A tragic young man
The three synoptic Gospels record for us the occasion when the Lord Jesus met the man whom we call the rich young ruler (Mt 19; Mk 10; Lk 18), and there are many profitable and challenging lessons for us in this incident. First of all, let us notice the man himself. As we would say, he had everything going for him: he was young (Mt 19.20), he was rich (Mk 10.22), he had a good career ("a certain ruler", Lk 18.18). The tragedy was that it was these very things that held him back from Christ. Am I like this? Is my career more important to me than the things of God? Despite his shortcomings1 he still had a desire for spiritual progress. Mark draws our attention to his haste in approaching the Lord, and also his reverent attitude ("there came one running, and kneeled to him", Mk 10.17). The Saviour Himself spoke of his desire to "be perfect" (Mt 19.21). Do these things characterise me?
Next, we must notice the conversation that he had with the Lord. The principles of discipleship are here encapsulated in three verbs used by the Lord Jesus: "keep", "give", and "follow". Let us look at each of these in turn. The first of these verbs occurs only in Matthews account: "keep the commandments" (Mt 19.17). It was incumbent upon this young man to obey the Law of Moses if he wished to "enter into life". Believers today still have an obligation to obey the commandments of Scripture, but our motivation is different: we do not do it to obtain eternal life, but out of affection for our Saviour - "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (Jn 14.15). Am I marked by this loving obedience?
The second great verb used by Christ brings with it some extremely practical and challenging implications: "give to the poor". We do not often hear ministry on this topic, but our God has always placed a responsibility on His people to "remember the poor" (Gal 2.10). In this country today the problem of poverty may not be as great as it once was, but there is still abundant need in the world. It is the present writers opinion that not all our giving need be to assembly missionaries and workers - there are many other organisations which merit our support because of the practical good work that they do.2 This does not mean that we are to be undiscerning in our giving, still less that we are to give to groups that hold unscriptural principles, but simply that we should use our material wealth for the benefit of as many as possible. Remember the condemnation of Judas - "not that he cared for the poor" (Jn 12.6). Notice, too, the cost that is to be involved in giving - the Lord told him to "Go" (Mt 19.21) - the word means to "withdraw or retire, as if sinking out of sight" (Strongs, 5217). There is no room for pride or self-aggrandisement in my giving - the Lord condemned those who would "sound a trumpet" to draw public attention to their giving (Mt 6.2). Notice also the financial cost that is involved: "sell all that thou hast" (Lk 18.22). Some of our brethren and sisters have been called on to do this literally, but the spirit of it should mark us all. How much does my giving cost me? Note that giving in this sacrificial way lays up treasure in heaven - God is no mans debtor, and a rich reward is reserved for those who, out of affection for Christ, have met the needs of others.
The third of these verbs is the one which has occupied our minds through this series of articles: "follow me". We must remember that we follow One who was constantly marked by giving - "the Son of Man came to serve, and to give " (Mt 20.28, NRSV). It may be that the Lord, in speaking thus to the young man, had in mind the injunction of Micah 6.8: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly [keep the commandments], and to love mercy [give to the poor], and to walk humbly with thy God [follow me]".
Before we leave this passage, let us not overlook the decision that the young man made - "he went away" (Mt 19.22). What a tragedy! He traded the boundless blessing of God and the fellowship of Christ for his material possessions, and went back in the gloom of his soul to his frustrating and ultimately futile attempts to keep the Law that would eventually condemn him. How awful to look on the wealth of heaven, measure it against the things of earth, and come to the conclusion (to speak as a man) that the asking price is too high. Is my heart like this? Do I think that the cost of godly living, of assembly fellowship, of service for the Lord is too great? May God deliver us from such a paltry estimation of the things of Christ, and give us a real heart to follow Him.
An anonymous disciple
In Luke 9.57-62 the Holy Spirit brings before us three men (Matthew mentions two of these in ch. 8.19-22) who had to come face to face with the cost of discipleship. The first man made the brave promise to follow Christ "whithersoever" He went, little realising that this might entail a life of homelessness and discomfort. We would do well to take care and avoid, especially in our prayers, making rash promises. Simon Peter was another who had to learn that very often our proud, self-confident boastings will prove to be more than we are able to fulfil (Lk 22.31-34).
The second man was more circumspect than the first, and made no rash boast. To him the command of the Lord came: "Follow me". His response was one that we ourselves have perhaps often made: "Lord me first"; it is always the way of the flesh to postpone our obedience to the command of God. It seemed that his desire was a legitimate one: to remain at home pending the death of his father.3 However, he had to learn that nothing, not even the closest family ties on earth, must come between the disciple and his Lord. To quote Jim Elliot: "Wives, houses, practices, education must learn to be disciplined by this rule: Let the dead attend to the affairs of the already dead. Go thou and attend the affairs of the dying. we have bargained with Him who bore a cross, and in His ministry His emphasis was upon sacrifice, not of worldly goods so much as of family ties".4 Am I allowing family relationships to hinder me in my service for Him? God never expects us to neglect our families, but He does expect us to realise that there are occasions when the things of God must take priority over all else. Is this the case with me?
The third man fell into the same error as the second - "Me first" (v.61). May God give us the submissiveness to avoid this attitude - it never marked the heart of our Master! The response of the Lord Jesus is most challenging. If we are to engage in divine service we must avoid looking "unto the things behind" (Newberry margin). My eyes ought to be fixed on Christ (Heb 12.2), my affections on things above (Col 3.2), and my ambitions on the prize of the heavenly calling of God (Phil 3.14). Is this true of me, or am I more taken up with following earthly heroes, pouring my energies into a world that will one day be consumed with fire (2 Pet 3.10)? Very often the direction of the gaze is an indicator of where the heart lies - remember Lots wife (Gen 19.26). What about my spiritual gaze? May God give us such a devotion to Christ that our eye will be single, fixed on Him, and that we may "run the race that is set before us" for His glory.
1 It seems that he also failed to appreciate the deity of Christ, since he made no comment when the Lord said that only God is good (Mt 19.17; Mk 10.18; Lk 18.19).
2 I recognise that other believers may hold different opinions on this point!
3 It is not clear whether this was an imminent event or not.
4 Shadow of the Almighty; pp82, 94 (1967 edition).