’s-eye territory too.

Notice, though, Peter’s response to this.  He hasn’t really been paying attention to Jesus.  He’s been comparing himself to the ruler, and he likes what he sees.  Peter points out that what the ruler wasn’t willing to do—leave everything behind for Jesus—he and the other apostles did.  Justification by works, back on track!

Jesus replies that those who have followed Him will indeed receive an immeasurable reward.  However, He also knows something that Peter doesn’t.  Very soon, Jesus is going to ask Peter to do something, and Peter is going to deny Him three times.  Peter will leave Jesus sadly too.  Earning your way to heaven doesn’t even work for apostles.

In Mark and Luke, the context ends here, but in Matthew it keeps going, and its final section is THE PARABLE OF THE VINEYARD WORKERS.  Let’s conclude this morning with Matthew 19:30-20:16.  Notice first of all that we’ve got another one of those bad chapter breaks that Clay and I love talking about so much, and here’s how you can tell.  Matthew 19 ends with Jesus’ statement about the first being last and the last being first, but almost same statement appears in 20:16.  Jesus is offering this parable as commentary on His discussions with the ruler and the apostles.

As we read through the story, though, part of us can’t help feeling that the whiny workers have a point.  If they had to work all day long to get a denarius, shouldn’t the guys who only worked for an hour get one-eighth of a denarius?  They got the same thing, and that’s not fair! 

In reply, the owner of the vineyard points out that his generosity to others doesn’t give anyone else the right to complain.  The application is obvious.  Even if somehow Peter did what he thought he was doing—earning his way to heaven—he would get the same reward as the Christian who came to the Lord late in life and never did much work at all.

Of course, Peter was not earning his way to heaven, and neither are we.  I’m not willing to claim that I’m responsible for even one-eighth of my salvation!  All of us depend on the generosity of our Master.  We must not be like the rich young ruler and think that we don’t need Him.  Neither should we be like the apostles and be impressed with ourselves because we think we’re doing better than someone else.  Instead, we must seek diligently after His mercy and be thankful that we serve a God who gladly extends it.