Threading the Eye of the Needle: The Imagined Rest of the Rich Young Ruler’s Story

(Luke 18) The Rich Man

18 Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “Only God is truly good. 20 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.”
21 The man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
22 When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.
24 When Jesus saw this, he said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God! 25 In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
26 Those who heard this said, “Then who in the world can be saved?”
27 He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.”
28 Peter said, “We’ve left our homes to follow you.”
29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, 30 will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.”

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation.

Was That the End or the Beginning of the Story?

I have often wondered what happened to this rich leader after his encounter with Jesus? Did he ever make it to heaven? We are not given his name, so let’s call him Jonathan. We do not have any Biblical evidence of how Jonathan’s life was altered by his initial conversation with Jesus. Was this the end of Jonathan’s story or was it only the beginning?

Personal adversity has had me thinking about Jonathan’s plight. After 17 years of achievement and advancement in corporate America, doing a job I truly loved and was highly compensated for doing, I was unexpectedly released due to a restructuring. At 51, I was unemployed for the first time in my life and I had no idea what to do about it. With time on my hands and in need of some hope and direction, I turned to deepen my faith. As a result of my adversity, I began to really meet this person called Jesus. Just like what I hope happened to the rest of Jonathan’s ancient story.

I would like to think that Jesus was not writing Jonathan off as a lost cause because of his love of money and materialism. Perhaps Jesus’ initial challenge to him in verse 22 …”Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me,” continued to work its way deep into Jonathan’s soul, as life’s caldron of adversity began to heat up for him.

When Having Everything is Still Not Enough

Jonathan, like many of us, had it all going for him. He was probably handsome, respected, educated, wealthy and by every worldly measure successful. But something was missing. He had heard of a carpenter who some claimed to be the promised Messiah and decided to check him out for himself. Afterall, why not see if he could buy a little favor with this up-and-coming leader? He was always interested in expanding his network of influential people and who knows, what if he is who people say he is? Jonathan was game to meet this Jesus person and try to win some face-time.

Jonathon was living the good life from his perspective but perhaps felt something was still missing. Jesus’ words stung to Jonathan’s core and made Jonathan very sad. How could this dirty tradesman turned prophet expect anyone with any common sense to give up everything he had worked his whole life for and give it to the poor, and then follow him? It must have seemed both ridiculous and crazy at the time to Jonathan. He liked his cash and stuff. The problem was, he probably liked his stuff so much that he had put his whole trust in his abilities and wealth. With a big sack of gold, who needs to ask God for anything, let alone rely on Him for everything. It’s ironic that even today we have something called a “trust fund” to provide for someone’s welfare. The initial longing for something more meaningful, but relatively safe and comfortable spiritually, was still causing Jonathan to sense a lacking in his life. Many of us who put our trust in personal achievement, worldly success and wealth, can relate to our 1st Century rich young ruler friend. We can have it all by the world’s standards and yet feel like it’s all meaningless and unsatisfying. The harder we try to build our own success elevator to heaven, the faster we will meet a humbling adversity.

In my imagination, Jonathan leaves his brief meeting with Jesus and returns to his palatial home. He is served a glass of wine and stares out over his vast estate. Who could give all this up? He was living a life most people dream of having…that was until a hurricane of adversity hit full-force and demolished his sense of control over his life.

Welcome to the University of Adversity

While this is purely hypothetical fiction on my part, I don’t think God was done with Jonathan. I like to believe God was determined to save Jonathan and redeem him for His own purposes. This would require severe discipline and like any loving father, God was going to use it to give Jonathan a chance to come around to His Son’s way. God’s most powerful teaching tool that would break through Jonathan’s pride, self-reliance and false security based on his wealth was ready to hit home. God would allow adversity to reshape Jonathan into a true kingdom worker.

Perhaps it came in the form of a false claim made against Jonathan by a rival landowner. The court found in favor of the rival and Jonathan’s estate was unexpectedly ordered to be cut in half. Next word of the judge’s ruling spread to Jonathan’s friends and co-workers. They believed the judge’s wisdom and turned away from Jonathan. Jonathan was fired from his leadership role for his false ethical lapse.

Jonathan would have been furious at the injustice and sudden devastating change in his social and financial status. Just when he thought the worst was over, a tax collector knocked on his door and demanded payment of past taxes. Jonathan was forced to give up his home to pay the taxes.

With time to kill and no one to turn to, a broken and dead broke Jonathan, sat under a fig tree and read some scrolls which were his sole remaining possessions. He read the book of Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and prayed many Psalms. Why would God punish him so? He was one of the good guys. Had he not been faithful all these years? Why would God treat someone like him, who was righteous, so poorly? What had he done to deserve this? Those are the same questions many of us demand God answer while we are enrolled in the master’s level classes in the University of Adversity. Maybe he found a bit of solace in Job 42:12, “The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.”

Marketplace ministry leader and author, Os Hillman wrote in his devotional TGIF: Today God Is First Volume 2, Jesus once said, “No servant can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:13). In the original language, the word translated “money” was an Aramaic word, Mammon. This does not refer merely to money as a medium of exchange but also to a demonic spirit designed to promote a mindset of ambition for riches, power and worldly gain. The word is capitalized in the original text because the people of Jesus’ day thought of Mammon as a false god. Jesus was saying that those who spend their lives seeking worldly gain are idolaters. No one can serve two masters. No one can worship both the true God and a false god.

We cannot experience the grace that God gives to His children because we are too busy striving for riches and enslaved to Mammon. The only way we can be free is to turn away from Mammon and allow the one true God to transform us into a different person.

Dr. Charles Stanley preaches that storms have a way of teaching us four life lessons:
1) God is in total control. Trust Him.
2) God loves you as His adopted child. Trust Him.
3) God knows and will provide all your needs according to His will. Trust Him.
4) God is with you through every trial you face. Trust Him.

Where Do You Place Your Trust?

When our own resources and abilities to cope are overwhelmed, we will finally in desperation and despair, cry out for God to save us. And if we believe, then He will. But not until we have learned His lessons and our character has been refined by enduring the fiery trial. It’s a class few people would ever willingly sign-up for, but the experience is eternally life altering.

In my fictional story of Jonathan, I like to think that after a time of struggle in the desert, perhaps tending a flock of camels or goats, a humbled and God-dependant Jonathan came across a somewhat familiar stranger one day sitting by a well. A dirty and tired Jonathan might start watering his flock when the stranger says, “Jonathan, aren’t you going to say hello to a good teacher?” Jonathan might exclaim that it is impossible for Jesus to be here. Jesus might reply, “It’s no more impossible for me to be here than for you to be here. What is impossible for people is possible with God.” And after a loving conversation, Jonathan decided to follow him.

Live From the Back of the Bill

Many of us invest much of our lives collecting dollar bills face up. We count the president’s faces and value the numbers on each bill. We stack them tall in our trust funds and retirement accounts and the more we collect, the more successful and secure we believe we are until we are not…

Once one is a graduate of the University of Adversity, we live more from the back of the bill, just above the ONE, where is printed in bold believable letters, “In God We Trust.”

I like to imagine Jesus not giving up on Jonathan and waiting for life to prepare him to follow. I know I thank God He did not give up waiting for me. He won’t give up on you either. Where are you placing your trust? Are you willing to pass through the impossible eye of a needle? He’s waiting for you.

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