The Miserable Millionaire: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Misplaced Priorities

Matthew 19:16-26

February 18, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

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It has been almost ten years since I last preached on the story of the Rich Young Ruler. That fact wouldn’t matter except that in 1991 I started my sermon with the story of a man named Lee Atwater. In the estimation of many people, he was the man most responsible for electing George Bush president in 1988. Back then he was 39 years old and on top of the world. Then out of nowhere he developed a massive brain tumor. He was treated and instead of getting better, he got worse. Shortly before he died, Life magazine published an article in which he evaluated his life in light of his terminal illness:

The ’80s were about acquiring—acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with a friend? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul (Life magazine, February 1991, p. 67).

As I read that quote for the first time in a decade, the timing of it hit me in the face. Consider that final sentence again: “I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul.” That was published in February 1991—ten years ago this month. Back then almost no one had heard of Bill Clinton. And come to think of it, no one had heard of Britney Spears either. And O. J. Simpson was still an American hero. No one knew who Timothy McVeigh was and no one had heard of Columbine High School.

In putting the matter that way, I do not wish to sound like a cranky pessimist or a misanthrope who can never be happy. But as we look back over the last decade and ponder what Lee Atwater said, his words still ring true today. There is still a spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society and there is still a tumor of the soul.

Driving With the Wrong Map

Somewhere I picked up a cartoon that shows a man driving in his car on the expressway. The caption reads, “At 20, I couldn’t wait to get on the road. At 30, I learned how to go from 0 to 60 in eight seconds. At 40 I found that I’d been holding the map upside down and at 50, I discovered I had the wrong map altogether.”

That’s the story of an entire generation. My generation. The Baby Boomers. We were told, “Get up early, work hard, climb to the top, step on people if you have to, look out for number one, do it now.” Then when we got going about 150 miles an hour, we found out, to our utter dismay, the map was upside down. What we were looking for was in exactly the opposite direction.

The Rich Young Yuppie

Once there was a young man with big dreams about the future. He was 20 or 25 or he may have been 30 but not much older than that. He was a tiger, a go-getter, a man on the way to the top. Although I can’t be sure, I think that perhaps he had made his money in real estate, which is one of the best ways to make money if you know what you’re doing. (It’s also a good way to lose it if you don’t.) He knew what he was doing. Limited partnerships. Condos. Syndications. Buy low, sell high. Turn swampland into high-rise apartments. He made a lot of money at a very young age. And he had risen to the top of his corporation. And he still felt empty.

That was odd because this rising star was always very religious. He believed in God and he believed in God’s Word. The Ten Commandments were his law and his way of life. Unlike so many other Baby Boomers, he didn’t forget the Almighty on his way to the top. He prayed and he read the Scriptures and he truly tried to do the right thing. He was a moral man with a capital M. He didn’t steal or cheat to get to the top and he didn’t sleep around either. He was a straight arrow in a crooked world. He was a true believer and a hard worker, a combination that often leads to worldly success. And still he was empty on the inside. Something was missing. He didn’t know what that “something” was but he knew he wasn’t all he could be.

One day that young man went to see a man who was a carpenter from Galilee, a man named Jesus. This young man at the top of his game, with all the money you could want, a man who had it all, came to Jesus with a penetrating question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). He wanted eternal life and his heart told him that his money and his religion weren’t enough. The conversation that he had with Jesus evidently made a tremendous impact on the early church because it was repeated not once, not twice but three times—in Matthew and Mark and Luke.

A Man We Can All Admire

I submit to you that there is a great deal to admire about this young man. He was obviously a man of good moral character. I do not doubt that he obeyed the law of God to the best of his ability. I think we must admire his courage in coming to Jesus. That couldn’t have been an easy thing for him to do. Young bucks on the way up the ladder normally wouldn’t have time for an itinerant preacher from Galilee. Certainly he is honest in admitting his need. In Mark’s account we learn an additional interesting fact: “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him” (Mark 10:17). There’s nothing subtle about that. He’s aggressive in getting Jesus’ attention, and that too fits the picture for it was his aggressiveness that had gotten him where he was in life.

There’s more. He asked the right question and he goes to the right person. He’s saying, “Lord, tell me what you want me to do. If you’ll tell me, I’ll do it.” He was like a lot of the Jewish people in the first century who believed that after they had obeyed the laws and commandments of God, that there was still one thing—one great and good and righteous and virtuous thing—if they could only find out what it was and if they could only do it, they would be guaranteed entrance into heaven. And that’s why this very successful young man comes to Jesus and kneels before him in the middle of the road.

At this point the story begins to turn in a new direction. For all his admirable qualities, the young man was wrong on two counts. Number one, he was wrong to think that there was something he could do to gain entrance into heaven. And number two he was wrong to think he could do it if only he knew what it was.

“Do You Know Who You Are Talking To?”

So he comes to the Lord Jesus with this crucial question. And Jesus gives him an answer that has confused people over the generations. The question seems simple enough—”What must I do to inherit eternal life?”—but when you read what Jesus says back to him, it appears that either Jesus doesn’t understand the question, or Jesus doesn’t know the answer to the question, or Jesus just doesn’t want to give him a straight answer.

From our point of view, it doesn’t seem as if the question and the answer really go together. “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). And this is Jesus’ answer: “Why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Now that statement, besides being confusing and seemingly irrelevant, has confused people into thinking that perhaps Jesus means something like, “God is good, and you shouldn’t call me good because I am not really God.” As a matter of fact, that’s precisely the opposite of what Jesus means to say. Jesus is taking the word “good” literally. The young man had called him, “Good teacher.” He said it as a way of being respectful, but he wasn’t really thinking of the meaning of the word.

Jesus understands that all true goodness comes from God. He’s saying, “When you call me good, do you really know what you’re saying? If I am good in the ultimate sense, it’s because I am not merely a good person, it’s because I am God in human flesh.” And so, when Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?” he’s asking the question, “Do you really know who you are talking to? And do you really know what you are saying?”

The “Big Ten”

Before the young man can even make an answer to that point, Jesus just plunges right on. He says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” (He means the Ten Commandments): “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:17-18). That’s another part of the story that seems a bit irrelevant to us. This fellow wants to know how to get to heaven. In response, Jesus first engages him in what appears to be an abstract theological discussion, and then he brings up the Ten Commandments.

What’s really going on here? This first century yuppie wants what so many people today want. He wanted a list. “Give me a list of the things I need to do to make sure I go to heaven. Give me a list and I will check it off. Do this, this, this, and this. When I get to the bottom of the list I’ll know that I’m going to go to heaven.” So Jesus says, “Fine. If you want a list, I’ll give you a list. Here’s my list. It’s called the Ten Commandments. Why don’t you just try keeping those for a while?”

Notice that Jesus does not quote from the first part of the Ten Commandments. He quotes only from the second part of the Ten Commandments. Do you remember the two parts? One part is the vertical—No other gods, no idols, do not take God’s name lightly, keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20:1-11). Those commandments all deal with man’s relationship to God. The other six commandments are horizontal—dealing with man’s relationship to his fellow man. They cover honoring your parents, murder, adultery, theft, lying, and coveting (Exodus 20:12-17). Jesus doesn’t quote from the first part at all. He quotes from the second part because that’s where this man had his problem.

Sincerely Wrong

He says, “Look, you want a list. Here’s my list. Keep the Ten Commandments. If you keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, when you get to the end you will be okay.” Evidently the young man doesn’t lack for confidence. Here is his reply: “All these things I have kept since I was a boy” (Luke 18:21). What should we make of a statement like that? On one level, it was probably true. I’m sure he hadn’t literally murdered anyone or committed adultery. On a deeper level, we can simply say that he is self-deceived. He is sincere and he is also sincerely wrong. When anyone says, “I have perfectly kept the Ten Commandments from the beginning of my life until now,” you automatically know two things about that person: number one, he doesn’t know anything about the real meaning of the Ten Commandments, and number two, he doesn’t really know anything about himself.

That brings us back to the deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments, which Jesus explained in Matthew 5. When the Bible says, “You shall not murder,” it’s not just talking about taking a gun and putting it to somebody’s head. Jesus said if you have an angry thought against your brother, if you are bitter against that brother, just that thought itself is murder in your mind. So even though you are smiling on the outside, on the inside you have broken the Sixth Commandment because you are filled with hatred and bitterness (Matthew 5:21-22). Remember what Jesus said about adultery. Even to look on another person to lust after them is breaking the commandment against adultery even though you never jump in bed with that person (Mathew 5:28). You can break the Seventh Commandment in your mind while being pure on the outside.

It’s What You Lack That Counts

Although this young man looks good on the outside, Jesus is telling him, “Wait a second, Buster. You’re not as hot as you think you are.” Then Jesus drops the bombshell: “You still lack one thing” (Luke 18:22). That must have floored him. It’s like saying to a boxer, “You’re the greatest 14-round boxer in the world.” Unfortunately, boxing matches go 15 rounds. And you keep getting knocked out in the 15th round.” It’s like saying to an artist, “You’re real good at what you do except you’re not real good with the color blue. In fact, your blue stinks.”

When it comes to going to heaven, it’s not what you’ve got that counts, it’s what you lack. What do you suppose this rich young man lacks? Jesus says something to him that we would never say to someone we were trying to lead to Christ: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Circle those verbs. Go. Sell. Give. Come. Follow. Wow! How would you like it if we made that a requirement for church membership? Jesus said to this fellow, “If you want to go to heaven this is what you’ve got to do. Sell everything. Give what you have to the poor. Then come and follow me.” If we said that at Calvary, we’d empty out the church pretty fast, I think.

Strangled By Money

Let’s be honest. These are scary words. So let me put it in perspective. This is the only time that Jesus ever said this to anyone as a condition of eternal life. But why did he say it to this earnest young man? Because that’s where he had the problem. This fellow who looked so good on the outside, on the inside was totally controlled by the love of money. Jesus was saying to this fine-looking, upstanding, good, young citizen, “If you want to be my follower, you’re going to have to break the stranglehold of money on your life.”

For this man, money was not just an object or a thing. Money had become his God. And Jesus knew it. He is touching this man at the point of his need. And he’s saying, “You’re going to have to give up your idolatry of money before you can be my disciple.” That principle is as true today as it was 2000 years ago. And because it is true today, we need to say it again in Oak Park and River Forest where we love money, where we worship the things that money can buy, where we are trying so desperately to get to the top of the ladder.

It’s true, isn’t it, that money can choke out the things of God? There are a great many Christians who love Jesus when they make $15,000 a year. There are fewer who love him when they make $30,000. Fewer still who love him when they make $50,000. Fewer still who love him when they make $150,000. Fewer yet who love him when they make half a million dollars a year. There are a great many Christians who would become deeply committed to Jesus Christ again, if only they would go broke. Go home and think about that.

I’m not saying we have to do literally what Jesus said here. But the principle is entirely true. You cannot love money and be his disciple. You cannot. He set the rules down 2000 years ago. That’s just the way it is.

There’s another way to look at it. This young man believed what many of us believe—that money matters. And in one realm it matters a great. Money is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Let me repeat two sentences from that Lee Atwater quote: “But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with a friend?” Money doesn’t really matter at all in comparison to things like having good friends, a few extra days with your family, and most of all, when compared to life itself. This young man believed the lie that money mattered. Once he figured out that money doesn’t matter at all, then he could become a follower of Christ. For him, that meant giving it all away. What will it mean for you and me?

No Special Deals

Finally we come to the most hopeful part of the story. In verse 22 Mathew tells us that “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Mark adds that the man’s face fell as he walked away (Mark 10:22). I find this hopeful because it means the words of Jesus hit home to him. He didn’t try to argue and he didn’t pretend that it didn’t matter. I wonder what happened to him later. This discussion takes place just a few days before the crucifixion. Did he eventually become a follower of Jesus? We don’t know for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in heaven.

As far as I know, this is the only case in the New Testament where somebody came to Jesus and Jesus gave him the truth and let him leave and walk away. This “rich young ruler’ walked away sorrowful because his wealth held him back. Jesus didn’t come after him and say, “Let me lower the price. Let me make a deal with you so you can be my follower.” He just told him the way it was and the man walked away.

This is truly a story for us to ponder. I’m sure most of us would say that we are not rich. Yet by the standards of 98% of the people in the world, the poorest person in our congregation is wealthy. We’re more like this young man than we would like to admit. Most of us would secretly agree with the fellow who said, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor just so long as you have a lot of money.” Jesus knew the way we were. And just so we wouldn’t miss it, Jesus gives us the moral of the story: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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” (Luke 18:24-25). Have you ever heard anybody explain this by saying that the eye of the needle represents some kind of tiny passageway into the city of Jerusalem and you had to kneel down to go through it? I don’t think that’s what it means at all. When he says the eye of a needle, he means the eye of a needle. Like the needle you do sewing with. When he says camel, he means a great big old smelly, ugly camel that you ride across the desert. He says, “Look at a camel and the eye of a needle. It is easier to get a big ugly camel through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.”

“I Don’t Need Jesus”

Why? Because rich people trust in their riches. It’s easy for a poor person to get saved because a poor person says, “If Jesus doesn’t come through for me, I’m sunk.” A rich man says, “If Jesus doesn’t come through for me, that’s okay. I’ve got my pension. I’ve got my stocks and bonds. I’ve got my options. I’ve got my golden parachute. I’ve got my safety net. If he doesn’t come through it doesn’t matter. I’m taking care of things myself.”

It is impossible, Jesus says, for a rich man to be saved. Which leads to a very logical question: “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25). The answer comes in verse 26: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Here is the good news of the gospel: Even rich people can be saved if they will give up their trust in their riches. The richest people on earth can be saved but they’ve got to stop trusting in their riches and they’ve got to start trusting in Jesus Christ and him alone.

No Such Thing as “Serious Money”

Bill Self was a pastor for many years in Atlanta. He tells the story of a friend whose son was killed in the crash of an F-14 airplane. His friend said to him, “Bill, once you lose your son, you find out that there is no such thing as serious money. Life and death are serious, money is not” (Investment Vision, April/May, 1991, p. 62).

We’re just entering tax season. It’s amazing, isn’t it, when we do our income tax and look at all those forms—Schedule A, B, C, D, E, G, Supplemental Income, Rental Income, Farm Income, Depreciation, and all the rest. We punch in all the numbers and when we’re finished, we figure out the bottom line. And we evaluate how we did last year according to the bottom line of our tax return. But that’s not the real “bottom line.” When you stand before your Creator, he’s not going to judge you according to your 1040 Long Form. He’s going to look for something much more substantial than that.

The French philosopher Pascal said that there is a God-shaped vacuum inside the heart of every person. If you don’t fill that vacuum with God you will fill it with something else. And when you do, you will find out what that rich young man found out years ago. You can have it all but it’s still not enough. Since nature abhors a vacuum, if you don’t fill it with God, you’ll fill it with money or career, power, prestige, sex, or whatever you think you can find in this world. You will not be satisfied. And it will be said of you as was said of the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack.” That one thing being a living, dynamic, life-transforming relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have left out one tiny detail that only Mark includes. In his version of this story, he adds that Jesus loved this young man and that’s why he told him to go and sell everything and then become his disciple (Mark 10:21). He knew this young man was earnest and sincere. He knew he truly wanted eternal life. He knew that his wealth was holding him back. And he loved him enough to tell him the truth even though Jesus knew he would walk away. That’s true love. He loved him enough to let him go in the hope that someday he would come back on his own.

I come to two conclusions and then I am through. Number one: As long as you make money and the things money can buy are the measure of your life, you will be empty and unfulfilled.

Number two: Whenever you stop trusting in money and the things that money can buy and turn your life over to Jesus Christ, then and only then will your heart be satisfied.

The one thing you lack, God offers to you right now. He offers you forgiveness and a brand-new life. The one thing you need is yours for the asking. If you have discovered that having it all is not enough, then please consider something that money can’t buy. Would you like a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ? It’s yours for the asking. Open your heart to him and he will come in.

Father, you have promised bread for the hungry and rest for the weary. May those who hunger be filled with the Bread of Life. And may the weary find the rest that only Jesus can give. Forgive us for loving money so much that we have no room for you. Grant that we might realize our deepest need so that you can provide for us the “one thing” we lack. In Jesus name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?