The Man Who Left Jesus Sad
Dr. Jim Denison
As some of you know, I have a definite dislike of heights. Given that fact, I found this story especially interesting. On the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia in 1964, a confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia threatened the security of the region. And so British officers in Malaysia asked a group of their soldiers, the Gurkha tribe from Nepal, if they would be willing to jump from transport planes into combat against the Indonesians. The Gurkhas had the right to refuse the request because they had never been trained as paratroopers.
The Gurkhas usually agreed to anything, but they rejected this plan. However, the next day one of their leaders sought out his British officer and said they had discussed the matter further and would jump under certain conditions.
“What are they?” asked the British officer. The Gurkhas told him they would jump if the land was soft without rocks; the office stated that the area would be over jungle, and so agreed to the request. Then the Gurkhas asked that the plane fly as slowly as possible and no more than 100 feet high. The officer said that jumping from 100 feet was impossible, because the parachutes could not open in time.
“Oh,” said the Gurkhas, “that’s all right, then. We’ll jump with parachutes anywhere. You didn’t mention parachutes before!”
We’re looking at the Christ the world doesn’t know. Today we meet him at his most astonishing, as he talks with a man more like us than any other person in all the New Testament. What Jesus said to him, he says to us today.
Let’s see what it is, and why it matters. Get ready to leave your parachute behind.
Welcome to North Dallas
Our story begins, “Now a man came up to Jesus” (v. 16). What do we know about him? Matthew tells us he’s young, Luke says he’s a ruler, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that he is wealthy. Let’s explore further.
Luke 18:18 tells us that he was a “ruler,” someone in charge of a Jewish synagogue. A layman, elected by his peers to this position. He governed the affairs of their local synagogue, selected the preachers and readers for the services, presided over the elders (a kind of board of directors), and generally ran the institution. A tremendous honor, and great religious accomplishment.
Matthew 19:20 says that he is “young.” He had to be at least thirty to be a synagogue ruler; he’s probably just that, most likely the age of Jesus. He’s successful at an early age, with his whole life before him.
And he’s wealthy. In fact, Matthew 19:22 says that he had “great wealth.” The word means that he possessed fields, houses, and other property as well as great financial means. A real estate tycoon, we would say today.
In the eyes of the world, he’s just like us.
We’re religious. In fact, your attendance at church puts you in the top 38% of America, the average weekly church attendance. If you go to Bible study, this puts you in the top 16%.
We’re not all young, but our average age is 36.9.
We may not think we’re wealthy, but we are. The average price of a home in this community is $437,000; our average household income is $143,000. Like him, most of the world would consider us to be religious, young, and wealthy as well.
But all his success is not enough for his soul: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (v. 19).
Like most Americans, he thinks that eternal life is something we get from the things we do. If you’re good and believe in God, that’s enough.
So Jesus shows him that this won’t work. “Obey the commandments,” he tells him. He lists the 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 5th, and then summarizes them with Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The man says that he’s kept all these. So, Jesus shows him that he has not: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (v. 21). If you truly, perfectly, completely love your neighbor as yourself, you would sell what you have and give it to him. If you want to get eternal life through what you do, this is what you must do.
But the man won’t do it: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 22). He was the only man in all the Scriptures who came to Jesus in faith and left sad.
Now Jesus’ actions must have astonished his disciples. Here, at long last, is one of the elite ready to follow him. Someone with means and influence. Someone who can advance Jesus’ movement enormously. But Jesus sends him away sad.
Now he shocks them even further: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v. 23). They thought just the opposite—wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and favor; the wealthy have the best chance of heaven. But they don’t.
In fact, it’s impossible: “Again I tell you, 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” (v. 24). Some have suggested that the “eye of a needle” meant a small door in the city wall through which a camel could crawl. Others say that by changing one letter in the Greek word for “camel” we get “rope,” and that’s Jesus’ point. But it’s not.
When the bewildered disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 25). Jesus is blunt: “With man this is impossible” (v. 26a).
As impossible as shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. We cannot do it. We cannot keep the commandments and get to God. No matter our wealth or prosperity, our religious accomplishment or social status, our youth or energy. With man it is impossible to “get eternal life.”