On Rich Young Rulers and Educational Idolatry
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“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him” (Mark 10:17, NIV). A promising start, to be sure—desperate haste and manifest submission. But not all that glitters is gold, and most whited sepulchres house untold abominations. So it is here.
The man who falls on his knees is a rich young ruler. He has come to ask of this great rabbi what must be done to inherit eternal life. A brief rehashing of some of the Ten Commandments follows, Jesus implicitly demonstrating the inextricable connection between grace and the sanctified life. Our impulsive protagonist affirms that he has kept all of these since boyhood. The majesty and wonder of Calvary glimmering in his eyes, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” How penetrating the gaze of him who keeps us as the apple of his eye! He sees to the heart and discerns the sin strangling the soul within. “‘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’” (10:21). The soul enticed by what is a shadow and imitation of life has but one remedy, him who is Life itself. But here emerges the damnable destroyer of every person trapped in eternal darkness: idolatry. A slave cannot serve two masters, and this man has found one more beloved than Christ. His face falls, his heart sinks, and his soul plunges into perdition. Let us not miss the profundity of this moment: face to face with Glory, this man went away dejected, rejected the hope of humanity, and embraced damnation. The gaping mouth of hell stood open; for love of money, he cast himself in.
For love of which idols will we do likewise?
Idolatry threatens unceasingly in Christian schools. The temptation to shirk our foremost responsibilities in service of lesser gods is overwhelming. That is, we may find ourselves in a similarly perilous position as the rich young ruler. We may have got most of it right in our own eyes and yet have little real submission at our core. We may fall on our knees grandly to begin, only to walk away dejectedly when we hear what Christ asks of us—and what we will have to give to follow him.
There are many activities in this life that are worth doing and not time enough to do them all. We must see that there is great danger here. If we are not careful, we may spend our whole lives doing what amounts to an eternal waste of time. The enemy of the best is never the worst but the good. With so much good to be done, we must take great care that we are doing what is in fact best. As Christian educators, the good surrounds us: academic excellence, diverse and formative extracurricular activities, outreach and service. Indeed, as an international educator, I have seen firsthand that though the specifics vary from place to place the temptation to seek the merely good is ubiquitous. So what is the best that we must seek in our ministry as Christian educators?
Just before Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, he gave his followers a simple commission: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). The principal verb is “make disciples”—the only verb given in the imperative mood. The other verbs, sometimes translated as imperatives, are in fact participles, giving the activities that accompany the main action. In other words, as Christ prepared to leave the nascent church below, he gave them one task: to make disciples.
It is so important to see that this is our mandate. These are our marching orders from the King of the universe and the Lord of our souls. We cannot evade our duty; we must be found faithful. We cannot claim to be too busy to do this, for God has said that this is what matters most to him. We cannot claim that we are not sufficiently gifted to make disciples, for Jesus promises to go with us, to empower our ministry: “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). And we cannot claim that our ministry has a “different focus” than disciple-making, because Christ asks this of every one of us. In other words, when it comes to Christ’s call on our lives, we can either make disciples or we can disobey. There is no via tertia. I find it hard to believe that we would hear that treasured accolade, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” if at the end of our lives we have not done what he asked us to do. This is our commission; this is our calling.
To better understand the importance of our calling we would do well to turn to the related issue of our goals. When we come to the end of our lives and look back over all that we have done and failed to do, what will have mattered most? We must steel ourselves with the tenacity of Jonathan Edwards, who at the age of eighteen resolved “that I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die” (Edwards 275). We are marching steadily towards eternity. What will we want to have done when we get there? I read once that the Bible only speaks of three eternal things: God, the Word of God, and the souls of men and women (Adsit 17). Now, we cannot change God or the Word of God, so if we are going to touch eternity, it must be in the arena of human souls. If we are not building into the souls of men and women—what we may call discipleship—we are wasting our lives. Everything else we accomplish in this life will pass away eternally.
We all have lots of goals in life. Think of parents for a moment. What parents do you know that do not have a whole list of goals for their children? All parents want their children to do well in school, to have a successful career, to marry well and produce lots of grandchildren. But here is the penetrating question: if your child graduates from the best university, is successful in business, has a loving spouse and charming kids, but does not know Christ—does any of it matter? That is the issue. As teachers and administrators we have goals for our students and schools too. But if our students do not have a passionate relationship with Christ when they leave our care, the rest will hardly matter. God will not care where your school is ranked academically. He does not care what your students get on standardized tests. He does not care how many games your football team wins or if one of your students goes on to play professionally. He cares for your soul and the souls of your students. This has to be our goal; this has to be our focus.
(It must be said, stewardship of our gifts, including education, certainly concerns him. Space precludes a full discussion, but all that we do should be done excellently, as for the Lord [cf. Colossians 3:23].)
Already I hear the objection mounting: “We are not the church. Our priority is education not discipleship.” The importance of maintaining the distinction between the church and the school notwithstanding, the argument fails. To reduce Christ’s commission to the local church only is to engage in severe anachronism—and worse still, it misunderstands the nature of the Body of Christ. We have all been called to make disciples, whether we are pastors serving in a local congregation, those navigating the secular marketplace, or educators entrusted with young minds and souls. Why—when we have the time and relationship with these children already in place—would we neglect this precious possibility? “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).
At last we reach the profoundly practical. If all that matters is getting people to live out the gospel, how do we go about it? What concrete steps can we take to make this a reality in our schools? To be effective disciple-making schools, we must focus on two necessities: intentional ministry and authentic witness.
To ensure that we meet our primary goal by making disciples, we must engage in intentional ministry. By examining the ministry of Christ, we will better understand how to build into the kingdom of God here on earth. Had I been Christ, trying to establish a church against which the gates of hell would not prevail, I would have privileged breadth over depth: the more people committed to my cause, the better. But Christ takes the opposite approach. He chooses depth. Rather than trying to convert thousands of followers, he devoted his time and energy to a few committed disciples who could not fail him. Jesus Christ gambled the future of the church on twelve men. And we are the result of that gamble.
What was Christ’s approach? As Robert Coleman notes, “Men were his method” (27). Remember, before he evangelized anyone, before he preached his first public sermon, he called a few men to himself (Mark 1:17). There is infinite wisdom here. Real change will rarely happen except in the context of deep, personal relationships, whether one-on-one or small group. If we want to make disciples, we must build into a few people at a time.
Like Christ, we must identify those people in our lives and schools who are faithful to God and his Word, available to meet, and teachable; and then invite them into the discipleship relationship. Notice that qualified does not make the list of important characteristics, as God rarely chooses those “qualified” by the world’s standards to perform his duties. Rather, he chooses men and women of faith whom he can shape into the people he needs them to be. Jesus selected twelve men from the crowds—ordinary fishermen, even a tax collector. But he saw in them the qualities he knew they would need to complete his mission. We must do likewise.
Per the Master’s example, the next step is spending time with the students we have selected. Much of discipleship takes place not in formal sessions such as Bible classes and chapel services, but in the daily grind: seeing how to respond in difficult circumstances, watching a teacher with family, sharing a meal together. How much do you think the disciples learned simply watching Jesus speaking to the lepers, the Samaritan woman, the Pharisees? An eternity’s worth of truth, I am sure. This time together also cements the relationship—without which discipleship is impossible. No doubt you have heard the saying, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” That is reality. This step provides you with the opportunity to prove to your disciples how much you care for them, to establish a firm foundation on which to build the rest of the relationship. I am certain that I would not have been able to speak to many of the boys I have discipled at my school if I had not first played soccer with them at lunch. Go and be with your disciples. It doesn’t matter what you do—just spend time together, develop a solid, biblical friendship, and show them that you love them.
As our goal must always be to make disciples who make disciples, we also need to prepare them for future ministry, whether vocational or not. Of course, by discipling them, we show them how discipleship works: the approach, time, energy, prayer needed. Then, once they have started to see how the work is done, we can allow them some freedom to practice it. After the disciples had been with Christ for a period of time, he sent them out to preach among the towns of Israel. He delegated his preaching to them, knowing that one day they would take it over completely. Of course, part of training them involves oversight when they first begin. After the Twelve returned from their mission, they met with Christ to discuss what they had learned (Luke 9:1-10; cf. Luke 10:1-20). Our popular saying, “Practice makes perfect,” is misleading. It should be, “Practice makes permanent.” But practice with feedback should get you a lot closer to perfection. This is where real learning takes place. Your disciple should be given the opportunity to practice ministry in a safe environment. Everyone makes mistakes; this is the time to do it, knowing that growth will result. Eventually, we will be ready to send our disciples out into the world to make disciples of their own.
But for all our intentional ministry, all our passion for making disciples and seeing the kingdom of God reign in the hearts of our students, without authentic witness it will prove for naught. Paul, when writing to his young charge, encourages him to continue in the faith “because you know those from whom you learned it,” his mother, grandmother, and Paul himself (2 Timothy 3:14). What strikes me especially is that Paul mentions the authentic witness of those who instructed Timothy in the faith prior to his discussion of the inspiration of the holy Scriptures, which “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:15-16). In other words, “The integrity of the message is related to that of the teachers” (Marshall 788). Our instruction in the Word will have little effect on our students unless we live the message we preach.
While a discussion of authentic witness could fill many books, fleeting space forces me to focus on one aspect only, that of the cross-centered life. Paul makes abundantly clear the centrality of the cross in Christian ministry: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). True Christian ministry centers on the cross because the Christian life necessarily centers on it too. The sinful nature serves the self in pride and egotism, but the cross teaches us the way of Calvary love. Should it come as any surprise that it is in Paul’s address to the church that had replaced the theology of the cross with a theology of easy glory that he paints his breathtaking portrait of Christian love? Where the Corinthians had pursued self-aggrandizing pride, the cross teaches self-crucifying love; where the Corinthians had pursued factionalism and petty quarrels, the cross teaches community and humble service. The cross tells me that I have nothing good within me save that which God has placed there. Whence pride, then? Whence judgmentalism? Whence gossip, unforgiveness, jealousy, bitterness? These have no place in the Christian life.
And yet, as teachers, too often we surrender to pride, considering ourselves as better, more important, unbeholden to our students. But we do not work for our students; we work for Christ, and to him we owe everything. Do we then apologize to our students when we are wrong? Do we even admit that we could be wrong when it comes to our students? Do we humbly serve them—stooping before them to wash their feet—or do we lord our authority over them as the world does? Do we fall to our knees daily for our ministry and our students, knowing that we have nothing in ourselves to help them except the precious grace and Spirit of the one who saved us—or do we live and teach in our own strength and power? Do we truly love our students with the very love of Christ, the love that brought Christ to Calvary and heaven to its knees—or do we regard them as minor irritations or worse? Do we work for the approval of our Father in heaven—or simply for a paycheck? “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
As we run to Christ and fall before him as the rich young ruler did, will we submit to what he then asks of us? Should he ask what is hard of us, will we yield it willingly for his sake, casting aside our idols in the light of his goodness? “*T+hat man who hath anything in the world so dear to him, that he cannot spare it for Christ, if he call for it, is no true Christian” (Baxter 38). And that school which will not surrender its goals and purposes should Christ call for them is no true Christian school. Can we lay aside our earthly treasures—GPAs, SAT scores, football programs, glamorous theater productions—and follow in the way of Christ Jesus? “[A]ll things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
Brandon Cooper (M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) serves as chaplain at El Camino Academy in Bogotá, Colombia. He is the founder of Follow After Ministries (www.followafter.net) and author of A Word to the Wise: Lessons from Proverbs for Young Adults.
Adsit, Christopher. Personal Disciplemaking. Orlando: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1996.
Baxter, Richard. The Reformed Pastor, 5th ed., Kessinger reprint. London: The Religious Tract Society, 1829.
Coleman, Robert. The Master Plan of Evangelism, 30th Anniversary ed. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1993.
Edwards, Jonathan. “Resolutions,” in A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Marshall, I.H. The Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary. London: T & T Clark, 1999.