I have heard many sermons during my lifetime about the Gospel’s “rich young ruler” story, and most of them have been fairly similar in their focus. A wealthy young man comes to Jesus asking what he must do in order to achieve salvation, and Jesus tells him to sell all of his possessions to provide support for the poor. This is too much for the young man, and he walks away grieving at his inability to fulfill the counsel he has received from the Savior. Then, the sermons have typically ended with the preacher urging us to be willing to live sacrificially as followers of Jesus, giving our all to his Lordship.
That way of using the text seems right to me. If I were to preach on it—which I never have—I would take the text pretty much in the same direction.
One sermon that I once heard about the rich young ruler, though, stands out from all the rest, because the preacher used the story in such a different way. He focused on the fact that, in the conversation with the rich young ruler, Jesus “looked at him.” The preacher found this to be very significant. The Savior looked people in the eye, the preacher said, and we ought to do so as well. Direct eye contact is important for genuine human relationships, the preacher said. Looking people directly in the eye is an important way of being like Jesus.
That preacher was obviously taking great liberties with the text. It is difficult to think of any legitimate principles for interpreting the message of a biblical text that would lead us to think that the main point of that Gospel story is about eye contact
That’s too bad, in a way. The preacher’s point was a good one, even though he had to play fast and loose with the Bible in order to make it.
In the 1995 film “Clueless,” there is a scene where two high school girls walking side by side in a school hallway are talking to each other on their cell phones. I thought it was a funny caricature of teen culture at the time, but that kind of thing has become commonplace. I see it a lot in restaurants these days. Folks sitting at the same table are doing things with their smart phones, and it not unthinkable that they are posting messages that are meant to be seen by other people at the table. We are communicating more than ever in contemporary life, but we are relying less these days on face-to-face encounters: texting, Twitter, email, phone calls, Facebook—and, again, sometimes while sitting in the same room.
There is a homeless man who stands at a corner that I pass frequently on my way to work. He carries a cardboard sign asking for money for food. Sometimes when I am the first car in line waiting for the traffic light to change, he is a few feet away from my window. I can’t remember ever looking at him directly. Indeed, I am well aware of the effort on my part not to make eye-contact. I know that if we went eye to eye I would have to respond somehow, probably by fumbling for a couple of dollar bills to hand him.
While the Bible doesn’t give us specifics about eye-contact, it does address the topic in a big picture sort of way. God’s Word makes much of the fact that we humans are finite creatures. God is God and we are not. Only God has perfect knowledge. We are limited to what we can fully know.
In the after-life, of course, our ability to understand things will improve. But it is interesting that when the Bible talks about heaven it does not tell us that we will simply know more. It uses visual imagery. We don’t know what it will be like when we are fully transformed, but we do know that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). And: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
“Face to face” comes pretty close to eye-to-eye. And it is necessary for true “knowing.” Working at making eye-contact may be a good preparation for the kind of understanding of the truth that we will have in heaven!
I still would not base a whole sermon on the subject, but maybe the rich young ruler felt so sorrowful when he came away from his encounter with Jesus because Jesus had not just talked to him but had also “looked at him.”