The rich young ruler failed the ultimate test
Jesus exposed the heart of the rich young ruler. We can fool everyone around us and meet the best expectations of society while still being lost. Like Judas, we can walk with disciples and lose eternal life. To say this is difficult is an understatement. In this story we see the Word expose a rich man’s heart.
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “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.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.” – Luke 18:18-25
Jesus encountered a wealthy man – sometimes we call him the rich young ruler – who sincerely wanted to be faithful to God and accepted by God. And based on his commandment-keeping (we’ll take this at face value), he was a very good man (In Matthew’s account of this encounter we also see the critical, love-your-neighbor-as-yourself element). If he was even close to the man he thought he was, he was amazing. I’m sure he had a fantastic reputation.
Despite all of this, the man was insecure and perhaps afraid. He was unsure as to whether he was on the right path. At a minimum, he was trying to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. He may have known that his good works could not make him good enough. And it’s possible that he even knew the answer to the question he was going to ask. Regardless, now Jesus was near and he could know for sure.
One of the interesting things about this story was how Luke took the time to tell us about this man’s response. The man became sad when Jesus told him to sell everything. Instead of arguing or dismissing Jesus, he responded as if he knew who Jesus really was and he knew that Jesus had it right. He was deeply moved, but he still didn’t leave his money.
So, among the many questions we might be asking, here are three:
What was Jesus doing with this man?
Jesus was bringing this man face-to-face with his god. In the commandment-keeping that Jesus initially asked about, he didn’t ask if the man had any other gods that came before God (the first commandment). Can you imagine the response if he had asked that? I’m sure this man would have denied any other loyalties. So, Jesus directly confronts this man’s idolatry by making sure he knows that this god, money, must go. If we’re to have a right relationship with God, there is no room for idols. God must be our God. This man should have dropped to his knees in sorrow, confession, repentance, and worship. But he wouldn’t do it.
This story reminds me of a discussion I had with a young man who was on the wrong path. He was sexually involved with a girl who was pulling him away from everything he believed. As we talked, he began to cry. He recognized the problem and desperately wanted to do the right thing and follow Jesus. And I remember the next sad event as if it happened yesterday. As he picked up the telephone for his break-up call, he looked at the phone for a few moments and then put it down. He couldn’t and wouldn’t leave his idol.
Should everyone sell everything?
This story of Jesus’ encounter contains his instruction to the man to sell everything. Since he was focused on this man and not speaking to the crowd, we need to be careful in the conclusions we reach. There is no directive for everyone to do the same. While “everyone should sell everything” doesn’t stand up to the clear teaching of the New Testament – see 2 Cor 9:7, 1 Tim 6:17-19 – it is clear that that:
- every idol must go (Ex 20:3; Luke 12:34; 1 John 5:21)
- we should live as stewards of God’s resources and relinquish the concept of autonomous ownership (Luke 14:33)
- all that Jesus is for us should erase any competing loyalties (Mt 13:44)
What’s with the camel analogy?
Is it more difficult for God to save a rich person than a poor person? That’s not what Jesus said. He’s not comparing the money-idol to any other form of idolatry. He is simply focusing on the strength of money’s deception and our inability to defeat it. Without the salvific call of God, the love of money will take our souls.
A biblical comparison
The story of this rich young ruler, at least for Luke, is incomplete without the contrasting story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Here we have an amazing contrast between two rich people. While both were rich, the community loved one and hated the other. One was exemplary in his lifestyle, and one was reprehensible. One clings to his wealth, and one releases it. One is lost, and one is saved.
The comparison of the rich ruler to Zacchaeus is not an accident. One of the strong messages here is that we can appear to be a good person who’s very close to God, and still be in idolatry. This was also the case with Judas. When Jesus said that one of the disciples would betray him, the disciples didn’t pick Judas as the obvious candidate. And it’s interesting that money was Judas’ god too.
The rich young man in this story was trying to do the one thing that can’t be done. He was attempting to serve both God and money. The Bible is clear that we will love one and hate the other (Matt 6:24). We must all examine our thoughts and lives to make sure that God is our God.
…having the appearance of godliness but denying its power. – 2 Timothy 3:5