In 1985, I went on a canal holiday with my family in the Netherlands. There are a few things that I remember about that holiday – it was very hot, and I had bad eczema as a child, which was very uncomfortable. But I also remember playing board games with my family on the boat, especially Monopoly. I remember my Mum wiping the floor with the rest of us, when she got hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane. And I remember at least one game ending in an argument, as either my brother or I sulked and refused to play any more. Maybe you can identify with that – Monopoly is pretty well known for ending in an argument!
I was reminded of that holiday recently when I came across a Youtube video explaining the rules of Monopoly. Of course, everybody thinks that they know the rules of the game, but it turns out that very few people play with all of the official rules – instead each family plays with its own variations. So, some of the rules explained in this video were completely foreign to me, despite being in the official rulebook!
In our passage this morning, Jesus meets a man who is deeply concerned about the rules. Not the rules for playing a board game, but something much more important – the man wants to know the rules for life itself. Instead of passing Go and collecting £200, he wants to enter the Kingdom of God and inherit eternal life.
He’s not just any man – Luke tells us that he is a ruler. It’s not clear exactly what position he held, but it is certain that he would have been well-respected in his community. He is someone who would be held in high regard – the sort of person that would be an honoured guest at any dinner party. Furthermore, Luke tells us that he is extremely wealthy. In Jesus’ day, for someone as honourable as this, this would be taken as a sign of God’s blessing. Surely this is a man whose place in God’s Kingdom is secure!
When this man meets Jesus, though, we see three things: 1. We don’t make the rules, God does. 2. It’s impossible for us to keep God’s rules. 3. What’s impossible for us is possible for God.
1. We don’t make the rules, God does
This young man comes to ask Jesus what the rules are for joining the Kingdom of God. He’s polite, he respectful to Jesus, and he wants a good thing. He wants to make sure that he will inherit eternal life. It’s really important. It’s a good question to be asking.
Before Jesus answers him, though, he fires a question back. Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No-one is good except God alone.” You see, there’s only one person whose answer to the man’s question really matters, and that’s God himself. Only God can grant eternal life, and so only God, ultimately, can tell us what the rules are. It doesn’t matter how clever the philosopher is, how charming the talk-show host, how many copies the novel has sold; if the answer they give is not the one that God gives, it is worthless. You need to make sure that you ask the right person.
I hope you can see that Jesus is not denying his own authority here. He’s not saying “don’t ask me!”. We know that because he immediately goes on to answer the man’s question. Instead, he’s saying “if you’re going to ask me, then you had better listen.” “If you’re asking me, then you must recognise that I have the authority to give you the answer.”
Jesus has already done lots of miracles in Luke’s Gospel which prove his authority, that prove that Jesus is God. And so Jesus is exactly the person we should be asking about eternal life. His answer is the answer to the question.
So – what is Jesus’ answer? If you look at verse 20, we see that Jesus quotes the 10 commandments to the man. The summary of the Jewish law, that God gave to Moses, hundreds of years earlier. The 10 laws that every Jew in Jesus’ day would know backwards. If you want to be in God’s kingdom, says Jesus, let’s start with God’s rules. And the man’s response in verse 21 is: “Yes, I’ve obeyed these rules my whole life.”
But there’s something strange going on in verse 20 – I don’t know if you noticed it? Jesus says: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”. But that’s only 5 of the commandments – Jesus has left 5 of them out.
And it doesn’t look like Jesus has just chosen at random, either. The five commandments that Jesus quotes, all deal with how we relate to other people: don’t kill, don’t lie, and so on. The man is confident that he has kept those. Of the ones that are missing, four deal with how we relate to God: “You shall have no other gods before me. Don’t make an idol. Don’t misuse God’s name. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. “. The final missing commandment deals with how we relate to material things: “Do not covet.”
We don’t know how the man thought he was doing in regard to those five unspoken commandments. But it becomes clear as the story progresses, that the man is not really obeying those laws. When it comes to a choice between obeying God, and keeping his money, the man chooses to disobey God. His money has become an idol for him – a physical thing which has taken the place of God. And so Jesus selectively quotes from the 10 commandments to show that the man is being selective in his obedience of them.
The first step in living in God’s kingdom, is letting God be the king. It means recognising that he is the one who makes the rules, not us. We can’t simply ignore the rules he has made because we don’t like them, or they’re not convenient for us.
You may know that there is a discussion in the Church of England at the moment, regarding our approach to same-sex marriage. One of the common arguments in favour of changing the church’s position, is that we need to be in agreement with our wider national culture.
But sadly, tragically, that argument misses the point, doesn’t it? It’s not our culture that we worship as Christians, but God. We need to be looking to see what God has said about marriage – about what it is, and what it is for, and letting that shape our church’s policies. What is at stake is much more than just the marriage ceremony – it’s a question of whether we want to make the rules, or we let God do it.
It’s a question for our church authorities, but it’s also a question for each of us individually. Like the rich ruler, we are most in danger of ignoring the rules God has made which we find hardest to obey. We need to remember that we don’t make the rules, God does.
2. It’s impossible for us to keep God’s rules
The rich ruler thinks he will be ok because he’s been keeping some of God’s rules. But Jesus tells him that he is still lacking. His money has become a problem for him.
Jesus sees this problem immediately, and shows the man. He says in verse 22, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
And thats when the man realises he has a problem. It’s not that he has done something wrong – the problem is deeper than that. It’s a heart problem – he is more interested in keeping his cash than he is in obeying God. To put it another way, his love for his money is greater than his love for God.
God is the greatest person, the greatest thing, that we willever encounter. And so God ought to take pride of place in our affections. Our greatest desire ought to be to know God and to worship him. Our willingness to ignore God and to ignore his rules is what the Bible calls “sin”.
And what happens next in the story shows us that sin is not just a problem for this rich ruler. It’s a problem for every single one of us.
When Jesus exposes the man’s problem, the rich ruler is sad. But Jesus isn’t surprised. In fact he agrees that it is an impossible task for this man to be good enough to get into God’s kingdom . It would be easier, says Jesus, for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
The other people listening are astonished, though. If this man, who was so respectable and respected, who is so obviously blessed by God – if he is not good enough for God’s kingdom, then what hope do the rest of us have? “You’re right”, says Jesus in verse 27. “For people it is impossible.”
That’s why we have a confession towards the start of every service, that we expect everyone to join in with. Confession is not just for those who have been especially naughty this week – it is for everyone, whether they have been a Christian for 70 years or are visiting a church for the first time.
Jesus is quite clear that none of us is worthy of a place in heaven, on our own merits. It’s impossible. We cannot keep God’s law. We cannot earn our way into God’s kingdom. Regardless of how long you’ve been coming to St. Michael’s, how much money you put into the collection plate, how much of your time you spend on church rotas, how respectable you are in the Gidea Park community, you – and I – don’t deserve eternal life.
At this point I’d like to take a couple of minutes to talk about a slightly different explanation that you may have heard for this passage. I’d like to tell you what it is, why I think its wrong, and why it matters.
The alternative explanation is based on Jesus’ line about the camel and the eye of the needle. You may have heard it. It goes like this: there was a gateway in the city wall of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day that was very narrow and was known as the eye of the needle. If a merchant was bringing goods into the city on a heavily-laden camel, he wouldn’t be able to fit through the gate. So, he would have to take all the goods off his camel before he could fit through. And the meaning of Jesus’ statement, according to this alternative explanation, is that we need to get rid of our material possessions in order to get into God’s kingdom.
So at first hearing, this explanation sounds plausible. It fits with Jesus’ command to the rich ruler that he sell all his possessions. But it doesn’t really explain what’s going on in the passage. For example, it doesn’t explain the disciples’ reaction of “who then can be saved?”. Nor does it deal with Jesus’ next statement that it is impossible for people to earn their way into God’s kingdom. And there is no archaeological evidence for this supposed gate.
And it matters because it radically changes Jesus’ message. If that explanation about the needle gate is correct, then all we have to do is just to declutter occasionally. Or perhaps to do away with the concept of possessions altogether, as suggested by the multimillionaire John Lennon in the song Imagine. And so what humanity needs most is a benign socialist dictator, who will tell us off when we get too greedy.
But Jesus isn’t talking about unloading a camel. He says that it’s impossible for us to keep God’s rules. Even if we threw out everything we had, we’d still find something to love more than God. We don’t need a declutter, we need a saviour.
3. What is impossible for us is possible for God
It’s a pretty bleak picture, isn’t it? Imagine if our passage ended at verse 26, and all I could say to you this morning was “sorry, we’ve failed.” Well, thankfully, that’s not the end. Jesus says that it certainly is impossible for us to keep God’s rules, but the situation is not hopeless. It is possible for God.
A couple of years ago, Rosie and I went to see the comedian Tim Vine live in London. If you don’t know his work, Tim Vine is best known for quickfire puns – he won best joke at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the following joke: “I’ve decided to sell my Hoover – it was just collecting dust.”
Now, I know you should never explain a joke, but a pun of course works because a word or phrase has more than one meaning. In verse 27, Jesus isn’t making a joke, but he does say something with two different but equally appropriate meanings. In answer to the question of how anyone can be saved, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
On the one hand, Jesus is saying that, whilst no human can save themselves, they can be saved by God. The situation is not as bleak as it seemed. If we trust in our own performance, we will be tragically disappointed. But if instead we look to God to save us, then we can (and will) enter the kingdom of God and inherit eternal life. Salvation is possible.
The second meaning is that, whilst it is impossible for man to keep God’s laws, there is one for whom it is possible. Obedience is possible. As we’ve already seen, Jesus’ life, his miracles and his teaching showed that he is the good teacher, he is God. He himself lived a fully human life, and yet he obeyed God’s law perfectly in every way. When Jesus says “it is possible with God”, he is saying “I am the one who deserves to be in God’s kingdom”. He is the only one who did not deserve to die for his own sins, which means that he must have died to save others instead.
And so when Jesus says that we can be saved by God, it’s not just an abstract idea. It’s a promise. Jesus has provided a rescue for us, for anyone who is willing to take it.
There’s a bit of an epilogue to the story. After Jesus has explained that we can’t save ourselves, that we can only be saved by God, Peter speaks up on behalf of the other disciples. “We have left all we had to follow you!” You can almost hear the distress in Peter’s voice – it’s a sign that he’s starting to grasp what Jesus was saying. If we can’t earn our way to heaven, then has it all been a waste of time? If giving up everything isn’t enough, then have these last couple of years following Jesus been a waste of time?
Many people these days would think so. Christianity, it seems to them, is about giving things up and going without. Giving up chocolate for Lent, giving up a lie-in on a Sunday morning, giving up freedom. If it doesn’t get you pie in the sky when you die, why bother?
Jesus wants to reassure Peter, and to reassure us, that we’ve done the right thing. As we heard last week, following Jesus means that he is our first priority, and it does indeed come at a cost. But as Jesus promises here, it is no hardship. God is generous and loves to give good things to his children – not least a worldwide family of millions of believers praying for one another and sharing their lives together through good times and bad.
It would be foolish to throw away Jesus’ rescue for something which will not last – whether that is a family relationship, or material wealth. What Jesus offers is far greater.
We can’t save ourselves, but Jesus can – and does – rescue us. So let us trust him with everything that we have.