THE RICH YOUNG RULER
Readings: Proverbs ch. 4; Luke ch. 18
In our chapter from Luke we have read of that incident concerning a certain ruler who came to Jesus to ask him; “Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” It is a question which all earnest- minded people would like to ask. In the background of the inindof all thoughtful men and women is the fear that sooner or later life must give way to death. They would like an assurance of the future, but they do not know how to ask. Very often it is because they have neither the humility nor the courage to admit their fear. Yet it is because of the answer to that question that we are here together this morning. Jesus came to deliver us from that situation in which through fear of death we would all our lifetime be subject to bondage.
From the other records concerning this incident we know that this ruler was a young man. He was therefore a rich young ruler. He was earnest, and his approach to the Master was made in such an earnest way that we are told that Jesus, as he looked upon him, loved him. There must surely have been a genuineness and a sincerity in that question which moved the Master very much. After all, Jesus had had that question put to him before, and in words which were almost identical. It was contained in our reading last Sunday morning. “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” On that occasion, however, it came from the lips of a lawyer who stood up tempting him. It was the same question, but a very different approach to the Master and with a very different motive.
In answering these two questions we notice that Jesus went over exactly the same commandments of God, yet the application of those commandments was used by the Master in a very different way. Here Jesus has shown us something of the Divine wisdom from which we can learn. We know that when we are asked a question concerning our hope, the question can be worded in a very similar way but with a very different intent, and we need to have the wisdom to discern the type of man or woman to whom we are speaking and frame our answeis accordingly.
In the case of the lawyer Jesus made him answer his own question by putting to him another. “What is written in the law? how readest thou?” In reply the lawyer gave him the answer concerning duty to God and duty to his neighbour. To this Jesus replied: “This do, and thou shalt live.” He had answered the question. The lawyer had pronounced the command, and Jesus had agreed with it. But the lawyer pursued the matter, and he did so for a reason. We are told that he was “willing to justify himself’ and so he answered: “And who is my neighbour?” In reply to this there followed that beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan.
In the case of the rich young ruler Jesus, we notice, answered the question directly. “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.” He enumerated, therefore, five of the ten commandments, but he did not put them in the same order as they appear in the book of Exodus. The last one he mentioned was, in fact, the first commandment with promise: “. . . that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” This commandment, of course, had a special bearing upon the young man’s question, for he had asked: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” and in this commandment there was a reference to life.
The young man replied: “All these have I kept from my youth up.” Evidently this was true. Jesus knew his heart and he accepted that as a statement of fact. We read that after Jesus had heard these things he said: “Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.”
This young man would have made an ideal disciple for the Master except for one stumblingblock. He did not try to justify himself like the lawyer. He knew that Jesus had put his finger on the greatest of his weaknesses. It made him very sorrowful and he went away. We are not told what this young man eventually did. We would like to feel that having thought about what Jesus had told him, he was of that disposition to “suffer the word of exhortation.”
That man, as one of the other records tells us, had enquired: “What lack I yet?” Although he was a godly man—and because of that, Jesus loved him—he had a blind spot and he lacked the wisdom to see it. We often think how helpful it would be to each one of us if we could literally come before the Master, while the time to correct our way of life is with us, and, like that young man, ask the question: “What lack I yet?”
But we come this morning into the presence of the Master, the one “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” We come here to partake of the emblems of his body and his blood. We come here mentally and morally to fellowship him, to make his life part of ours, and so we come to examine ourselves. We must inevitably do it if we are to try to fellowship him in that way. So we ask: What do we lack?
Love of, or trust in riches, is only one human weakness. It is a very dangerous one, and it brings very special temptations. It happened to be a stumblingblock to unqualified service by that ruler. There are many others, and it is up to us to set our own weakness against the pattern which has been presented to us in the Word.
Jesus said: “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” We know it is true. We have only to look around and see it happening. They use their wisdom to provide for themselves and their families, both now and in the future. So far as material things are concerned their whole life is occupied in giving attention to this: their jobs, their prospects, their children, education, their homes, their hobbies, their entertainments. They will put themselves to extraordinary inconvenience to take advantage of social contacts, opportunities for advancement and so forth. Why? Because in their estimation these are the things which really matter in life. They consider these things constitute life at its best and so they fill their minds with them.
The purpose of our life, of course, is different. We are interested in what we must do to inherit eternal life. The Word tells us in many ways, and it is for us to read carefully and to apply the exhortations and the warnings which it contains, apply them to our various circumstances. Above all, we are urged to keep the goal of our life always uppermost in our minds.
When that ruler was asked to sell all and follow Jesus, this did not mean that all the followers of Jesus are not good servants unless they dispose of everything they have and live, as it were, as paupers. Riches, in the case of this young man, were his idols, a stumblingblock to wholehearted service to God. Because of that, he would have been a better servant without them, and it required faith to dispose of them. For the moment, godly man though he may have been, he was not equal to this test.
The words of Jesus provide a solemn warning to all those who are blessed with a good measure of the things of this life. The Word tells us of many ways in which they can be turned into friends against the day of judgment. But there are other things that can be stumbling- blocks to our wholehearted service. The living of the Truth is a very practical thing and duty to God touches us at every phase of our life.
Now we have started to read again the book of Proverbs. In that book are summarised many pieces of inspired advice on all sorts of matters. Some of them do not appear to be dealt with specifically elsewhere in the Word. We shall remember, however, that Jesus quoted several of these proverbs, or the principles behind them, to enforce his own teaching, and a number of principles brought out in the Sermon on the Mount have their basis in the Proverbs. There is much need for us today especially to look very carefully at this book, for we shall find it provides the antidote to many modern trends of thought in the world. Sometimes these trends of thought are so subtly presented that they are hard to resist. The ideologists of this sophisticated world are gradually losing touch with the realities of human nature, and if we are not careful we can be led away by them. The world is far too much governed today in their judgments by emotion. They tend to ignore the awful cold truth and to live in a fool’s paradise. They talk about man’s so-called rights, what one should do in the education of the young, the necessity for freedom of choice, how friends should be taken, and so forth.
On these matters the Word speaks too, and it presents these problems in a very different light from what we see them presented in the world. The book of Proverbs covers all those practical matters related to friendship and marriage, talebearing, running a home, honesty, business dealings; they are all dealt with here in this book and we are wise if we listen to wisdom’s voice.
There is always the danger in our life in the Truth that we, as it were, put the spiritual things on one side and the temporal things on the other, as if we had two distinct aspects to our existence. Yet in fact it is not so. This was really the mistake of that rich young man. It is only insofar as we can allow these two aspects of our lives to merge that we shall learn what the Truth should really mean to us. It is here that the book of Proverbs is so helpful. It sets before us Divine wisdom, supreme, and right ahead of us, as something to follow and keep as an aim a long way ahead.
It talks of things which relate to the ordinary problems of daily life. Nearly always the principles which are expressed here are in opposition to worldly counsel. It shows us the truth that God is wisdom, and that wisdom permeates everything we see and know of life in the universe. There is a teaching which goes through the whole of the book, and it is the little thread which binds us to God by the very circumstances in which we are placed. Our experiences really are but our reactions to Divine wisdom in our freewill.
Bro. Roberts defines wisdom in this way: “Wisdom in its most elementary conception is the power and disposition to adapt means to the accomplishment of good ends.” Wisdom starts with God. It is developed through Jesus, and if we are wise it will be reflected by us in ruling our lives. Turn to the book of Proverbs and let us see just how the Spirit expounds wisdom. We take first of all chapter 3.19: “The Lord by wisdom bath founded the earth; by understanding bath he established the heavens. By his knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew.” We notice that three things are linked here—wisdom, understanding and knowledge. These are the very basis of creation and they are brought together in the Great Eternal Himself. This is Divine wisdom. All things were created for His pleasure, and so it is written: “As truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with my glory.”
Wherever we look in the expanse of the world, all has been ordered with that in view. We individually play our little part in this development insofar as we apply in our own lives that wisdom in the way in which it affects us. If we do not, at the end there will be no place for us in the Divine purpose.
Jesus loved that young ruler because up to a point he had applied God’s law in his life; but he lacked one thing, and that really was a lack of wisdom. Because of that Jesus had to let him go, or perhaps we should say the ruler himself went away. But it is the same with us. Hence there is the encouragement in Proverbs 3.11: “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: for whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.”
Consistent with revelation throughout the Word, the book of Proverbs presents to us the world divided into two classes, between which there must be perpetual enmity. Human wisdom perpetually agitates us to blend them, be sociable, be more tolerant, let us come together. But the voice of wisdom tells us quite differently. In our chapter for today, chapter 4.14 we read: “Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away.” Yes, every age brings its temptation for co-operation between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, and in many aspects of daily life. The clamour and the glamour of the world, and those who are responsible for it, are depicted in this book. The Spirit seems almost to have anticipated the glossy magazines and the posters which we see as we wander round this wicked city. It has set its own description in language which presents it to us in its true light. How true are those words which follow in this chapter. Verse 16: “They sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence.” There is an urgency in that call of verse 14, an appeal which will help us to keep our minds fixed on those things which are pure and holy. Whose voice is it that is stirring us in this way? It is really the voice of the Spirit; in fact, the voice of the Master himself, his Spirit in the Old Testament prophets. Look back at verse 1: “Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding. For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my law. For I was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother. He taught me also, and said unto me, Let thine heart retain my words: keep my commandments, and live.”
Now let us first apply those words in what was probably their original literal setting. Here is Solomon speaking to us. He was the son of David and Bath-sheba. Now we know how David spoke of Solomon. “Solomon my son is young and tender,” just as we read in this 3rd verse. We recall the way in which David told Solomon how he should act when he took over the kingdom, and we remember that that was typical. We think of his mother, Bath-sheba. There is an indication of the circle in which she moved, after she married David. You remember when it came to the critical point of the transfer of the kingdom to her son, she had with her Nathan the prophet, and this surely was not accidental. Here was a godly man in whom she probably confided and who helped her in the bringing up of Solomon.
Then we read in verse 3: “1 was my father’s son, tender and only beloved in the sight of my mother.” You will notice that that word ‘beloved’ is in italics and therefore not in the original, but it has been put there in order to show the meaning. We understand that that word ‘only’ has a very tender and special meaning. We remember how God said to Abraham: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest,. . . and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” It was a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who was the only begotten Son of God. Yes, it is the Son greater than Solomon who speaks to us in these words, and he speaks to us as unto children.
If we ask, therefore, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” we have the answer in the Proverbs. Verse 20 of this same chapter 4; “My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings. Let them not depart from thine eyes; keep them in the midst of thine heart. For they are life unto those that find them, and health to all their flesh.” That’s it. That is how life is obtained, by following the voice of wisdom. Verse 23: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” In our heart, then, lie the issues of life. That was the trouble with the rich young ruler; he had in his heart a treasure of riches, material things, with which he could not part.
Our knowledge of the Truth makes us realise what we are by nature —creatures of the dust possessing sin’s flesh. We know intheory that the heart naturally tends to evil. It is, as Jesus said, cut of the heart that proceed evil thoughts, and so forth. It is not merely the thief and the murderer and the dropout of the world who have an evil heart, as human wisdom would have us believe. It is latent in us all. Our call in Christ is to a life lived to him and not to ourselves, and we need to learn to train our minds to elevate our thoughts by concentrating on those things which direct us to the wisdom of God.
That wisdom starts with the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of wisdom. Unless we have it there is no incentive to obey commands which often are contrary to our natural inclinations. The phrase so often used in the world, “I couldn’t care less” is one which typifies the attitude of mind which they adopt. It is one which is uninfluenced by Divine wisdom. Our wisdom demands that we shall care, and expressions like that ought not to fall from the lips of brethren and sisters. We must take a responsible attitude to every phase of our life, and that attitude should be because of the fear of the Lord, that awareness of the presence of God. That He knows what we say and do should help us. It should be a fear, but not a terror. Wisdom’s path brings a feeling of relief, of a clear conscience, of a knowledge of life and its duties, which gives us confidence, whereas the world in its way of life is depressed.
We may be mocked in the world because, again to use the world’s phrase, “we have not lived.” We can be content about that, too. They may have lived, in their sense, and experienced things which we are not prepared to investigate, but they will die, and that without hope.
So we turn back to chapter 3.21; “My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion; so shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet. Be not afraid of sudden fear, neither of the desolation of the wicked, when it cometh. For the Lord shall be thy confidence, and shall keep thy foot from being taken.” There is a confidence and a comfort in which we can rest if we are prepared to follow wisdom’s path.
A brother, many years ago, writing concerning the book of Proverbs, penned these words: “Each year as we close our study of the book of Proverbs, we see more clearly the meaning of passages that were before obscure, if not quite unintelligible, the reason being that the added year has brought us into contact with fresh phases of life, with experiences both sweet and bitter, and our eyes have been opened to the meaning of things which implied little or nothing to us before. It matters not what those experiences may have been— physical or mental suffering, the joy of new-found love, or the quiet happiness of proved friendship—we find in the book of Proverbs sure proof that others have lived through our experiences. We learn that no temptation has come to us that is not common to all men. This is a form of rebuke. We are inclined to let our minds dwell upon our own sensations, scarcely realising that around us the same sensations are being felt in the minds of others. We put our feelings in the words of Jerusalem’s lamentation: “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow,” but we learn and come at length to admit that others are enduring the same or more intense suffering. To be truly unselfish we must force this fact upon our minds continually.”
That is the book of Proverbs, practically applied.
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” When that rich ruler asked that question perhaps, with his position and his wealth, he hoped that Jesus would have set before him something which would give him a spectacular work to do. Instead he was taught that he had to look at himself and his wealth and conquer his own desires. We can be grateful for that, for if some great work had been required of us, none of us would be eligible for eternal life. Jesus asks us to control ourselves, our thoughts, our desires, our ambitions, so that nothing will come between us and him; or, in the words of the Proverbs: “Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established.”
This, after all, is what Jesus did for us. It is vividly brought to our attention in that record of his wrestling in the Garden before the final ordeal: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me:
nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”:—J. C. Wharton