I love being in the gospel of Matthew again. And the best way to read it is to pray that it strikes you as if reading it for the very first time, without any preconceived ideas, theology, or spin. Of course that is not fully possible, but we can nonetheless ask that God would help us to be impacted mightily by His Spirit as we reread the book.
The trouble is we have heard a zillion sermons on it, read plenty of books on it, and heard plenty of opinions on it, and the hard edge of what it is really trying to say can get lost. But this gospel – and the other three – are really such radical, hard-hitting and revolutionary books.
We do need to seek for a fresh and powerful reading of the gospels. Each chapter is full of amazing teaching and activity. Consider Matthew 19. In verse 16-30 we have the story of the rich man and the Kingdom of God. What an incredible story it is.
And how it differs from the gospel message we mainly hear today in most churches. If we could just read a passage like this without our rose-coloured glasses on, and allow it to cut to the quick; if we could just let the words of Jesus strike us as they would have his first listeners.
The story is familiar – too familiar, unfortunately, so it has lost its punch, its vigour, and its life-changing radicalism. The pericope goes like this:
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?” Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
Wow, that is a knockout story. So many things stand out – indeed, lunge out at you. Jesus was certainly not making things easy for the rich man. Indeed, he seemed to be going out of his way to make things difficult for him. No easy believism here. No cheap grace. Just the hard road of discipleship.
And he zeroed in on the man’s real idol. He did not say “ask me into your heart” or “I love you so much” or “I accept you just the way you are”. He almost seemed to deliberately turn the man away. He found what was really holding him back, and he nailed him on that.
And the rich man just could not go on: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Matt. 19:22). Plenty of pastors and evangelists today would chew Jesus out for this. “Come on man! You turned him away! You should have showed him more grace. You should not have focused on his sin. You should have just shown him love and tolerance. A perfect opportunity wasted by being hard-headed and too narrow. Lighten up Jesus. You won’t win anyone with that sort of an approach!”
They would instead say that Jesus came to make you even more rich. He wants you to enjoy your wealth. He likes it when you are living the good life. The very core of the prosperity gospel is the very antithesis of what Jesus demanded here.
Sadly, too many people think they can out-Jesus Jesus. They think they can do better than Jesus. They think they can properly reach the lost, and bring in the masses. But Jesus seemed to go out of his way to repel people, to deter people. And there are plenty of other radical confrontations like this where Jesus made some hardcore demands for any would-be follower of his.
Yet today we will have none of it. We want to make things easy for the sinner. We want them to slide into heaven on a Teflon-coated road without any obstacles. We want everyone in, no questions asked. We hold the door wide open and make no demands. There are no bouncers at the door, and the gate is wide.
Strange, but Jesus said things would be exactly the opposite. Consider Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Let’s get real here. Jesus made the conditions for becoming his disciples quite tough. There was no cheap gospel altar calls where anyone could gain entrance to the Kingdom through some emotional appeal. Following Jesus was costly – it meant abandoning everything and making Christ the sole priority.
Anything less was just not good enough. As Leonard Ravenhill put it, “God didn’t come to be a shareholder, forget it! God doesn’t want to share your life, He wants to own it! He doesn’t want partnership, He wants ownership of every part of my being!”
Walter Chantry’s important 1970 volume, Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? is based entirely on the story of the rich young ruler. Commenting on Matt. 19:22 he says this: “Sometimes the honest thing to do is to send inquirers home grieved and counting the cost. The conditions of eternal life are not simply to come forward, confess sin and ask forgiveness. Unless a sinner turns from his sin and bows to Jesus the Lord, he cannot have eternal life.”
Exactly. It really is time to stop playing games here. It’s time to stop all our trivial pursuits. It’s time to let go of our petty ambitions. It’s time to take Christ seriously. It’s time to accept the radical demands of discipleship. It’s time to stop trying to be the boss, and let Christ run the show from now on.
And that is certainly the case with the way we proclaim the gospel. Making things easy for sinners helps no one – it just sends more people to a lost eternity. We need to start rereading the gospels as if for the very first time, and let the hard-hitting and revolutionary words of Jesus have their proper impact.
Otherwise we are just wasting our time.