The Man Who Left Jesus Sad

The Man Who Left Jesus Sad

Matthew 19:16-26

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.”

But here’s the good news: “but with God all things are possible” (v. 26b).

How to leave Jesus happy

Now, what does this story say to us today? Let’s apply God’s word through two questions.

First, are you willing to follow Jesus anywhere? Can he send you anywhere, to do anything, to talk to anyone, to give anything you have to anyone in need? Will you jump without any parachute except your faith in him?

If you will, be encouraged. You are doing exactly what Jesus wanted this rich young ruler to do, and all of us as well. You will leave Jesus happy today.

If you will follow Jesus anywhere, and do anything for him, then for you the message is done today. You already have your parachute. Get ready to jump.

But if you’re not there yet, let me ask a second question: what is keeping you from complete commitment to Christ? For this man, it was his money. Note that this was the only person Jesus ever asked to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. Not Nicodemus, or Zacchaeus, or Joseph of Arimathea, three famous wealthy men of the gospels. Just this man.

The reason was simple: his possessions possessed him. He had to sell them to gain his soul. This is not a condition for everyone to follow Jesus. But note well: the fact that Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.

Would you sell your possessions? If not, they possess you. Let them go today. Give them over to Jesus. Tell him that you’ll sell anything he wants you to sell, do with them whatever he says. Give them to him, right now.

Perhaps the issue keeping you from complete commitment to Jesus isn’t your possessions. Then, what is it? What possesses you?

Is it your career? Your vocational ambitions, which you are afraid will be compromised if you fully follow Jesus? Do you fear that you won’t get the promotion, or the position, or the status you want so much? If so, ask yourself: is it really wise to trade a forty-year career for the eternal rewards reserved only for those who fully follow Jesus? Is this a good career move?

Is it your need for achievement, to accomplish your goals? Not so much for career advancement as to feel significant in your work? This is a real issue for me. I don’t work hard so as to advance my career, but to feel that my life matters. I cannot stand to waste time, because I want my life to do everything it can for God. The problem is, I struggle with letting God change my plans, redirect my work, use me in a different way than I had planned to go.

I don’t need to sell my possessions, but I do need to sell my calendar. I must occasionally remember that the One who died for my sins loves me, and knows far better than I do how to make my life significant. Every day I must surrender that day’s plans and agendas to his Lordship. What about you?

Is it your friends? When you have to choose between popularity with them and pleasing Jesus, does Jesus lose? Remember that Jesus died for you—did they? Would they? Remember that he knows the future, and all that is best for you—do they? Remember that he will be there for you through the hardest times of your life—will they? Remember that your eternal reward in heaven is based on pleasing Jesus, not popularity with your friends. Is putting friends before Jesus the right thing to do?

Is it your family? Under God, my family is my first priority. I will put them before my work, my ambitions, my friends. But will I put them before God? Will you? Can God ask you to do something which would appear to hurt your family? To make a sacrifice which will cause them to sacrifice as well? Know that he loves your family more even than you do. But know also that following him means putting him before everyone else, even them. Have you done this?

Giving everything to follow Jesus is worth the decision. He wants your best, every time. And he can give you a significance and joy in living which no possessions, career, ambitions, friends, or family can offer. Others will see Christ in you, if Christ is truly your Lord.

George Gallup, in speaking to our Marketplace Grill business outreach lunch a week ago, read a quote I asked for on the spot. It is from John Stott, the wonderful pastor and theologian. Listen to his perceptive words:

“When we meet some people we know immediately and instinctively that they are different. We are anxious to learn their secret. It is not the way they dress or talk or behave, although it influences these things. It is not that they have affixed a name tag to themselves and proclaimed themselves the adherent of a particular religion or ideology. It is not even that they have a strict moral code which they faithfully follow. It is that they know Jesus Christ, and that he is a living reality to them. They dwell in him and he dwells in them. He is the source of their life and it shows in everything they do.

“These people have an inner serenity which adversity cannot disturb; it is the peace of Christ. They have a spiritual power that physical weakness cannot destroy; it is the power of Christ. They have a hidden vitality that even the process of dying and death cannot quench; it is the life of Christ.”

I want this. Don’t you?


Will you leave Jesus today sad, or happy? He comes to you now, and asks you to follow him. To sell whatever keeps you from him, and gain treasure in heaven, and follow him. This is the most important decision in all of life. And you must make it, right now. It won’t be easy, or popular, to follow Jesus. But it will be worth its cost, and more.

I conclude with these words from the poet, Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow woodAnd sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,And having perhaps the better claim,Because it was grassy and wanted wear;Though as for that the passing thereHad worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally layIn leaves no step had trodden black.Oh, I kept the first for another day!Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.

I will be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence;Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.

It always does.