This week I spoke in chapel at Anderson University and did a first-person narrative sermon based on the biblical story of the rich young ruler. In this message, he is reflecting back on his encounter with Jesus. Here is the text:
The Rich Old Ruler
Rachel, please send a message to the governor that I greatly appreciate his invitation to dinner next week, but I will be on a business trip to Antioch those days. Oh, and let the Temple foundation know that I won’t be able to attend their fund raiser next Tuesday. Maybe next time.
One thing you discover when you have money is that everyone is your friend. Every club wants you as a member, every cause wants you on the board, everybody loves you and wants you to be involved. Even at a young age I was considered an elder of the synagogue in my town. It’s OK, I understand – they all need people with resources. I just happen to be one of those folks here in Judea that has more resources than most.
I guess I never knew anything different. You see, I made my money the old-fashioned way: I inherited it! But I managed to take the money my father left me and build it into an even bigger fortune. I guess you could say I have a way with making money. I’m pretty good at coming up with products people want to buy. For example – you’ll love this one – I noticed how inconvenient it was when people had to carry around books and long documents on those large, heavy scrolls, so I came up with a miniature version – I call it the iScroll. People lined up to buy these things – can you believe it?
So here I am with a great business and lots of wealth and days full of decisions. What will I do next? Who should I take on as a partner? Where should I invest my resources? Decisions all day, every day. Well, you know what I mean, I’m sure. Some of my decisions have been very good, and some… Well, I’ve made a few bad decisions in my life as well.
But the worst one… Oh, my, that was the worst decision I ever made. Let me tell you about it.
It was years ago, and I was much younger than I am now. I had grown up in a very religious family – good in business and serious about religion. We went to synagogue every Sabbath, and regularly went to Jerusalem to be part of the Temple ceremonies. My father taught me that we had been blessed by God and we should not take that for granted. So even as a young man, I was very religious, very observant.
I was serious about it. I didn’t go around getting in trouble or breaking commandments. I was really quite respectable. I read the scriptures daily, I prayed often, I worshipped, I even was faithful about keeping the fast days – can’t tell for looking at me now, but I did! I even gave gifts to support the visiting rabbis as they came through town. Everyone around our community said: “Look at that young man, he is truly a man who serves God!” I would be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy the reputation for piety and faithfulness that I enjoyed throughout our community.
Then one day I heard that a well-known rabbi was coming to town – Jesus, the young rabbi who came from Nazareth. I’ll admit, when you hear someone is from Nazareth you don’t necessarily expect much – it’s not exactly a cosmopolitan city, you know! Still, I had heard the stories – the miraculous works he did, the compelling teaching he offered. He was a genuine celebrity, one of the up-and-coming religious leaders of the nation, and he was coming to our town! I looked forward to hearing him, to meeting him.
It was more than just going to hear a well-known speaker, though. I had heard that he spoke in such a way that – well, that it was like he could see right into your heart. I knew that there was something missing in my heart. Oh, I had been doing all the religious things I had been taught, but still there was an emptiness. And I thought that perhaps something this rabbi taught would fill the vacant place I sensed inside my soul.
Jesus was on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem and he came through our city that day. There was a good crowd on hand, and there he was – the rabbi from Nazareth. He was smiling, talking to people, being playful with the children. I must admit I had expected someone a bit more formal, more distant, a teacher like the other rabbis. But he was nothing like the other rabbis.
And so I moved toward him. I was dressed in my finest robes, and people in the crowd parted to let me through. I suppose one of the advantages of having wealth is that people in town tend to know who you are and give you some privileges. So they made way and I walked quickly to where Jesus was standing. Then I did something unusual – I knelt at his feet. I had never done that before to any other rabbi; I hadn’t planned to do it then. It was just a feeling of the moment, that this was someone that deserved my respect.
So I knelt there and I said to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I know, that word “good” was not commonly used of rabbis, but it was like the kneeling – in that moment I just sensed I was in the presence of someone who was not ordinary, and the words just seemed to tumble out.
Why did I ask for eternal life? Because with all my piety and spiritual disciplines, I knew that there was still something missing in my life, and here I was with the great teacher who might fill that hole in my heart with some wonderful truth about God. I wanted to take the next step that would insure I was faithful to God.
As I knelt there, he smiled at me, then scolded me a bit for calling him good – “Why do you call me good?” he said. “Only God is good.” I didn’t quite understand at the time why he said that, but then he quickly went on. Jesus said to me: “You know the commandments — Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”
Oh, yes, I knew the commandments; I had spent my life obeying the commandments, trying to satisfy God by keeping His law. I was glad to be able to tell Jesus that day “Teacher, I have kept the commandments since my youth.” I knew there was something more than keeping the commandments; otherwise why would I still have this emptiness inside. So I assured him that I had done this, and was ready for something more.
And then he looked at me with this amazing look. Some of my fellow townspeople told me later it was a look of overwhelming love, as if he wanted to help me find all of God’s truth. I just felt that he was looking inside my soul at that moment – as if he knew me in that moment in a way no one else had ever understood me.
And then it happened; I’ll never forget the moment. He said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
What? Sell all I have and give to the poor? Did he have any idea how much I possessed? I was one of the richest men in all the province of Judea! Sell it all and give to the poor? How could he think such a thing was possible?
I was stunned. I would not have been surprised if he had asked me to give some alms for the poor. I had fully expected him to ask me to contribute to his work, and I’d have been glad to do so. But this – to ask me to give up everything I owned!
I didn’t know what to say. I’m sure a look of sadness and despair must have been evident on my face. I had come looking for some new truth, and he had asked me to change my entire life! Slowly I stood. I looked at him one more time, hoping that perhaps he would say something like, “Oh no, my son, you misunderstand. I didn’t mean all your riches – just a nice percentage given to a good cause to help the poor.” But he didn’t say another word as I stood there – he just looked at me with that look of love and compassion, and waited for me to respond.
How did I respond that day? I turned and walked away. I was young and wealthy and influential – how could he expect me to walk away from all that? I was disappointed, even a bit embarrassed – I mean, he had asked this of me right in front of the people of my city, people that knew me, people who considered me a man of power and influence. And he had asked this of me right there in front of the crowd!
I turned and walked away that day. I don’t remember where I went at the moment – did I go home, or to the market, or to the office or to the home of a friend? It is all a fog; I just walked away, with a heaviness in my heart that was so powerful I can still recall it to this very day, many years later. Even the days afterward were a swirl of emotion and discontent. I had such high hopes for my meeting with Jesus, and then it ended in such disappointment. What he asked I just could not do. It would have changed everything.
I did see him again, you know. Actually, it was not that long after my first encounter with Jesus, and it was a very different day. I was in Jerusalem for Passover, and doing some business while I was in town – meetings and such. I heard there was a commotion near Pilate’s official residence – he was the chief Roman official in Judea, you know. He even invested in some of my companies from time to time.
I learned later that there was something of a trial, and Jesus had been convicted of sedition against Rome. A trumped-up charge, but it was what my old colleagues in the religious establishment came up with, and Pilate went along to keep them quiet. I saw him a bit later, as I was making my way through the streets below the Temple area. The crowd had come to a halt, so my associates and I paused to see what was happening. That’s when I saw him – bloody and beaten, half-dragging a rough wooden beam through the streets, while Roman soldiers stood on either side of him. I stared at him – the good teacher who had stood there in my own town just days ago, now on his way to die. At one point he looked up, and I thought perhaps he even noticed me there in the crowd. But this time there were no words, no conversation. He just went away to die.
I went back to work. My life went on. I continued buying and selling, making money, gaining influence. But from that moment on, it was never the same. I always felt that there was something missing in my life – something I could not find through my religious activities or my service in the community. I could never forget that day – I could never get over the feeling that, no matter how great the sacrifice he had asked, that turning away was the worst decision I ever made.
What? Yes, Rachel, I know I have a meeting coming up. I’ll be just a moment here. I want to finish my story.
Yes, there is more to the story. I heard the rumors about him, that he had risen from the dead. I even heard from men who said they had seen him, talked with him, that God had brought him back from the dead to help us recognize that he was truly the Messiah, the one sent to save us. I found it hard to believe, but there were more and more who seemed to believe it and to follow him. They called themselves followers of The Way; when I was in Antioch I heard that they were calling his followers Christians, little Christs.
It was several years later and I was visiting in the home of Felix, the governor. He had invited some friends to dinner, said that he had some special entertainment for us. It turns out that the entertainment was a man named Paul, who was a follower of Jesus. He had been arrested in Jerusalem and Felix was holding him as sort of a combination prisoner and house guest. Felix kept hoping for a bribe so he didn’t let him go free, and periodically he would have Paul come in and speak with he and his guests.
That evening as I was with them, hearing Paul speak, something stirred in my heart. As he talked about Jesus, my mind raced back to that day on the road when I spoke with Jesus. Felix and his other guests enjoyed some light-hearted conversation, but I could think of nothing else than what Paul had said. I asked for a private conversation with Paul, and as we spoke I shared with him the story of what had happened that day.
Believe it or not, he had heard of my story already! His friend and fellow believer John Mark had begun collecting some of the stories and teachings of Jesus in written form, and apparently some of those among his disciples had told the story as well. I shared with Paul the emptiness I had sensed in my life since that day, and my concern that I had made a terrible decision.
Then Paul began to tell me about the grace of God – how Jesus actually took upon himself the rightful punishment for our sins. He explained that it is not keeping the Law that saves us – none of us can keep the law perfectly. It is through entering into a relationship with Jesus, accepting what he has already done for us and trusting our lives to him.
And that’s when I understood what Jesus had been trying to get at all those years ago when he told me to sell all my possessions and give them to the poor. It wasn’t my money he wanted; he wanted me. He wanted me to quit depending on wealth and power and influence to define my life; he wanted me to surrender all those things that mattered so much to me, so that I could be free to follow him with my whole heart. He wanted me to realize that it wasn’t through religious activity that I would know eternal life, but through giving my life to him.
That day I made the best decision of my life – I asked Jesus to take me, to take all of me, and to make me a new man – the man he wants me to be. I told him to take everything that I owned – that it would now all be his, to be used any way he wished. I gave him my life.
My businesses? Sure, I still run them, but now they no longer run me. I no longer live for money – I now have a new motivation, to live for Christ and his glory. What a joy it is to be able to help my brothers and sisters in need, to provide money to help send our preachers and teachers into new lands to share the gospel. I hear that Paul may even be appealing to Caesar and will go to Rome; I might just go along with him to help in any way I can.
In every life there comes a time when you must decide what you will do with Jesus. That day on the road, I chose poorly, but now I have been blessed to have a second chance.
In every life there comes a time when you must decide what you will do with Jesus. Could this be your time?