The Rich, Young Ruler

My regular routine for Sunday afternoon following Sunday morning worship is to turn on the television and watch televangelists. *gasp* Yes, although I usually give them a bad wrap, I have to admit that I get some pretty good illustrations from them and every once-in-a-while they will say something worth writing down and keeping. Mind you, though, I have to wade through a load of garbage to get that gem. At any rate, although I should be used to it, I am always astounded by what comes out of these guys mouths. For example, just yesterday, one of these guys was saying how God does not want you poor and the reason this particular preacher “ain’t po’ no mo'” is because he began living his life according to the bible. Hmm…and in addition, he told everyone in the audience (a rather large crowd) that he doesn’t like being all alone on his mountain and told everyone they too can be rich by following what God says.

Now understand this: I do not think there is anything wrong with money. In fact, the Bible says Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were wealthy in cattle, gold, and silver. But to me, this kind of preaching demonstrates the gross sin of the love of money. It was this attitude which Jesus condemned in the Pharisees (Luke 16.14) and I believe Jesus addresses this same topic again in Luke 16.18-30 with the rich ruler.

The Dramtic Dialogue with the Rich Ruler

A Hasty Query. Matthew tells us this rich ruler was “young” (Mt 19.20) and Mark tells us that he came running up to Jesus and knelt before him. He calls Jesus “Good teacher.” From what I can gather, this was not a term in regular useage among rabbis during Jesus’ time. In fact, as Jesus will point out, the reason it was not in use was because “good” was a term reserved for God (see Psalms 25.8, 106.1). So, did the youth in his haste make a mistake? I mean, Jesus has to set him straight right? More in minute.

Let’s examine the ruler’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a good question, no doubt a question many people were asking themselves and even today continue to ask. But the question for us, of course, is, “Is there really anything I can do which will cause me to inherit eternal life?” In actuallity, eternal life is not earned by us but instead is a free gift from God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6.23).

A Heavy Reply. First, Jesus addresses what the man has called him: “Good teacher.” He says God alone is good. Well, that we knew…but dig deeper here. Jesus is teaching this young man a lesson about who He is. The implication is that Jesus himself is God inasmuch as He contains divine qualities. Its as if Jesus is saying, “If you’re going to call me ‘good,’ at least understand what you are truly saying.” And dig a little deeper: the good God who can bestow eternal life to this young man is standing before him! If he truly understood the meaning of this statement from Jesus, instead of seeking self-glorification (which he does in a moment), he would beg for mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus’s response gets heavier in v.20: He answers the young man’s request for a list of things to do and not do. It is simply a reiteration of the Law. “Do not commit adultery” – so do honor marriage. “Do not murder” – so do honor life. “Do not steal” – so do honor other people’s property and merchandise. “Do no bear false witness” – so do love truth. “Honor your father and mother” – do not dishonor or harm them.

A Haughty Retort. As mentioned above, when Jesus implies his divinity in v.19, this young man should have been quick to humble himself. Instead, once he hears that he has been fulfilling the Law and earning his eternal life by his good works, you can almost see him coming out of his skin with excitement. He’s been doing these things. *phew* nothing new to add! But he fails to understand that there is something deeper at the heart of the Law which he has missed. This young man himself is not “good” – he has fallen short of God’s goodness by missing God’s standard.

A Hard Request. It was at the unabashed statement of self-righteousness that Jesus makes this difficult request of the rich young man. Jesus tells the man he still lacks one thing: “sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” What Jesus is getting at is that there is one thing that is hindering this man from truly having eternal life: a love for money. Rather than leave everything and follow Jesus (as his Twelve had done, v.28, cf. Mt 19.27), he simply will not (cannot?) do this most difficult deed. Hence, he forfeits the eternal blessings of heaven for the momentary riches of earth. How many today do the same thing? Their greed for more stuff, their trust in their 401k and retirement plans…they have more faith in the dollar signs and stock markets of the world than in Christ. And when told what they need to do to have treasure in heaven, the true treasure, they leave sad becasue the price tag is too high.

The Deflated Discussion with Flabbergasted Followers

The rich young ruler is not the only one leaves the dialogue with sadness. This scene of a man who is more in love with his money and stuff leaving breaks the Lord’s heart also. But as sad as the Lord is and as heartborken he is over this one man, notice something very important: Jesus does not go after him. You almost expect him to run after the boy and embrase, and plead with him to come back. If it were a parent, you would expect the parent to try and bargain with the boy: “What will it take for you to come back?” Here’s the thing: Jesus Christ is Lord. As Lord he will not accept discipleship on just any terms; he demands true discipleship to be on His terms!

A Sad Remark. I imagine the following discussion between Jesus and “those who heard” him was deflated in that this sad scene has played out in front of everyone. This rich, young ruler does not want to commit and perform what is necessary in order to obtain true treasure; rather he is satisfied with the fleeting riches of earth. He does not have eternal life! And with these emotions filling our Lord he explains the situation: its hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. In fact, its downright impossible!

In v.25, Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. A couple of interpretations have been erroneously postulated. For example, some say Jesus is talking about a camel squeezing down through a small gate; the camel would have to get on its knees and then just bearly make it through this gate. Other say the word for camel (Gk. kamelon) should be the word for cable (Gk. kamilon). Hence, it is a cable through the eye of a needle. Well, why can’t it be a cable through the small gate…then, we can remove the impossiblity completely, right?

A Shocked Petition. The key to understanding v.25 is in the people’s question which is “Who can be saved?” The recognize the impossibility of Jesus’ illustration: there is no way a camel can fit through the eye of needle (literally). It is impossible. Also, tied up in this question is the people’s understanding of how God works. To them, wealth is equated with the favor of God. This is not unlike our televangelist friends who preach “health and wealth.” The problem with this is that Jesus sent this rich man away still in a lost state. Hence, if the wealthy, who are supposed to have the favor of God, cannot get into the kingdom, who can?

Jesus answers this peition by explaining that with man, it is impossible for an camel to go through the eye of a needle and for a rich to be saved.m But with God…and we have seen this idea of all things being possible with God previously in Luke (see 1.37). Just as it is impossible for a virgin to conceive and give birth, so also it is impossible for a rich man to enter heaven and camels to go through the eyes of needles. But when you add to all those equations God, suddenly the thing that seemed impossible now has the power necessary to accomplish it. Hence, Mary becomes pregnant and births Jesus, camels can start fitting through the eyes of needles, and rich people can enter into salvation.

A Sober Reminder. Ever eager, Peter wants to remind the Lord (and everyone else hearing) just what he and his Eleven friends have done. But I can’t help but think that as Peter is making this statement, it is really sinking in just how much each of the Twelve have sacrificed to follow Jesus. This rich, young ruler is a sober reminder that if anything gets between a disciple and Jesus, he will depart Jesus in a sad state.

But Jesus issues a blessing. To those who would leave everything and follow Jesus, whether wife, brother, children, whatever, they will get much more in return in this life and that which is to come. Once more, as seen elsewhere in Luke (ch.14), Jesus is trying to impress on us the importance of placing him before all other things in life. But when we love him fully, 100% we get a wonderful return in our investment: “every spiritual blessing in Christ Jesus” (Eph 1.3-4). Not only, we exchange this worry-filled life, complete with sin and death for eternal life with God and Christ.