Most of us are familiar with the story of Aladdin in Arabian Nights. Aladdin, the young protagonist in the folk tale, discovers an oil lamp in a cave with magical powers. Upon rubbing the lamp, a genie appears who is compelled to grant the wishes of the person responsible for summoning him out of the magical lamp. As the story unfolds, Aladdin receives a beautiful wife, a magnificent palace and a wonderful life. Although many challenges present themselves over the course of the story, everything works out in the end, for such is the life of anyone who has a genie at his or her disposal!
Some people, Christians included, think that God is a genie. The origin of this thinking is as ancient as Christianity itself. The book of Acts describes a Samaritan named Simon the Magician, who was one of the earliest converts to Christianity. After recognizing the spiritual authority the Apostles Peter and John wielded in the presence of the people, Simon desperately pleaded with Peter to “Give me this power also” (Acts 8:19), so that he could use it as he wished. Since this time, a generation has not passed that Christians have not attempted to manipulate God for their own reasons. Of course, Simon would no doubt protest that he had all the best intentions, but we know the truth. We want unbridled control and no one to hold us accountable for how we use it.
We want life to be easy.
Perhaps the famous story of the “rich young ruler” in the Gospels conveys the same sense of how this young man sought an easy life of discipleship. The story appears in each of the so-called Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-27 and Luke 18:18-28. Matthew mentions that the man is “young” (19:20), Luke says that he is a “ruler” (18:18) and all three Synoptics indicate that he was “rich.”
This story catches the reader, just as it certainly did the original hearers, completely off guard. In biblical times, Jews believed wealth signaled favor from God. As such, the man’s great wealth—not to mention his youth, uprightness and kingship—indicated to most that God had especially blessed him. Jesus, however, possessed the uncanny ability to see through material things and into the spiritual and inward parts of individuals. He never judged people based on appearance but rather the heart.
Worldly wisdom reads this story and wants to make this man into a great spiritual leader or pastor who can use his wealth, reputation, influence and spiritual inquisitiveness to further the work of God, whereas Jesus casually dismisses him like a rind into the receptacle since he was unfit for God’s kingdom.
What does God favor and disfavor
This story naturally makes us ponder what God favors and disfavors. Many of us, for instance, assume that larger churches are more blessed by God than smaller ones, or that more well-known pastors and Christian leaders have a greater anointing than less-known ones. In truth, it may be better to assume that the size of a church means little to God. Nor does a leader’s fame or obscurity impress or distress God. What is more important in all of these circumstances is the obedience we demonstrate when God demands something from us. The “rich young ruler” made the fatal assumption that Jesus the Messiah would validate him based on his wealth, zeal or power. He wanted to serve God without giving what God wanted most: himself.
It was actually common in the ancient Jewish and Greek traditions for teachers to initially slight would-be students in order to test the student’s persistence and determination to learn. This was likely part of Jesus’s approach here; he tested the young man to see if he was really willing to count the cost of discipleship and decide on its worth. As it turns out, he was not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become a true disciple.
Jesus’ interaction with this young man makes us wonder how many would-be disciples have failed to follow Jesus because the Christian life proved too demanding. It does not really matter what the demand is that makes unfollowers unwilling to be disciples. For some, it’s money; for others it’s comfort, pride or any number of discipleship deterrents.
Whatever the case, this story poignantly describes how demanding it is to be a follower of Jesus. What begins as an innocuous feel-good tale of how a rich and powerful young man becomes “perfect” ends as a parable that warns would-be disciples of how drastically we underestimate the demands of the Christian life. God is not impressed with wealth, youth or power; nor is it the case that God wants us all to be poor, old and powerless. God is not a genie from whom we can demand things, nor is God overly concerned about what we have or don’t have—whether lots of money, no money, lots of power or no power at all. What pleases God is our willingness to obey what he commands and demands—whenever, whatever, however and wherever he so commands and demands it.
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