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Study Notes:

Matthew 19:16-20:16

Forsaking All For Christ

Summary: Jesus exposes the true motivation of a rich young ruler and warns His own disciples about their reactions to His grace.

As we have been moving through the Gospel of Matthew, learning more about Jesus and His life, we have noticed that He’s shaking things up, rejecting the status quo and making people question what they really believe.  The pattern continues this morning as He interacts with a young man who had money and status, who lived a good, moral, life but was still searching, wondering if there was more. Jesus will dialogue with the man about his questions and then turn a pose a few of His own to the disciples – there’s a message here for those searching for spiritual truth, and for those who have already found it. 

We’ve got a lot of things to cover, so let’s jump right in.

Matthew 19:16 Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

17 So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

The Bible contains four biographies of Jesus; we call them gospels.  Three of them tell us about this event.  By putting them together we learn that this man was young, between the ages of 24-40, and he had some sort of status, he’s referred to as a ruler, some kind of leader.  And, we’ll find out in a moment that he was financially well off.  In other words, this guy has a lot going for him, a lot of privilege and opportunity.  Throughout history the church has referred to him as the rich, young, ruler.

He comes to Jesus with a question.  This is not unusual.  Jesus is a public figure at this point, people know who He is, and as you read the story of His life you find lots of people asking Him questions; this man wants to know how to find eternal life.

Jesus refers Him back to everything God has already said.  There’s nothing new: keep the commandments. But, the man wants to clarify:

18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”

Jesus said, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

The Ten Commandments are divided into two groups – the first four deal with how we relate to God, the last six – which Jesus quotes here – deal with how we relate to other people.  And if you’re looking for the perfect ten remember, you will find them in twenty – Exodus 20.  So Jesus tells the man, well, how are you doing with the Ten Commandments?

20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”

Many people could respond this way – most of you could respond this way, IF all we’re talking about is external, surface-level compliance.  If all we’re talking about is being good people, then it’s possible to say, “Yeah, I’ve done all of that.”  Of course, there are two problems here.  First, God’s requirements go much deeper than just what you’ve done.  He goes down to the motives of your heart, and what you’ve thought and desired.

But second, notice what an interesting question this man, of all men, asks.  He is in what many would consider the prime of life – he’s young, healthy, he’s a man, he’s in the dominant demographic of the culture, he has power, and a clean reputation, his life isn’t a mess.  He’s the guy you want to be friends with.  He’s the guy you want to marry, or you want your daughter to marry.  He has life together and things are looking good.

But notice his question: What do I still lack?

For all he has, there is still this sense that something is missing, for all his accomplishments and good deeds, there’s still this nagging question: is it enough?

Friends, don’t miss this: here is a man who had money, but not assurance; a man who had status, but not assurance; a man who had morality, but not assurance. 

This man’s question tells us the things we are most likely to spend our lives chasing, or to reassure ourselves with, don’t work.  Don’t spend your life chasing money or promotions or recognition.  They don’t work – they don’t ultimately satisfy.

Countless people can attest to what the young man is feeling.  They reach the pinnacle of their career, or their sport, and find themselves asking – is there anything else?  I have the position, I got the promotion, got the raise, I won the championship or the title, what do I still lack?  Why doesn’t this seem to satisfy me?  Why isn’t this enough?  And the answer is: because there is more to life than just accomplishments, positions, and luxury, much more.

But what?  Well, notice the young man is a very ‘good’ man.  A moral man.  He’s probably given to charity and volunteer projects.  He’s been faithful and regular in attending religious services.  He’s trying to live a good life.  But it’s not enough.  Something is still missing.

21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect [or, complete (NASB)], go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

In other words, dump everything else, and come, follow Jesus.  You’ll have a reward in Heaven, purpose on earth, and find the eternal life you’re looking for. 

It’s a pretty simple offer – not easy, but simple.  And it’s full of promise.  Here is exactly what you are looking for.  But do you really want it?

22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

This is so disappointing, isn’t it?  It’s so clear what the guy should do.  You can see the happy ending; it’s right over there.  But the guy turns and walks away still plagued by his original question.  Nothing has been solved, though something important has been exposed.

Friends, this is you and me.  What just happened with the rich young ruler happens with each of us.  We have questions – about life, about meaning, about God’s will, about our daily lives, about what we should and shouldn’t do.  And God brings us answers – He never leaves anyone in the dark that is honestly seeking. But when the answer comes so many of us walk away because what God says is hard and we’re not sure we really want to do it.

Don’t look at this man like a stranger; look at him like you’re looking in the mirror.  You might not be a man, you might not be young, you might not be rich, or a ruler, but this is you, and this is me! 

Jesus tells us plainly what to do, and we walk away sorrowful, because there is a part of us that wants to know and wants to change, a part of us that wants to worship and obey, but there’s another part that wants to be comfortable and that part is very, very, strong.

The Christian life is not a package of blessings, a collection of spiritual accessories, to be added to an already comfortable life, it must be the basis of all of life.  Jesus is not some garnish or sauce you add to make things look nice or taste better, He is plate that everything else is served on.

This man walked away because he had his own plate – his life was built on something other than Jesus and he wasn’t ready to change.

So I wonder: what comes between you and God?  What holds you back from following Him?  What are your idols?  What are the secret sins that you silently cling to?  Who is the person, or what is the thing that you privately love more than Christ?  God is not holding anything back from you, but what are you holding back from Him?  What’s it going to take to convince you to give it up?  What more does God have to do to convince you to let go of it, and take hold of Him?

Friends, pay special attention to this — one thing we learn from this interaction is: you might desire salvation and not be saved.  The man felt something inside. He wanted to be saved.  He wanted an answer about eternal life.

But, he didn’t like the answer when it came, so he walked away, unchanged, unsaved.  Now, that might have changed later.  Perhaps the things Jesus said gnawed at him and there came a time when he did change, but for now, we see a man who desired salvation, but did not posses it. 

Friend, is that true of you?  Do you come to church just like this man came to Jesus, feeling something, wanting something? 

That is good!  But do not mistake the feeling, the desire, for completion and transformation. 

I’ll ask a hard question: have you come this morning to hear from Jesus or to follow Jesus?

Well, Jesus stands there, watches the man walk away, and then turns, and I am sure of the fact that He’s quiet and disappointed, frustrated and saddened by the whole situation, so He talks it over with the disciples.

23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, 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.”

25 When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”

26 But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

You have to understand that the Jews thought wealth was evidence of God’s blessing. In the Old Testament famous Jewish leaders like Abraham, Job, King David, Jehoshaphat, Josiah and Hezekiah were all known for being wealthy men who also deeply loved God.  In fact, in Deuteronomy 28, while God is establishing a relationship with the nation of Israel to be His special people, He tells them – if you love Me, worship Me, and follow My laws I will bless you with material prosperity.

In some ways it is still true today – in general, if you follow God’s commands for life, you will often do well, you might not be wealthy, but comfortable.  But not always – things happen.  People sin and it has an affect on you – a drunk driver smashes into you.  A thief breaks into your house or business or vehicle.  Or a system of oppression is built that holds you down or shuts you out on the basis of some demographic you fit.

So don’t judge a person’s godliness, or righteousness, by their net worth, or the car their drive, or the clothes they wear, the house they’re making payments on, or the jet they travel in.  And remember, Jesus had none of those things Himself.

Also remember, as Jesus points out, prosperity and economic security actually make it harder to follow God.  You see that in the history of the nation of Israel.  God promised to bless them and bring them into the Promised Land, a land they described as so prosperous it flowed with milk and honey – you would say, the streets were paved with gold.  But all that prosperity ruined them.

That’s what we see so often with lottery winners, isn’t it?  They win all this money and it wrecks their lives.  Well, the Jews inherited this land of blessing and promises from God and it ruined them – they became less devoted to Him and more interested in their stuff.

Here’s the core of the issue – when we don’t have stuff, we depend on God.  When we do have stuff – money in the bank, credit cards, a retirement pension, a nice car that works, we just cruise along in life and take care of whatever needs come up.  Plenty of people have gotten themselves in a mess because they didn’t trust God or wait on God to provide, they just reached for this little plastic miracle maker in their wallet and paid for something.

Jesus wants us to know: having money, having authority, having independence, can actually be toxic for your soul.

Let’s make a very pointed application of this. Recognize this is Jesus speaking, saying it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God and ask yourself: how do you react to the news that you or your spouse is getting a raise?

I don’t know that that frightens many people.  I think most people tend to rejoice and start planning how they’re going to spend it before they ever get their first check.

Yet 150 years ago, the famous British pastor JC Ryle wrote:

“Let us pray daily for rich men’s souls.  They are not to be envied.  They are to be deeply pitied. […] Their prosperity in this world is often their destruction in the world to come.” (Ryle, 242).

Friends, do we believe this?

Now, Jesus is not demanding that Christians take a vow of poverty.  The New Testament introduces us into many people who had money and used it for God.  They used it to fund ministry.  They opened their homes to host churches.  They hosted traveling missionaries.  And throughout history the same has been true.  God uses men and women to be stewards, managers of more resources than they personally need, and He uses them to distribute those resources according to His direction.

But do not think that is easy.  You do not want to be a rich Christian unless that is what God has for you.  And you certainly don’t want to make the mistake of judging your own holiness and righteousness, or that of others, by looking at their physical prosperity. 

In fact, as Peter is about to point out – he and the other disciples have left behind their houses, families, and stuff, they’ve put their careers on hold to follow Jesus.  In other words, they’ve done what He told the rich young ruler to do.  So what does Jesus have in store for them?  And this is where we pivot our attention from non-Christians, to believers.

27 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?”

28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Now, here’s what you have to know about this – you have to remember that just a few days earlier Peter and the other disciples were arguing about which of them was going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  These men who have spent more time with Jesus than anyone else, who have heard more of His teaching and seen more of His miracles, are still a little slow at processing all they’ve been through.  They’re still caught up in the question- what are we going to get out of it?

Jesus tells them – you will have a special position; I do have something for you.  BUT, I’ve also got special things for a lot of other people.  In fact, you might be shocked and surprised by some of the people you meet in Heaven and by who you see where and doing what.  Peter, you and the guys here are not the only special people I love.

We just finished last Sunday with Jesus rebuking the disciples because they wouldn’t let people bring their children to Jesus for a blessing.  The disciples didn’t value these people or their kids, but Jesus did.  Jesus received women of questionable character, forgave them, and gave them a fresh start.  Jesus touched and healed lepers who everyone else passed by.  Jesus received the thief on the cross and told stories of how His kingdom was like a man who threw a massive banquet and sent his servants out to compel people to come in.  Jesus was not exclusive.  He was radically inclusive and here we find Him preparing His disciples for the shock they will one day receive when they, the first, are last, and people they thought were last, turn out to be first.

Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

These men were what we would call day laborers.  They make very little money, and basically struggle to survive.  They’re not loafing around, they’re waiting to be hired and so they’re out there at six in the morning when the landowner comes and hires them – he specifies the work and the rate and they all agree.  History tells us a denarius a day was the average wage for a day laborer and foot soldier.  So this is a fair agreement.

3 And he went out about the third hour [9 AM] and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth [noon] and the ninth hour [3PM], and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour [this is 5PM] he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’

8 “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’

Paying at the end of the day was normal – these men lived day to day, paycheck to paycheck.

9 And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius. 11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”

What is important to note here is that no one was short-changed.  Those who worked all day received the payment they agreed to, the payment they would have received from anyone else – the fair, going rate for labor.  But those hired throughout the day received a shocking gift of grace, and when they did, instead of being happy for them, the men who worked all day were bothered.

So, what’s the point here?  What is Jesus trying to say by telling this story?

Well, remember He just told the disciples, yes, they will receive a blessing for their role in His life and ministry – they’re like the workers who were hired first.  But, Jesus is also calling other people into His kingdom – and they’re going to receive blessings too. 

So, Peter, and the rest, how will you respond to these latecomers, to the people who weren’t there from the beginning?

Will you complain, “Well, if that’s what they get, then I must deserve more myself?”

Or will you cheer for them and rejoice with those who are rejoicing? How will you respond when others are blessed are by God, when they’re shown more grace than you?

And now here’s where we begin to see the thread that weaves through all of this and links together everything we’ve seen this morning: both the rich young ruler, and the servants who were hired first were thinking about themselves – what they could get and what they could keep.

So Jesus speaks a word of warning to both – to those outside the church like the young man who had everything and wasn’t satisfied, and to those inside the church who think they deserve more because they’ve been around longer or served more.  Each one is guilty of thinking about themselves first and missing the heart of God.

The rich young ruler is told to give up all that is holding him down and come to Jesus. The disciples are asked, will you be irritated with Jesus because He is just as good to others as He is to you?  Friends, and fellow Christians, there is always a danger of thinking too much about ourselves and not enough about God.  Do you realize how easy it is for our hearts to slip and fall?  There is a warning here for us all.

But let me end with some good news. 

This isn’t just about us; it’s about God.  He was calling the young man to give up everything and come to Him.  He, as the landowner in the parable, went out, found the laborers, and brought them into His work.  And then, He went out and called in even more.  People only went wrong when they missed God in the middle of all that was happening.

I hope you will walk out of here knowing that you don’t have to worry about ‘all the things.’  Just focus on the one big thing – focus on God.  Love Him and love others, and everything else will fall into place.  Simplify your life and your decision-making by just asking this one question: does what I’m doing, or what I’m considering, does what I’m saying, does the stuff I have, draw me nearer to God and others, or pull me away?

The answer to that question may call you to repent – that is to confess your wrong to God, ask for forgiveness through Christ, and by His grace turn your life around.  It might require radical change like the call on the ruler, or simply a change of heart like laborers hired first.  But if that change is necessary, deal with it today, seek God and settle the issue. 

It doesn’t matter how much of your life has gone by – you may feel like it’s 5PM, close to quitting time, but the good news is: Jesus is still hiring.  He’s still bringing people in and giving them the same reward at the end of the day.  There’s no need to be sullen or depressed.  It’s never too late with Jesus.  So, are you in a right relationship with Him today?  Do you have eternal life?  Are you working in His fields – I hope and pray those are the questions that will agitate and provoke you.  Don’t walk away sad like the rich young man, walk out of here rejoicing like the worker who was hired an hour before quitting time.

Let’s pray.

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