Taken as a whole, the Bible is the most hope-filled and joy-rich book ever written. The story of how God redeems the world from the darkness it is wrapped in brings a foundation of hope that hold us up during life’s many disappointments.
But in honestly sharing about the redemption of a fallen, broken, reeling world, not every little story within the big story of the Bible ends on a happy note—there are some hard and very sad stories in its pages. Jepthath’s vow, the death of Lot’s wife, the murder of toddlers and babies both in Bethlehem and the Nile of Egypt—and the young man that some Bible versions call the “rich young ruler.”
The rich young ruler approached Jesus with a question. He had it all going for him (hence “rich,” “young,” and “ruler”). He asked Jesus what he must do in order to gain eternal life, and when Jesus told him to follow the commandments, he insisted that he always had.
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:21-22).
He knew the right answers, but still walked away from the Son of God, deciding his temporary riches were better than any heavenly treasure Jesus could offer.
It’s very sad—and scary, too. That story could be about us.
The Great Danger
We aren’t rulers, and we probably wouldn’t call ourselves rich. But as Sunday School graduates and self-declared students, we come prepared. We read. We study. We work hard to get the answers right.
The problem is, Jesus doesn’t give multiple-choice tests to determine His followers. There is no grading on a curve, or answering essay questions for extra credit.
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!…You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:18-26).
Jesus told a story about a man who traveled to another country, leaving responsibilities—“talents”—with several of his servants. When he returned, he summoned his servants to tell him how they had handled what they had been entrusted with.
Two of them, one given ten talents and the other five, had each doubled what they had been given, and were rewarded with greater responsibility and honor. But the third servant had hidden his one talent, making no effort to add to what he had been given. And because of that, he lost what little he had and was thrown out (see Matthew 25:14-30).
What if we believe all the right things but still come up short?
The First Warning
Jesus’ brother James wrote to the early church, warning those who say they follow Christ but don’t have the actions that prove it. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14).
This could not be any more important. Wondering about the saving nature of someone’s faith is no idle question, but James asks it. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, if our faith—our knowledge—doesn’t change us from the inside out, maybe we don’t have the faith we think we do.
What good is talk without action? Would any of us believe someone who claimed to be our friend but never initiated any contact with us? The actions just aren’t there. There is no proof.
Is there proof of our walk with Jesus?
We do all this learning and reading and self-betterment—to what end? What good is any of it on its own?
The Second Warning
“This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-2).
Paul is careful with his word choice here. Knowledge puffs up, like a puffer fish inflating himself in order to look bigger than he really is to other fish. It’s all an illusion. Love—on the other hand—builds, taking more time and a significantly greater work investment. But it lasts. “Love never ends…as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8).
Do you want your life and work to count for Christ? It’s not about winning a Bible trivia contest, and Heaven doesn’t hold a preaching competition or an evangelistic who-can-win-the-most-souls contest. In Jesus’ kingdom, we don’t find significance by making a name for ourselves or by trying to stand out from the rest.
“Strive to excel in building up the church,” Paul counsels (1 Corinthians 14:12). You wanna be good at something? Pick this, Paul says. What good is all our book learning if others aren’t served?
Knowledge says, “Look how much I know. Listen to how smart I am.” Love says, “How can I help you see God at work here? How can we seek Him together?”
Significance will never be found in respect for what we know. Just ask the Pharisees. True to form, an effective Christian life is found by leaving behind all that we would think brings the satisfaction we are looking for, and laying it all down in service to Christ and to others.
The End of the Story
“He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner,” the Jews grumbled (Luke 19:7). But before Jesus left Zacchaeus’ house that day, a former cheat of a tax collector had become not only honest but generous—visible proof of an inward change of heart.
It can happen. Only through amazing grace, and impossible-to-understand love, but it can happen. We are changed from the inside out, blessed to bless. Hope and joy and faith and love don’t come from our efforts or our abilities or our book smarts, but from the God who lavished grace on us and asks us to invite others to that same grace.
It’s not something we earn—no matter how highly we think of our intelligence or ability. In Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis reminds us: “You come of a race that cannot afford to be proud.”
We don’t know the ending of the rich young ruler’s story. We might fear he never found his way back, choosing to stake his eternity on things that don’t last. We might hope this was just a page in his story of redemption, that he eventually saw the light. We can’t know the end of his story until we reach the end of ours—which leaves us with a more pressing question:
Which way will it be for us?