A non-Christian acquaintance of mine named Rob once shared with me the story of an event which caused him to walk away from Christianity. Rob served on the finance committee of a Methodist church. One of the missionaries of that church had to come back to the United States before his prescribed time. The committee had to determine what to do with the remaining money which had been allotted to that mission. Rob suggested that they use it to support another missionary. Other members of the committee scoffed at the idea. They had other uses in mind for the money. Some of them were very rude to Rob. And Rob said to me, “Christians love to talk about ‘agape,’ but they don’t live it.” That event marked Rob’s separation from church. He told me “Power, not love, drives the church.”
That’s a strong critique of religion. And in some ways, it finds common ground with some of the things Jesus said about religion. You may not realize it, but Jesus was one of the most passionate critics of religion. In fact, John Ortberg, in his book Who is This Man? argues that Jesus is the one most responsible for introducing us to the idea of religious hypocrisy and for pointing out the problems with religion. Jesus was the person who most passionately critiqued religion because it focused on outer behavior that others could see and neglected what was hidden from view in the heart. Religion prioritized external behavior. Jesus prioritized internal transformation.
This is exactly what we find in one of the most famous stories about Jesus’ critique of religion: 17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 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.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22 ESV).
Note that Jesus “loved” this man (v. 21). Note that this man “knelt” before Jesus in a posture of respect (v. 17). Note that he has been devout since his “youth” (v. 20). In addition, note that Luke records that this man was a “ruler” (Lk. 18:18). It is possible that Luke means the man was the ruler or leader of a Jewish synagogue. If so, he was deeply invested in spiritual matters. Thus, this is a man with a genuine interest in faith. This is person whose faith is very important to him. We should not dismiss him as a person who is just your run-of-the mill hypocrite.
And yet Jesus sees something fundamentally wrong in this man’s religion. We can use two words to summarize Jesus’ critique of the man: “Shallow” and “Narrow.” This young ruler practices a shallow faith. It is shallow in the sense that it is focused on externals.
Notice his question: “Good Teacher, what must I do…?” Matthew records the question in this way: “Teacher, what good deed must I do…?” (Matt. 19:16). When this man thinks about his spiritual life, he thinks of it primarily as observable deeds; actions that can be seen. And ever since his “youth,” he claims that he has excelled in these in these good behaviors. He tells Jesus how well he has done not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, not defrauding, and honoring his father and mother.” These are behaviors required by the Ten Commandments.
But this man’s spirituality seems to go no deeper than doing these good deeds. His question to Jesus—“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”—is focused once again on observable deeds. He just wants to know if there is one more rite, one more ritual or one more rule that he can keep to ensure that he is right with God.
But Jesus points him past the goodness of deeds to the goodness of God. Jesus responds with, Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. Jesus does not want to talk about good deeds as much as he wants to talk about his good Father. Why? I think it’s because Jesus is trying to raise this man’s view of “good.” There is a standard of good which God alone possesses. It goes far beyond observable deeds. It is the good of being, not just the good of behavior. God is good through and through. Not just on the outside. But also on the inside.
Jesus is making a move similar to the one he makes in his Sermon on the Mount. In Matt. 5-7, Jesus discusses how some religious people are keeping the letter of the law in terms of murder, adultery, and not bearing false witness—the very commands Jesus raises with the young ruler. But while these religious people are keeping the letter of the law, Jesus says they are missing the spirit of the law. Thus Jesus ends that section in the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48 ESV). Jesus is saying, “It’s one thing to keep the letter of the law. It’s another to become like the Law-giver. It’s one thing to do good. It’s another to become good.” That’s what Jesus is saying to the young ruler.
Mark Twain once listened to a greedy, unscrupulous businessman drone on and on about his plans to travel to the Middle East and read the Ten Commandments from the top of Mount Sinai. “I have a better idea,” Twain is supposed to have said, “Why don’t you stay home in Boston and keep them?”[i]
It’s one thing to go and do something pious like read the Ten Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai. It’s another to go and keep the Ten Commandments. But Jesus is saying it’s still another thing to go and be good. Not just do good. Not just keep rules and rites and rituals. But to be good—good like God is good.
At an annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Atlanta, 300,000 doctors and researchers came together to discuss the importance of low-fat diets in keeping our hearts healthy.[ii] But during mealtimes, those doctor and researchers gorged on fat-filled fast food like bacon cheeseburgers and chili fries. One cardiologist was asked, “Aren’t you concerned that your bad eating habits will be a bad example?” He replied, “Not me. I took my name tag off.” That’s one difficulty with a religion that focuses only on behaving good. Behaviors can be started and stopped whenever you want. If you want people to notice, you put on your Christian nametag and you behave in some good ways that people can see. But then you can take that name tag off and do whatever you want in private.
Jesus is not satisfied with a spiritual life like that. He wants to focus on a goodness, a perfection, that influences who we are when no one’s watching. He’s not satisfied with behaving good. He’s asking for us to be good. And that’s one of the critiques Jesus makes of the young ruler. This man is practicing a faith that is shallow. It’s not moving deep enough into his heart.
This young ruler also practices a narrow faith. If shallow refers to the depth of his spiritual life, narrow refers to the width of his spiritual. One the one hand, the young ruler’s faith does seem to extend beyond just the church walls. In keeping the commandments about adultery, stealing, and honoring father and mother, he was showing that his faith was not just limited to what he did in a building during a worship service. It was a faith that extended into how he treated his parents, how he viewed women, and how he treated property that belonged to others.
Yet there was a limit to how many areas of his life his faith could influence. How do we know this? Because in v. 21 Jesus spotlights one area where this man’s faith has no influence—his “great possessions.” In telling the young ruler to go and sell all that he has and give it to the poor Jesus is not making poverty a requirement for all who wish to follow him. Neither is Jesus saying, “Now here’s one more good deed which, if you do, will win you big points in heaven.” No, Jesus is pointing out the area in the young ruler’s life which is most in need of being shaped by his faith but which has been isolated most from his faith. Jesus is pointing out that this man’s relationship with God has never extended into his great possessions. It’s not influenced what the man does with his wealth. And Jesus is trying to change that.
Some people assume that faith doesn’t really have anything to offer when it comes to areas like great possessions. Leo Tolestoy once confessed this:[iii] My break with faith occurred in me as it did and still does among people of our social and cultural type. As I see it, in most cases, it happens like this: People live as everyone lives, but they all live according to principles that not only have nothing to do with the teachings of faith, but for the most part, are contrary to them. The teachings of faith have no place in life and never come to play in the relations among people; they simply play no role in living life itself. The teachings of faith are left to some other realm, separated from life and independent of it. If one should encounter them, then it is only as some superficial phenomenon that has no connection with life. Tolestoy was saying that as far as he could see, faith has to do with one realm of your life—your relationship with God. It really has nothing to offer the rest of life. For this reason, he claims, he walked away from faith.
In a sadly similar way, the young ruler did not seem to believe that his faith had anything to offer when it came to his great possessions. He was fine letting his faith influence his relationship with his parents, his view toward women and his approach toward property that belonged to others. But he did not believe faith had any role to play when it came to his great possessions. And for this, Jesus critiques his faith. It was too narrow.
Ironically, this wrong view of faith is the very thing leading some away from the Christian faith. Some walk away from Christianity because they view it as shallow and narrow. Researcher David Kinnaman finds that many young people today have been presented with a version of Christianity which seems to be an inch deep and an inch wide. It’s shallow in that it’s not a faith meant to get into their hearts—its focus is on observable behaviors. It’s narrow in the sense that it’s not mean to influence or impact their lives outside the church walls. And more and more young people want nothing to do with that kind of faith.
But that’s not the kind of life Jesus offers. Jesus summons us to practice a deep and wide faith. Jesus is not merely interested in us behaving good. He’s interested in us becoming good. That’s why he points us to the only one who is good—God. Jesus doesn’t want us comparing our behaviors with others so we can feel good about how good we act. He wants us comparing ourselves to God who is good within and without and to strive for that kind of deep goodness.
So often, we tend to define goodness relative to other people. Two brothers led a miserable life. They were self-centered, money-grubbing, mean-spirited, intolerant scoundrels. Then one of them died. His brother paid a minister a lot of money to do the funeral on the condition that the minister must call his dead brother a saint. Ministers sometimes do a lot of gymnastics at funerals. So the minister did the eulogy: “I have to tell you the truth: this man who died was a liar, a bully, a cheat, and a thief. But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”[iv] If we define good as just better than another person, we can always find a person worse than we are and thus always feel like we’re as good as we need to be.
But Jesus labels only One as good—God. You’ve not become good until you are like God—because only God is good.
What most concerns Jesus is not just what you do. What most concerns Jesus is who you are. Because you can behave in ways that appear good without actually being good. Jesus wants not just conduct but character. To follow Jesus is to focus not just on the externals but on the internals. To go as deep as your heart until even it is transformed.
John Ortberg tells of talking to two people in a local coin-op laundry:[v] It was clear that neither of them had very much money. They were also both very enthusiastic members of different churches in the area. So I told them I was a pastor. That was a status enhancer in the Laundromat. It’s usually not a status enhancer, but it was there. They asked me, “Where do you work?” I told them. The immediate response was, “There are a lot of rich people who go to that church.” That was kind of a conversation stopper. They didn’t want me to feel bad, so one of them said, “I hear they do a lot of good things there, though.” It was the “though” that got me.
What were they saying? They were saying that those rich people in that church did some good things. But they weren’t necessarily good people. Jesus will not be satisfied until those are one and the same. He’s seeking a deep faith. A faith that changes who we are not just what we do.
Jesus is also seeking a wide faith. This young ruler had an area of his life isolated from his faith—his “great possessions.” And Jesus challenged him by saying essentially, “What God’s after is the kind of faith that will radically impact every area of your life. And this area of your great possessions is so untouched by your faith that the only solution is extreme—you’re going to have to sell those great possessions and give them to the poor. This area of your life is so out of alignment with God’s purposes and so cut off from your faith that only something drastic is going to fix it.” Jesus summoned the young ruler to a faith that touched everything—even his great possessions.
And Jesus calls us to the same. I have no doubt that for the vast majority of us, our faith in Christ goes beyond these church walls. It influences the way we interact with family, how we treat coworkers, and the decisions we make about what we read of listen to. But I also have no doubt that for the vast majority of us, there are areas of our life where our faith has not touched. There are aspects of our life that lie outside the reach of our faith. And Jesus is urging us to do whatever it takes, no matter the cost, to widen our faith into those areas.
I’d like to close with a video testimony of a Highland family who has been striving for a deeper and wider faith. They’ve grown dissatisfied with a faith that’s merely external and a faith that doesn’t impact their whole lives. As you listen to their story, I hope you’ll consider your own story. I hope you’ll ask yourselves these two questions: In what ways does my faith need to deepen? In what ways do
[i] Ortberg, John (2012-07-31). Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (p. 117). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ortberg, John (2012-07-31). Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (p. 117). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Leo Tolstoy in Confessions. Christianity Today, Vol. 32. no. 10.
[iv] Ortberg, John (2012-07-31). Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (p. 116). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
[v] Ortberg, John (2012-07-31). Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (pp. 123-124). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.