I fear we have massively misunderstood Jesus. And by we, I first mean me. I have spent most of my life engaging Jesus as a sort of vending machine. No one loves a vending machine for being an exemplification of superb mechanical engineering. No one marvels at the precision of its delicate electronics. People love vending machines because they give them what they want it.
We come to a vending machine with our merit, our money that we have earned, in order to exchange it for the object of our desire. In short, we bring what we have earned and exchange it for what we want. That’s how I often treat Jesus. I give my good deeds to Jesus—my Bible reading, my praying, and my being a really nice person—and get whatever I want from Jesus. If I wanted a nice car and a good job and a loving family from Jesus, then I could give my good deeds to Jesus in order to obtain them. Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Jesus will have no part with those who wish to treat him like a vending machine.
In Luke’s gospel, a rich ruler approaches Jesus wanting Jesus to give him eternal life. He poses the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18.18). The rich ruler is even so audacious to claim that he has kept all of God’s commandments (Luke 18.21)! He thinks he can come to Jesus and trade in his commandment-keeping for eternal life. Put commandment-keeping in, get eternal life out. So it understandably comes as quite the shock when Jesus responds, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18.22). This cuts right to the heart of the issue. Jesus is asking whether this rich ruler actually loves Jesus as an end in and of himself or if he loves Jesus as a means to his own selfish end. Jesus is asking the question, “Do you really want me or do you merely want the benefits you think I can provide you?” With Jesus’ statement, the rich ruler is left bare. His motives are exposed and his loves brought to light. “But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich” (Luke 18.23). He did not want Jesus. He wanted his own riches.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Jesus will have no part with those who wish to treat him like a vending machine.
Like I so often do, the rich ruler wanted Jesus on his own terms. He wanted to gain Jesus’ life while sacrificing nothing of his own. He envisioned a fabricated world where he could have as much of his life and as much as Jesus as possible. Then Jesus shattered it because to have Jesus, we must lose everything else. When Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9.23), it is not a suggestion. It is a mandate. Denying ourselves and our rights and our ambitions and our plans and our bank accounts is not an optional add-on to discipleship. It is a prerequisite. We can either have Jesus alone, or we cannot have him at all.
Too much is at stake to deceive ourselves into thinking that we can manipulate Jesus and minimize his demands on our life in order to preserve ourselves. “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17.33) is the paradox of following Jesus. We, and all that we hold so dear in this life, will be lost and perish forever if we do not part with it for the sake of Christ in this life. Yet here is the precious promise of Christ: when we forfeit our life, our calendar, our job, our everything, into the hands of Christ, what he gives in return is more than we could ever earn or even dream—life with him. Upon surrender, Christ sweeps us up into his embrace and gives us “everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1.3).
When Christ demands we surrender our everything, he does so assuring us that nothing we possess is necessary for life and godliness. On the contrary, it is a hindrance to it. Should we treat Jesus like a vending machine, desiring to exchange what we have and what we have earned for his benefits, we could never afford them. Worse still, we would forfeit the greatest benefit of all in unending, unbroken communion with Jesus, the incarnate God in whose presence there is the fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forever more” (Psalm 16.11).
Jesus is not a vending machine for my convenience, he is the Sovereign Savior who demands my obedience for my good.
All of this is real time for me. Over the past few months, Jesus has made demands upon my life that have exposed what I truly desire. Three months ago, he called my family to sell our house on a big lot in a quiet neighborhood in a good school system. That was the easy part. Surely if we agreed to that, we could exchange our obedience for an even bigger house. Put my obedience in and get what I want out. Except that didn’t happen. He then called us to buy a house that is less than half the size of our previous house, on a smaller lot, is on a main road and not in a quiet neighborhood, and the public school system is failing. Selfishly, I want none of those things. However, the gracious kindness of Jesus is that he knows my selfish desires will kill me, and he demands I lay them aside and follow him into abundant and everlasting life. So he what he demands from me is always for my good. What he demands me to lay aside is only the allusion of comfort at best and masquerading poison at worst. Likewise, what he demands me to lay hold of has only the appearance to my selfishness of discomfort and inconvenience at worst and is eternally radiant glory and infinitely deep joy at best.
I do not get to define the terms of my discipleship. Jesus does. I do not get to negotiate with Jesus under what conditions I will follow him. Jesus has made those conditions clear. I either follow Jesus on his terms or I do not follow him at all. He is not a vending machine for my convenience, he is the Sovereign Savior who demands my obedience for my good. For his promise to Peter, who also left a home to follow Jesus, still stands. “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18.29-30).