We aren’t going to talk about sports ethics today but it does raise a larger question about how Christians should feel toward the winners around us. I think there is a tendency on the part of Christians to adopt an attitude toward the winners that they have it all already and so a little adversity is good for them. They should face what the rest of us face. Should we have compassion for the winners in the world? When we read Mark 10:17-23, we get a clear indication of how Jesus felt toward the winners in his conversation with the rich young ruler. Let’s read Mark 10:17-23.
I. Let’s look first at this man’s misguided discipleship.
Who is this man who comes to see Jesus in Mark 10? Matthew identifies him as a young man and so we can picture someone who is of legal and responsible age but one who hasn’t experienced enough of life to have true wisdom. Luke identifies him as being a ruler and he was likely a member of the religious council of Israel. All three Gospel writers identify him as being very rich. We don’t know where he got his wealth but he may well have been some kind of merchant. So in the first century world, this man had it all from the perspective of the people around him.
He also was someone who wanted to achieve success in his spiritual life as well. Notice that Mark describes him as “running” up to Jesus. There is an eagerness that Mark captures for this man is eager to talk with Jesus. He falls on his knees in front of Jesus, which shows his great reverence for Jesus. He has a question that has been pressing on his mind for some time. He says: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In the Old Testament and Judaism only God is called good and this man calls Jesus “good.” Clearly Jesus had made a profound impression on the man. He wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. It is quite certain that it didn’t have the depth of meaning for eternal life that Jesus had. By this he probably meant some concept of life after death for God’s faithful children. He wanted peace of mind for the present and never-ending blessedness for the future.
Jesus first answer seems harsh to us: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God.” Jesus responds by directing his attention toward God, who alone is the source of all that is good. The man’s definition of good was defined by his own human achievement. He undoubtedly regarded himself as “good” in the sense that he had fulfilled all the requirements of the Law. So Jesus lays out what it means to be good using the second table of the Law. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” Jesus does not accept as good any other will than the will of God revealed in the Law. The young man answers that he has done this since he was a boy, that is, twelve years old. Twelve years old was the age when a young boy was expected to assume the obligations of the Law and this young man is supremely confident in his abilities to do exactly what God has laid out in the Law -- and has done so since he was twelve!
So here again we have a young man who has everything going for him. He is a winner on earth and now wants to know what he must do to be a winner in eternity. Yet the way that he asks his question betrays his thinking and his weakness. He wants to know what he must do and he frames it in a way that reflects his own pious achievements. And in his almost brash self-confidence, he is about to learn a humbling lesson.
I’ve told you before about a time when I was in college when I took a class in handball. At the end of the class there was a tournament for everyone in the class to play in. I played against a friend of mine who was a very good athlete, someone who had been the quarterback for the football team in high school. In this game, I was dominating him, winning something like 15-2 in a 21 point game. So here I am: the marginal athlete, beating the athlete! I was pleased and greatly overconfident and so I eased up on him. Well, you can imagine what happened; he came roaring back sensing my backing off and went on to defeat me and move on in the tournament. My overconfidence in my own abilities was my weakness and ultimately my undoing. This man’s overconfidence in having it all and in his ability to do good is his undoing.
II. Let’s look at Jesus’ answer to this young man in verses 21-22.
Jesus said, “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Now let’s be clear that Jesus here is not teaching that this man needs to take this one additional step in his works righteousness plan. Rather, Jesus was simply telling him that he must trust completely in him. The real key here is in Jesus’ call to the man to follow him. Jesus put his finger on the man’s idol which was his wealth, his status and everything else that made him a winner. This man must surrender completely, deny himself, take up his cross and follow Jesus.
Mark reports that at this the man went away sad because he had many possessions. What a change from the enthusiasm and eagerness when he first ran to Jesus. But this young man had to learn that keeping the individual commandments is no substitute for surrendering to the absolute claim of God seen in the call of the gospel. Let’s be clear that what Jesus asked of this man is not something that is asked of every person. However, a person following Jesus must be completely devoted to Jesus and no other idols. This man will receive eternal life when he gives up his idols and follows Jesus. We would like this man to come to his senses and to realize that he is following the wrong thing. We want to read that he got off his knees, left everything and followed Jesus. Instead he chose to remain a winner in the world but forfeit the blessings of eternal life.
Yet there is one aspect that we must not lose sight of here: Jesus’ love for this man. Jesus looked, or gazed, at this man and the proud answer he had just given and loved him. He saw that he had it all but also knew exactly what the man’s problem really was. And in spite of knowing that his heart was focused on the wrong things, Jesus loved him. He had compassion on him because he was clueless as to what it really meant to follow Jesus. This young man seemed to have it all in every way, but was missing what really mattered and for that reason, Jesus loved him. We must have compassion for the person who is missing the truth in spite of being a winner. However, notice that Jesus did not lower his standards for discipleship at all, but still loved him. Jesus didn’t run after him and make an exception for the winner, but he still loved him. Jesus used it as a teaching point for his disciples who followed him, but he still loved him. Jesus loved this man because the man was so close but yet missed the essence of Jesus.
III. Do we have compassion for the winners in our lives?
Who are the winners in today’s world? They are the wealthy, the successful, the powerful and many of the leaders in our world. Think of people in the business world who have all they need and more. Or think of the politicians who are firmly entrenched in their positions of power. They seem to have the world at their fingertips. And then there are the people who just seem to have it all in their normal day to day lives. They have 2.4 children, the nice house, and perfect jobs with little or no stress. They have money in the bank and are on track to pay for their children’s college. Their retirement plan is well funded and they will probably retire in their 50's.
It may be harder to show compassion to them because they seem to have it all and so they don’t need our compassion. When they have some kind of adversity in their lives, it’s very tempting to not feel sorry for them. When they get in an accident, it’s not a hardship for them to get another car. If they get sick, they have good insurance. If they have job frustrations, they have all the stuff that they have to help them cope. We might feel for them a bit but they seem to have all what they need to help them through whatever adversity they have. Their needs may not instill compassion in us for them; however, we must still have compassion on those who are in need even if they are winners.
And then there are those winners who know that they have everything and who also do everything they can to make your life miserable. They hold all the cards and they play them almost ruthlessly and so it’s incredibly difficult to have compassion for those people. In fact, when they face adversity, we feel a bit vindicated because we believe that they had it coming to them. They have it all and have used it all for their advantage and now they are getting some of the frustration or hardship in return.
But is that the right attitude to have toward the winners in life? Remember that Jesus saw that this young man had it all but was missing the key ingredient of following Jesus – and Jesus loved him. I believe that Jesus saw this fatal flaw in his life and he hurt for this man, even while he maintained the high standard for discipleship which was leaving all and following Jesus. What this means is that we can have compassion for the winners because they can so clearly be missing the essence of what they need. That greedy person who is taking money from the poor is clearly wrong, but we can have compassion on him because he is missing real joy in life. The person who is the ladder-climber at work who has no problem with stepping on whoever gets in his or her way can make you crazy and miserable, but we should have compassion because he or she is missing what is really important in life.
But the question remains then: how can we show compassion to these winners? If possible, we point out what they really need in their lives. Now clearly that can come with great risk for some winners have the ability to make your life miserable if you rock their boat. But if you have real compassion for them, you could tell them that you think they are missing something essential in their life.
And if someone is doing something that is morally or legally wrong, it is possible to have compassion on someone in a very hard way. If a family member is on the road to destruction by getting involved with drugs, out of compassion you have to be tough and prevent them from going down that road. Again, Jesus didn’t waver in his requirements and showed compassion to this man. It is possible to have compassion on someone and still have them go to jail so that they can get their life turned around. Again Robert Roberts writes, “I am not saying that there is never a time to be angry and hold a person accountable for his misdeeds. But often behind those misdeeds is also a crippled person, who needs not attacking, but help. And even if we decide, after due searching with the eyes of compassion, that strong opposition is called for, the strategy of the opposition will almost always be qualified by the compassion.”
God will have justice, but let’s remember Jesus’ love for this misguided young man. Jesus loved him even though he maintained the high standards of the kingdom. That may be what God is expecting of you as well as you deal with the winners you know.