From time to time we hear of scientific breakthroughs that are poised to increase our life expectancy. A large area of human endeavour is all about extending the length of life. However, for all the excitement, these are generally only about incremental changes. By contrast, in the Bible God offers a way to an eternal life. Luke 18 looks at what the cost is, and we are left to decide for ourselves whether it is worth it.
1. Value of Life
Reserchers at the University of Texas, Dallas, have reported with some excitement findings that they have been able to treat mice so that they can live longer than normal. After causing an increased production of the protein Klotho, the mice were living on average about 20% longer. The excitement is that there is considered to be a similar process in humans, and that it may lead to treatments that can see people living significantly longer than they do now.
The scientific research community is going to lot of trouble to find ways of increasing life expectancy. This is fuelled by that desire in humans to just be able to live that much longer. It raises the question that if they were to develop a medication to increase lifespan, what would it be worth? How much would people be willing to pay to live another 20 years? Would you work that much more to earn those extra years of life?
We know from the health-care expenditure that people do very much value maintaining the length and quality of life that our society has grown to expect. We can go to a lot of effort to try to avoid death. If the time came, what would you do: how far would you go to save your life? If you could sell your house and car for essential treatment, would you do it?
However, that is for an increase in life for a number of years, and is just deferring the inevitable death. What about the possibility for an eternal life? What would that be worth? What would we be prepared to go through to get that?
2. The Rich Man
In Luke 18, there is an incident where a wealthy man asked the price for getting eternal life. He knew that Jesus was teaching that there was an eternal life that could be had, and he wanted to know just what things he needed to do in order to obtain this reward.
Luke 18:18: A certain ruler asked him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 19. Jesus asked him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one - God. WEB
The initial response to the question is fairly straightforward. Jesus speaks about tangible things that the man could do.
Luke 18:20: You know the commandments: `Don't commit adultery,' `Don't murder,' `Don't steal,' `Don't give false testimony,' `Honor your father and your mother.'" 21. He said, "I have observed all these things from my youth up." WEB
Jesus first laid down the basic principle of obedience. To a Jewish person of the era, it was something that was obvious from their law, but Jesus emphasised that it wasn't something to be forgotten as a basic principle. Our whole hope of eternal life is based in promises made by God many years ago, and those promises were themselves related to obedience to God. In Galatians 3:16, the apostle Paul connects the promised Jesus to the promised seed, or descendent, of Abraham. The direct promise of this seed is recorded in Gen 22:18, and ties it to Abraham's demonstration of obedience,
Genesis 22:18: In your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice." WEB
Obedience is directly connected to eternal life as a theme through both old and new testament record. In Jesus' teaching, disobedience is directly linked to the loss of eternal life,
John 3:35: The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand. 36. One who believes in the Son has eternal life, but one who disobeys the Son won't see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." WEB
This aspect of obedience is quite clear and, in some ways, the easy part.
In responding to the question of the ruler in Luke 18, Jesus seemed to take exception to the form of address of “good teacher”. He asked in return, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one - God.”.
It is a true enough statement by Jesus that no person is truly the Good Teacher - not even Jesus himself, and that was something that could be filled by God alone. The context of this statement is odd though, because the ruler's statement doesn't seem so strikingly wrong to warrant reprimand. It wasn't uncommon for someone to be called “good”. Jesus himself spoke of “good men” as recorded earlier in Luke when he said,
Luke 6:45: The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings out that which is good, and the evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings out that which is evil, for out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks. 46. "Why do you call me, `Lord, Lord,' and don't do the things which I say? WEB
Jesus also gave himself the title of the “Good Shepherd” in John 10. Even though in that phrase the word recorded in the Greek manuscripts is different for “good”, we are left to think why Jesus took exception to being called the “Good Teacher” by the wealthy ruler.
Clearly Jesus wanted to reduce his level of perceived authority, and demonstrate that he wasn't at the level of God, and instead was the servant. Perhaps it makes more sense if taking the ruler to be a man with pride in a high station of life. In that case it is more compatible with pride to ask a great teacher for advice, than to ask just anyone. There is a a shame in having to ask some lesser person, but asking a “good teacher” could be considered wise.
Jesus, in emphasising how he himself was not the “good teacher”, was showing the ruler that he too was just a man before God and that his status as a wealthy ruler wasn't making him any more important or closer to the good things. He was raising an issue of humility, that would form a critical part of the answer to eternal life.
3. Humility for Life
In emphasising the distinction between God and humans, Jesus in Luke 18 was setting out a principle of God. This principle is that life, and eternal life in particular, is a gift from God, and not something that is earnt as a right. A required response from this is a level of humility when dealing with God.
The rich man's question in Luke 18 bears resemblence to an incident that occurred many years previously, at the time of Elisha. In that case a ruler in Syria called Naaman was suffering from the crippling disease of leprosy and eventually went seeking Elisha for a cure.
2 Kings 5:1: Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honorable, because by him Yahweh had given victory to Syria: he was also a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. WEB
2 Kings 5:9: So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariots, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. 10. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall come again to you, and you shall be clean. 11. But Naaman was angry, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the place, and recover the leper. 12. Aren't Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. WEB
Here Naaman was suffering from his pride. He was visualising the great prophet coming personally and doing wonderous things for him. However, instead he was only met by the servant. Just like the rich ruler he didn't have the special meeting with the “good teacher” and it was as if his position wasn't of such importance. He was a great ruler from Syria, but yet the cure was something that just involved something even the poor peasants of Israel could do. It would be like a movie star being taken to hospital and then getting the same treatment that a factory worker would get.
In the case of Naaman, it was his servants that spoke reason to him. As servants themselves, they didn't have the pride to blind the obvious. Instead they encouraged Naaman to follow the directions.
2 Kings 5:13: His servants came near, and spoke to him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid you do some great thing, wouldn't you have done it? how much rather then, when he says to you, Wash, and be clean? 14. Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh came again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. WEB
Not only was he cured, but he could only give glory to God, and not in his own position of power.
Pride and Humility in Prayer
The context in Luke 18 also directs us to the issue of pride. Earlier in the chapter, a parable of Jesus regarding those with pride was recorded. It demonstrated that it was damaging to have pride in one's own righteousness and so exalt self.
Luke 18:10: "Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. 11. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: `God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.' 13. But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn't even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' 14. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." WEB
We can easily cast this Pharisee into the mould of an unreasonable man who is just arrogant and short-sighted. However, that very reading of the passage would put us into the same category. We might then be saying in our hearts,
“God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, proud, self-righteous, viewing others with comtempt, or even like this Pharisee.”
Instead, we need to understand the Pharisee as being one of us, and only then can we see that at times we are in the same position. We will have a quiet confidence that we are in some way better than many other people in the world, and take pride in that knowledge. The role of this parable is that this pride is something that gets in the way of service to God, and so it is something that gets in the way of inheriting eternal life.
As a Child
In terms of the ruler asking about eternal life, a passage with even closer context is the one immediately before it, regarding children. Not only did Luke record these incidents in sequence, but the two other parallel records also have a selection of exactly the same sequence. (Matt 19:16, Mark 10:17) That indicates that we should at least consider them together.
Luke 18:15: They were also bringing their babies to him, that he might touch them. But when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16. Jesus summoned them, saying, "Allow the little children to come to me, and don't hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17. Most assuredly, I tell you, whoever doesn't receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it." WEB
The natural question from this incident is just what aspects in the nature of children are there that believers need to have. It's not because they are short, it's not because they are cute, and it's not because they have less knowledge and wisdom. Jesus himself is our example, so we need to look at in just what ways Jesus was like a little child.
Jesus was a child to his heavenly father. He had a relationship of trust in his father. As he knew the time of his death was coming up, Jesus expressed this trust,
Luke 22:42: saying, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." WEB
Being the child here was about having faithfulness in God and placing trust and reliance in Him, and consequently obeying him. This was a relationship that spanned his whole life, where he was comfortable to let God be his father, do what he said, and trust that he would provide what was good.
John 5:30: I can of myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is righteous; because I don't seek my own will, but the will of my Father who sent me. WEB
Young children will trust their parents to provide for them and give them direction. Jesus was showing that the people who enter the kingdom of God will have this child-father relationship with God.
God requires an obedience, but not just an obedience out of fear or seeking opportunity, but out of a trust that he is our capable and just father.
4. Sell all that You Have
The initial response of Jesus to the ruler's question about eternal life seemed quite simple and easy for the ruler to take. He could confidently say that he had kept the mentioned commands right from back in his youth. It seems that this is the type of answer that he was wanting to hear. Thy were tangible things that he could do and see that he had achieved them.
However, rather than leaving it there, Jesus then went on to say that there was just one little thing more that he should do.
Luke 18:22: When Jesus heard these things, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me." 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was very rich. WEB
Now that was a serious disappointment to the ruler. He suddenly found that there was something in his life that conflicted with his aspirations for eternal life. He still lacked one thing, and in order to get that thing he had to give other things away. But they weren't easy things for him to give away.
It is at this point that most people reading this will suddenly start thinking of someone wealthier than themselves, and think, “lucky I'm not rich, and not like that wealthy man!” People like to be wealthy, so we very easily try to somehow sweep this passage under the carpet. This passage comes as a great challenge, because it tempts up to find excuses not to obey the words of Jesus.
One Thing Lacking
For us, it is worth thinking about just what that “one thing” was that the ruler lacked. It wasn't something tangible, because it was the tangible things that he was to give away.
To understand this, we need only look at the context. The preceding passages about the pharisee in prayer, and the children indicate that this is not aimed so much at the generosity aspect, but rather in where he was putting trust. One characteristic about children is that they are financially poor. Even childen from rich families don't generally have a supply of wealth they can draw on. Instead they rely on their parents for their continued support.
The issue here is similar. This rich man lacked something, and it seems that he lacked a humility and a dependence on God. By giving away all his wealth, he would be forced to build that relationship of trust, and as a result would see the dependability of God.
Those that are wealthy and obtain security though means other than God, never get to experience the reliable giving hand of God. In the wilderness, the Israelites were taught to rely on the hand of God day to day in the provision of the Manna. With a wealthy storehouse, one doesn't get the opportunity to see the trust tested.
In the following section, Jesus went on to explain further about the danger of physical wealth. It reveals that it isn't an easy message for people to accept,
Luke 18:24: Jesus, seeing that he became very sad, said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! 25. For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God." 26. Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?" 27. But he said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." WEB
The people wondered how with such conditions anyone could be saved. That leads to the crux of the matter. It shows clearly that when we ask what we can do to obtain eternal life, we reach a paradox. Normally, if we want to do something difficult, we need to get together a lot of resources so that we use them. In this case the man came to Jesus, feeling he had all these resources, and Jesus' response was that the thing he needed to “do” was first throw away those resources.
The concept is against our whole nature that is built by society. As a result, we all the more have to resort to the grace of God that we can be saved despite our wealth. If left in this position through our weakness, we need to call on God with the attitude of the tax collector, “Be merciful to me, the sinner and wealthy man”.
Looking to the Future
The incident of the wealthy man in Luke 18 is one that feels negative for those involved. People, when reading of it may have some sense of guilt, or at least should have some sense of consciousness in where they are placing their trust. However, it also had a very positive message. Jesus also pointed out that this wasn't something designed to make life hard for us, but rather a way to something better,
Luke 18:28: Peter said, "Look, we have left everything, and followed you." 29. He said to them, "Most assuredly I tell you, there is no one who has left house, or wife, or brothers, or parents, or children, for the Kingdom of God's sake, 30. who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the world to come, eternal life." WEB
So the point of this is that we need to be future-focussed, and looking to the longer term promises of God. We have before us promises of great things, and need to be always mindful of them so that the toys and rusting treasures of today really aren't that much anyhow.
Jesus himself too, has led with an example that he was willing to place his trust in God, as a child putting trust in his heavenly father. We can see this trust in his words to the apostles,
Luke 18:31: He took the twelve aside, and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all the things that are written through the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be completed. 32. For he will be delivered up to the Gentiles, will be mocked, treated shamefully, and spit on. 33. They will scourge and kill him. On the third day, he will rise again." WEB
Jesus wasn't concerned about adding 20%to his lifespan, but he did spend his whole life and gave everything physical up so that he could bring eternal life to not just himself, but the world. Not only that, but it was something he willingly had pleasure in for the sake of the future glories, and his trust in the love of God.