The Rich Young Ruler Revisited

Is something missing in the Body of Christ?


As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered him. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth (Mark 10:17–22).

Our minds sometimes play tricks on us, and sometimes we play tricks on our minds. Do you ever have that bothersome sense that you’ve forgotten something? Or do you ever feel that something is out of place or has gone missing? Recently, I was fishing with my son. I knew I had brought my sunglasses but could not find them anywhere. Suddenly, I realized I was already wearing them!

The vague sense that something’s not right leaves us ill at ease until we discover whatever has been misplaced, mislaid or misunderstood. Let’s call it the knowledge of the unknown: We realize something’s not right, but we just can’t tell what it is. This awareness is actually a gift. Without it we’d constantly run off without our wallets, leave irons plugged in or forget to turn off the oven. That nagging itch leads to discovery; “I knew I forgot something!” we exclaim.

This applies to spiritual realities, too. When we go off the beaten path, whether in our lives or ministries, God, in an effort to bring us back, often sends a subtle sense that something is missing.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler we find someone who knows he lacks something but doesn’t know what it is. His uneasiness moves him to seek the Lord. In doing so he sets an example for us.

Something Missing

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This initial question indicates the young man knows something is missing in his life. His body language is more than posturing, his grieving at the end of the account more than superficial. Though he approaches the Lord with flattery, he nonetheless appears truly concerned about his eternal state.

Insecurity dogs him. If nothing else, he senses a gap between the formal yet superficial religious requirements of his faith and what Jesus offers. He is aware that he has yet to acquire that which is of greatest value in this life—assurance of the next.

In a way, the rich young ruler outpaces many believers with his discernment. We too are full of sincere praise for Christ. We also want to walk in the life-giving power Jesus projected. But do we recognize the times we settle for the structure of our faith rather than its Spirit? Are we aware when our walk with the Lord is superficial? Do we unconsciously go through the motions of doing church? Is the Lord’s prophetic voice getting through to us, as it does to the rich young ruler?

When we reject or fail to recognize Jesus’ prophetic voice breaking through our routines and challenging us to reconsider our priorities, spiritual growth is elusive. Without such an intrusion, divine enabling is replaced with values that are closer to those of the rich young ruler.

There’s only one thing worse than rejecting our Lord’s voice: not hearing it anymore. Where do you go to hear what the Lord is saying to you about your life and ministry? Get to that place and ask, “Lord, what do you say to your servant? What do you say to our church?” He will reply. Any sense of vague unknowing will dissolve into a clear word from the Lord. Then we, like the rich young ruler, will have to decide how to respond.

He Has What He Does Not Need

“Teacher, I have kept these since I was a boy.” With this statement the young man may be seeking only reassurance from Jesus. His bubble will burst in a moment; like so many people, he hopes he already possesses what it takes to please God, as if the thing could be done in the flesh.

Pleasing God in the flesh is as impossible after conversion as it is before. But when leading our churches and institutions, do we recognize when we substitute our own instincts for the leading of the Spirit? From my experience, the substitution of political for spiritual power is so subtle that the exchange goes unnoticed until after the fact—if at all. Jesus’ voice is gently shut out from our hearts and board meetings. We are left on our own, by our own choosing. The result is a ministry, a church, an institution that operates not in the Lord’s design but in its own image.

We all project an image. My auto mechanic’s is reflected in tattoos on each wrist. One is the word “Self,” and the other is “Made.” If we cooperate with God, He will sanctify our hearts to move from the motto of being “self-made” to “Spirit-led.” (How many of us could tattoo “Spirit” and “led” on our arms—and then live up to it?)

A. B. Simpson wrote: “There is a great difference between our receiving power from the Holy Ghost and our receiving the Holy Ghost as our power.” The former is occasional, the latter a lifestyle. Receiving the Holy Spirit as our power requires consecration and the daily yielding of our will. The moment we yield to the Holy Spirit, we are guided by wisdom not our own.

This is what the rich young ruler is missing; he hopes to follow the Lord without yielding what is most important to him. His stumbling block is one we can relate to: money. Elevating financial anxieties above the lordship of Christ moves us toward being self-directed. We may never get around to asking the Lord what He wants our church to do if our first question is, what will our budget allow?

Are you satisfied that the way you make decisions puts Jesus’ voice above pragmatic solutions? Are you taking the time to be Spirit-led in every situation? Human invention is a poor substitute for divine intervention. Ask Abraham about Ishmael. Ask Joshua about the Gibeonites. Ask Saul if he should have waited for Samuel. Whatever pressures these men were under, their human designs were less than what God had in mind. When we make decisions without the Spirit, we shouldn’t be surprised to feel that something is missing.

He Loses What He Could Have Had

“He went away sad.” The rich young ruler parts company with Jesus. He could have had what he wanted, but he walks away. He chooses to continue living without God’s power in his life. He has the appearance—he always did—but not the true substance.

As we lead our churches and institutions, are we operating with the substance of God’s power or merely the appearance? We all have the appearance. Our churches are physical symbols of God’s presence in our communities. The titles of pastor, elder and deacon communicate religious presence. Denominational titles do the same. But what can we point to that demonstrates the substance of God’s power? Are you satisfied with the “God things” occurring in your church? Are they enough to push back the darkness in your community?

Mark’s story is not a parable; the young ruler was a real person. He may be dead and gone—but we’re not! We can still respond to Jesus’ prophetic voice, to be Spirit-led and operate in the substance of God’s power. Do you sense something missing in the Body of Christ (and perhaps your local expression of it) but don’t know what it is? Jesus put His finger on the young ruler’s problem, and He will do the same for us. What He reveals may be painful, but it will move us toward greater blessing on our lives and churches. All we need to do is imitate our rich young friend in bowing before our Lord to ask.

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