January 15, 2017
In 2014, the latest numbers available, the average per capita income in the United States was almost $29,000. The average household income was about $54,000. Incidentally, North Carolina placed 34th in the nation with a per capita income just under $26,000. Connecticut, as usual, placed first, with an average at almost $40,000. Now, on a world-wide scale, almost every statistic I could find confirmed, be it average per capita income, the Gross Domestic Product, purchasing power, discretionary income – almost every measure of wealth has us in the top ten in the world. Qatar places first. Seven of the top ten richest people in the world are Americans, headed, of course, by Bill Gates – number eight is Mark Zuckerberg – the inventor of Facebook. By the way, according to Forbes, there are over 1800 billionaires in the world, with a combined net worth of $6.5 trillion. The US has the most billionaires, with 540. Second is China, with 251. Meaning, we have over twice as many billionaires as number two in the world.
Of course, I could show you some numbers comparing our income, our standard of living with the rest of the world. It is shocking. I found statistic after mind-numbing statistic of our relative and comparative wealth in the US. Certainly, by almost any measure, we live in one of the greatest and richest nations in the world. But I would suggest that our wealth also poses some significant challenges for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unless, of course, you buy in – pun intended – to the prosperity gospel. That so-called gospel says God wants you to be rich and prosperous. It is being taught in some of the largest churches in America – by some of the most well-known Christian leaders in the country. It is well-known heresy – but somehow seems to worm its way into the hearts of people. Why? Because people like having wealth and Jesus as their gods, conveniently forgetting that Jesus said, you can’t serve God and money, conveniently forgetting the story of the rich young ruler.
Last week, after services, Michael Talley sent me an article from the Babylon Bee. If you’re not familiar with the Babylon Bee, it’s a website where people write religious satire. The article he sent was entitled, Rich Young Ruler Finds Home at Lakewood Church. It reads, in part:
“A rich, young ruler looking for salvation was proud to announce Thursday that he finally found a place to call home at Lakewood Church.
“Calling the revelation ‘powerful’ and ‘moving,’ the wealthy, powerful lover of money said he knew Lakewood Church was the place for him after his lifestyle was affirmed and praised by lead pastor and famous author Joel Osteen.
“‘This place just makes me feel so comfortable,’ the man told reporters. ‘I came in and told Pastor Joel I was a good person and had kept all the commandments from my youth, and asked him what I still lacked—and do you know what he said? He told me I didn’t lack anything, that I was great just the way I am.’
Turn in your Bibles this morning to Mark 10 – the continuing story of the average American, otherwise known as the rich young ruler. The message of the text? People who choose Jesus must give up everything if they are to be His followers. They must come to the end of themselves, acknowledge they have nothing to offer, Jesus is their only hope. Because, if we come holding onto the things we think valuable, things we bring to the table, our own self-righteousness, our own attempts at keeping the law, being good – if we come feeling good about ourselves and our assets, Jesus says today, salvation for that kind of person is impossible.
Jesus wants everything we have if we choose to be His followers. And if you’re not willing to give it all up, He will send you away. Just like He sent the rich young ruler away last week. Look at the text, Mark 10:23-31.
You remember the context. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to give His all for us – to make it possible for us to enter the kingdom. You see, while Jesus had a fairly nice home with comfortable surroundings, He left heaven, not considering equality with God a thing to be grasped, and took on the form of servant. And being found in the form of a servant, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death – even death on a cross. He became poor for our sakes, that we might become rich. He gave it all away – He became a servant so we could become children; He became poor so we could become rich; He became guilty so we could become innocent; He became the son of man so we could be become the children of God; He died so we could live. He set the ultimate example of giving it all for the kingdom.
During the trip to Jerusalem, this rich young ruler came to Jesus, asking, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This guy was an up and comer. He had it all together – at least on the outside. Rich, young, religious – everything you could want, but he knew something was missing. And so he came to Jesus, asking, what is it – what do I need to do to inherit eternal life? To have the assurance of life now, and in the life to come? What am I missing?
His problem, we saw last week – he just wanted to throw Jesus in the mix – to add Jesus to his already wonderful life. He’d kept the law, or so he thought – he just needed to know what he should do to complete his own journey to eternal life.
So, what is it, Jesus? What do I need to do? Jesus understood this man knew nothing of his own sin and self-righteousness; he knew nothing of kingdom life – he knew nothing of giving it all away to find the greatest treasure and follow Christ. And so, at the end of the conversation, this rich young ruler went away appalled, grieving, for he owned much property. The story continues today. I’m going to break the text down like this:
- First, we see the Spiritual Poverty of Physical Riches in verses 23-27.
- Then, we see the Spiritual Riches of Physical Poverty in verses 28-31.
Now, I didn’t actually label the points that way, because I know immediately some of you would be irritated, jumping to the unwarranted conclusion that there is only spiritual wealth in physical poverty, and vice versa. That’s not necessarily true, but it is the principle here. Wealth in a hindrance to spiritual life. Let’s start with the first one – the Poverty of Riches. Of course, in these verses, Jesus is speaking of the rich young ruler. As the young man went away grieving, unwilling to meet the demands of being a follower of Jesus, unwilling to allow Jesus to be first in his life, Jesus, no doubt with grief in His voice, said, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.”
It is hard, difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Which is why I began my sermon with all those stats on our wealth. We are rich people. And Jesus says of us, it is extremely difficult for the wealthy to enter heaven. And immediately, you respond, but wait – this is the US – certainly we’ve faced some moral and religious decline, but we have been a Christian nation. That’s why God blessed us. That’s why we’re rich. And so then, our response is exactly the same as the disciples. You see, this prosperity theology is nothing new. The reason the disciples are shocked is because it was thought that being rich was the result of God’s favor.
The disciples were amazed. The prosperity rabbis have taught us that if anyone is blessed, it’s because God loves him specially. Now, you’re telling me this guy, this blessed guy, specially loved by God, may not get in the kingdom? So Jesus repeats Himself.
How hard is it? It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. What does that mean? Lots of speculation about that through the years – mainly as people have tried to soften Jesus’ words. Come on, it can’t be literal camel, literal needle – that makes it impossible.
Some have suggested Jesus didn’t really say camel, He actually said cable – you see, the word for cable or rope in Greek, like English, is close to the word camel. So, it’s easier to thread a needle with a cable than for a rich man to get to heaven. Okay, anybody here ever try to thread a needle before? With a rope or a cable? It can’t be done – the point would be the same.
Besides, the problem with using the word cable is all three synoptic gospels say, camel. So, unless all three guys got it wrong, Jesus said camel. In fact, there was a famous Persian saying that spoke of impossible tasks – it’s even quoted in the Talmud – and it spoke of an elephant going through the eye of a needle. You see, for Persians, the biggest animal was an elephant. Here, Jesus simply took the largest animal in Palestine and said, try to squeeze it through the smallest hole – it’s an impossible task. That’s the point. We have the same kind of sayings: that’ll happen when pigs fly.
Again, others, trying to soften Jesus’ words, speak, not of the literal eye of a needle, but a supposed gate in the wall of Jerusalem called the Needle Gate. How many of you have heard this explanation? Supposedly, if you wanted a camel to get through the Needle Gate, you would have to take off its entire load – all its baggage – all it could carry – and make it crawl through on its knees. It might make for great preaching – if you want to come into the kingdom, you must come on your knees, with nothing you carry. There are only two problems with that interpretation. First, it’s possible for the camel to get through the gate – and Jesus is speaking of an impossible task. Second, there was no such thing as a needle gate – it’s not mentioned anywhere – inside or outside Scripture. It was made up around the ninth century AD – again, trying to soften Jesus’ words. Because everybody wants to be okay with loving riches and Jesus.
So, what did Jesus mean? Well, it’s mighty difficult to get a huge animal through a tiny hole – how difficult? Impossible. That’s the point – and the disciples got it. It is impossible for a rich man to get to heaven is what Jesus says. That should cause anyone with any sense, every one of us Americans, who live in wealth compared to the rest of the world – it should make every one of us quake – at least examine ourselves. Why? Why can’t a rich person get to heaven? What’s the problem? Let me go further, is it possible those pursuing Jesus in prosperity gospel churches to get rich might not make it to heaven at all? I am at least suggesting prosperity gospel teachers are presenting a false gospel.
Well, why can’t a rich person get to heaven? The answer, of course, is the problem of the rich young ruler – or anyone else who considers what they have is adequate to get them through life. The problem is, there is little to no dependence with rich people – no matter how you measure wealth. An awful lot of really rich people don’t need anything, so the last thing they’ll admit is dependence on Christ – if I have a need, I’ll take care of it myself. An awful lot of really smart people think we’re really stupid for believing this nonsense. They rely on their smarts to get them through life – they don’t need a crutch like Christianity to help them. No dependence there – just independence – self-dependence. Paul addressed the issue in I Corinthians 1. There we read these strong words:
26 For consider your calling [or your salvation], brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;
27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,
28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,
29 so that no man may boast before God.
30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,
31 so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD.”
Not in your riches or wisdom or strength or ability to do good things or any other asset you bring to the table. The reason there are few rich people, strong people, smart people, noble people in the kingdom is they don’t think they need Jesus. Or, they’re so connected to their assets that they would never let them go. And Jesus says, it’s impossible for them to be saved – because you can’t come into the kingdom with anything. Jesus must be your only hope.
Well, this absolutely confused the disciples – notice, verse 26 – when the disciples heard this, they were astonished. Why…did they like rich people? Not necessarily. But there was again a commonly held belief rich people were rich because they had the blessing of God. God liked ‘em, they pleased Him – so He made ‘em rich. Which again, sounds exactly like the health, wealth and prosperity theology taught in churches today.
The disciples thought the same thing everyone else did – you’re rich because God likes you. And, by the way, since you’re rich, you have time to accomplish two important things for God – first, almsgiving – giving to poor people – God likes that. But, of course, they also had a law governing almsgiving. You should give to the poor – the more the better. But only up to one-fifth, any more than that, God won’t like. So, rich people, you must keep four-fifths for yourselves, and give a fifth to the poor – God likes that. Not only that, second, rich people had more time to study the Torah, or the Law – so they can keep it better. God likes that, too. Do you see? Their whole system was based on what they could do, what they brought to the table – don’t you like that God? The rich had the ability to give more, study more, work more. So, if the people God likes find it impossible to be saved – who then can be saved?
It was a legitimate question. Jesus answers it in verse 27 – with people, this is impossible – what’s impossible? The salvation of a rich man by his riches, or his smarts, or his keeping the law, or anything else he thinks he can do to earn salvation. It is impossible for anyone who tries to come to the kingdom any other way than through Jesus. But notice, it’s possible the Jesus way – with God all things are possible – anyone can be saved – anyone can obtain eternal life, anyone can come into the kingdom – if they come His way – dependent, humble, empty-handed, broken, mourning – Jesus, my only hope is you.
I want you to notice something – the rich young ruler and the disciples basically asked the same question – but from a different starting point. Both the ruler and the disciples question was, how is a person saved? Same question, really. But the rich young ruler was convinced there was something he could do to be saved. There was nothing he could do. The disciples ask the same question, but from a different starting point – who possibly, in themselves, doing anything, can be saved? Same answer – no one. It’s not possible with man, but with God, all things are possible.
I want to be very clear. Salvation is by grace, through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. And proof of God’s blessing on your life is not material wealth and prosperity. It is spiritual wealth and prosperity brought by Jesus. You try to get God to accept you any other way – it’s impossible. But come empty and broken – all things are possible with God.
Which brings us to our second point – the Riches of Poverty in verses 28-31. As usual, when Peter and the other disciples heard Jesus’ teaching, they only had one question – what’s in it for us? You know, Jesus could have pegged ‘em here, again. But very graciously, He answers their question, which becomes a source of encouragement to rich young rulers, and fishermen, and prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners like us – people who have given it all up because we love Jesus more than anything. What’s in it for us?
Jesus’ answer – Yes you have, Peter – yes you have, disciples – yes you have anyone and everyone in the history of the church who has ever chosen to be a follower of Christ. You have given it all up. And as a result, this is what awaits you. Notice first, the all inclusive list of what must be given up for Christ. He lists seven things, which speak of the completeness of our surrender. The first and the last are possessions: houses and farms or lands. The middle five are relationships – people. Now, Jesus is not suggesting all these must be given up – but as followers of Christ – we don’t trust in them. We don’t pursue them. Much must be sacrificed.
Please note – Peter says, we’ve given up everything – but he apparently still had a house – it was Jesus’ base of operations in Galilee. He apparently still had a boat – or somebody did – they traveled all over in it. Later, Peter apparently had a wife. Rich women followed Jesus and the disciples and apparently funded their ministry. Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. But in all these examples, there was a stewardship of God’s possessions in the work of the kingdom. And further, if you breathe a sigh of relief in hearing the exceptions, then you should pay careful attention to what Jesus says.
Truly I say to you – again, identifying this as one of His more important statements – there is no one who has left house, where you live in safety and security; family – to include siblings, parents and children; or farms, that is, your very livelihood. Family, possessions, livelihood. If you are willing to leave that – where you live, who you live with, and how you live – then you will receive a hundred times as much in the present age – and He gives the list again. How do we receive a hundredfold? Very simply, we gain the church family. And in the church family – the true church family – there is familial love and care. We get each other. Does that feel like a win for you? It should.
And besides all that, you get eternal life. Salvation – you get the kingdom. We’ve heard this before: true disciples of Jesus are willing to walk away from every possession and every relationship that would hinder or come in the way of our relationship with Christ. And so, we’re willing to give them up, and when we do, we receive God’s blessings which far outweigh any loss.
Oh, and by the way, you get one other thing along with the spiritual blessings of God found in the church – you get persecutions as well. Wow – it seems like all you talk about is persecution. It’s not me – it’s Jesus. And while prosperity gospel people tell you you’ll get wealth and prosperity with the gospel – Jesus says the opposite. You’ve got to be willing to trade in your material wealth – and in return, you get spiritual wealth – laying up treasures in heaven – and persecution. Great trade, isn’t it? It is, because you also get eternal life.
And Jesus closes with this proverb: But many who are first will be last, and the last, first. Meaning, very simply, the first in this life – by earthly, human standards and measurements, rich young rulers who value wealth more than anything, will receive nothing – they’ll be last. All they’ve fought for, groveled for, sought as most important will perish with them. And the last in this life, also by earthly, human standards and measurements – those who have nothing because they’ve given it all up for Christ – will receive everything in the life to come. Once again, Jesus comes in and reverses everything.
We must be willing to give it all up for Jesus Christ. Let me ask you as we close – what does that look like? It’s real easy to sit here and say, well, I’ve got to be willing to give up my riches. So here you go, Jesus it’s all yours – I’ll just take care of it for you. What does it mean to be willing to give it all up? For some of you, Jesus might literally be asking you to give it up this morning. You’re holding on to things that are more valuable to you than anything – and Jesus says, I’ll be second to nothing. Give it up.
For most of you, I suspect it might be a change of heart. A genuine willingness to put Jesus above everything you count dear – something you’ve never really done before. Here it is, Jesus, my job, my relationships, my bank accounts, my possessions, my education, my smarts – everything I’ve ever held close – I let it go – it’s yours. How do you want me to use it in the kingdom? It’s a recognition that everything you are and have and will ever be is because of Jesus. So you hold it lightly, and you hold onto Jesus with everything you’ve got.
What’s most important to you? If it’s not Christ this morning, let it go. It was Jim Elliot, the young missionary martyred by the Auca Indians of Ecuador who said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”