I recently preached on this challenging passage. I have been wrestling with why Jesus calls us to this kind of self-denial. Does he really expect people to sell everything they have? Maybe. But the point seems to be what Jesus states elsewhere, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
It is the age of extreme – voicing your opinion and your rights, regardless.... One thing we are not militant about is denying self. We want self-respect (which is good), but we also want me-time, self-help, and pursuit of the life we have always wanted. The titles of best-selling Christian books appeal to what people want: Your Best Life Now, Become a Better You, It’s Your Time.
When you have a hard day at work, or just a stressful day, what is wrong with allowing yourself some ‘me-time’? Do you have to always deny yourself in these moments? There is nothing wrong with rest, God calls us to that, but we run into problems when it is an indulgence. Indulging is defined as to give oneself up to, abandon oneself to, to lose oneself. The Apostle Paul says ‘make no provision for the flesh.’ We are either a slave to our desires or a servant (slave) of Christ. We are all serving someone or something.
Jesus said, “I have come to give you life, life to the full,” (John 10:10). There is joy as we journey to heaven. CS Lewis put it well, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” Denying yourself is doing yourself a favor. It’s being committed to living the way you were created to live.
The concern of the rich young ruler is inheriting eternal life. He’s looking for what he can get after having the good life on earth. He feels he has earned it and has kept himself pure. And how rare it is to find someone young, powerful and wealthy who has not broken the commandments mentioned in the passage. But Jesus does not advise him how to simply add eternal life to the many things in his life; no, He wants him as a follower. Jesus offers the joy and blessing of wholehearted submission and a taste of the promise of the future. The young ruler has an appetite for something else.
Maybe it is worth selling everything – what freedom and what joy you will have. One of the saddest verses in all the Bible, relived a million times since, is, “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy” (Luke 18:23). Jesus responds, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24). But what is impossible with man is possible with God because Jesus denied self in the ultimate sacrifice. He said in Gethsemane as he anticipated death on the cross, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). He had a joy set before him that enabled him to endure the cross. How much more joy there is for us, to reach for our greater joy in Christ, rather than indulge in pleasures or seek ease on earth.