80. The Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23)

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Gospel Parallels §189

'The Rich Young Ruler',  Robertson-Wesley United Church, Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
'The Rich Young Ruler',  Robertson-Wesley United Church, Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

"18  A certain ruler asked him, 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' 19  'Why do you call me good?' Jesus answered. 'No one is good -- except God alone. 20  You know the commandments: "Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother."' 21  'All these I have kept since I was a boy,' he said. 22  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, 'You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.' 23  When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth." (Luke 18:18-23, NIV)

This passage is a troubling one. It was troubling for the disciples, for the wealthy young ruler, and for us. It seems too radical, too abrupt, too ... well, too immoderate to suit our tastes. But it's easy to miss the truth when it is delivered in moderation. The truth, however, can be unmistakable when delivered unvarnished, undiluted. And that kind of powerful truth-telling Jesus is known for.

Luke places this event in the midst of a series of incidents and parables designed to indicate the character of discipleship. All the Gospel-writers place it near the end of Jesus' public ministry, and Mark supplies a bit of the context: "As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him" (Mark 10:17a).

Jesus is about to leave the town. It is the man's last chance to ask his question, to meet Jesus face-to-face. And so he runs up to him and falls on his knees before him. It is a picture of urgency and earnestness and humility.

Profile of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18a)

We pick up the story in Luke's account:

"A certain ruler asked him, 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'" (18:18)

The word translated "ruler" is Greek archōn, generally, "one who has administrative authority, leader, official." It is used of various Jewish leaders, including those in charge of a synagogue and members of the Sanhedrin.774

Matthew's account (19:22) adds another detail and refers to the ruler as a "young man," Greek neaniskos, "a relatively young man, youth, young man (from about the 24th to the 40th year)."775 Luke 18:23 tells us "he was a man of great wealth." "Wealth" is Greek plousios, "pertaining to having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience, rich, wealthy."776 The adjective "great" translates Greek sphodra, "a very high point on a scale of extent, very (much), extremely, greatly."777

And so we have an earnest young man, wealthy -- very wealthy, indeed -- and probably because of his wealth and earnestness about spiritual matters, a person entrusted with governance in the synagogue, a ruler, a respected person in the community.

And in his fine robes, immaculately groomed, he is kneeling in the dirt of the roadside at the edge of town, with a burning question on his heart.

Inheriting Eternal Life (Luke 18:18b)

"A certain ruler asked him, 'Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'" (18:18)

Most of the wealthy, religious people who asked Jesus public questions were trying to trick him into some imprudent statement -- "Should we pay taxes to Caesar?" (Luke 20:22). "Why do your disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath?" (Luke 6:2). "This lady was caught in the very act of adultery. Shouldn't we stone her as Moses directed?" (John 8:4). But this man's question was no trick. It was a sincere question to which he needed to know the answer -- how to inherit eternal life. The word translated "inherit" is Greek klēronomeō, "acquire, obtain, come into possession of something, inherit."778

The question tells us several things about the young man:

  1. He must be feeling inadequate in his spiritual preparation somehow or he probably wouldn't ask the question.
  2. He sides with the Pharisees rather than the Sadducees (another religious party in first century Judaism) because the Sadducees didn't believe in life after death, and this question clearly implies that he does.
  3. He believes that eternal life is something that one earns or merits by what he does.

Ask the common man or woman in your community and you'll probably come up with a similar belief. You go to heaven if you do good. You go to hell if you do bad things. Well, only very bad things. Eternal life is a reward for what you do on earth. That's what people tell you.

The young man's question betrays both his superficial understanding of inheriting eternal life, and his superficial understanding of a person's ability to do good deeds that are pure, unmixed by ulterior motives. The Prophet Isaiah's scathing words spoken 750 years before have somehow escaped the young man:

"All our righteous acts are like filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6)

Notice that within the brief scope of a few verses, salvation is spoken of in various terms and figures: "eternal life" (18:18, 30), "treasure in heaven" (18:22), "entering the Kingdom of God" (18:24, 29), and "being saved" (18:26).

No One Is Good -- Except God Alone (Luke 18:19)

And so, in this sincere young man's superficial way, he addresses Jesus as "good teacher," a somewhat improper way to address a Rabbi. We don't see this expression elsewhere in rabbinical literature until the fourth century. The word "good" in both verses 18 and 19 is Greek agathos, "pertaining to meeting a high standard of worth and merit, good."779

Jesus rebukes the young man concerning his careless address:

"'Why do you call me good?' Jesus answered. 'No one is good -- except God alone.'" (18:19)

The young man can't understand anything else Jesus will tell him, unless he grasps that our relative standards of goodness are much, much different than God's absolute goodness and God's standards of righteousness.

Some have felt that, by these words, Jesus is somehow denying his divinity. If Jesus had meant to do so, he would have replied simply that he was a sinner. But Jesus' divinity isn't the issue. Jesus is calling the young man to reflect on his words. Jesus is trying to teach him. Perhaps Jesus is trying to prompt him to reflect on who Jesus is, too. As Jesus said to the woman at the well of Sychar, "If you knew ... who it is that asks you for a drink...." (John 4:10). But the man can't see, can't understand.

Comparisons to Jesus' Interview with Nicodemus

I can't help but recall another conversation Jesus has with an earnest Jewish ruler, Nicodemus, related for us in John's Gospel:

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'
"In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'" (John 3:1-3)

I notice three points of comparison:

  1. The ruler greets Jesus with gracious praise.
  2. Jesus' response is not the expected gracious reply, but seemingly off-the-wall, jarring, and unanticipated.
  3. Lack of spiritual understanding.

Jesus doesn't exchange pleasantries with these men. He comes right to the point, he teaches, but in a completely unexpected way. In both cases these rulers are hungry for spiritual guidance. But they need to abandon some dangerous presuppositions about their state before God before they are able to understand any further truth.

Keeping the Commandments (Luke 18:20-21)

After pointing out the young man's inadequate understanding of "goodness," Jesus proceeds to inquire more of this man's -- and his culture's -- measure of righteousness.

"You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'
'All these I have kept since I was a boy,' he said." (18:20-21)

The verb "kept" is Greek phylassō, "to continue to keep a law or commandment from being broken, observe, follow."780 The commandments Jesus mentions all relate to the man's relationships with other people. Jesus will approach in another manner commandments that relate to God.

The young man's response is immediate: "All these I have kept since I was a boy" (18:21), and his answer should not surprise us. The rabbis held that the law could indeed be kept in its entirety. This might be true if you were defining the commandments as the Pharisees did, but we know from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-48) that Jesus' view of keeping these commandments goes far beyond the legalistic interpretations of his time. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus relates murder to its root in anger and adultery to its root in lust.

Sell Everything, Give to the Poor (Luke 18:22a)

The young man has kept all the commandments, but still senses a lack, an incompleteness, or else he wouldn't have come to Jesus in the first place. Now Jesus speaks to the young man's point of need:

"When Jesus heard this, he said to him, 'You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" (18:22)

Jesus affirms the young man's sense of need. The word translated "lack" is Greek leipō, "to be deficient in something that ought to be present for whatever reason, lack."781

But Jesus' prescription is unpalatable -- to the young man and to us. "Sell everything" and give the proceeds to the poor. The word translated "give" is Greek diadidōmi, "apportion among various parties, distribute, give."782

If the man does this, Jesus assures him, he will have treasure in heaven. "Treasure" is Greek thesauros, "that which is stored up, treasure."783 It is an ironic exchange that Jesus proposes -- exchanging fabulous wealth here on earth for fabulous wealth in the Kingdom of God. Many in history have tried to buy their way into God's good graces. Many of the world's beautiful cathedrals, temples, and mosques are inscribed with the names of generous benefactors. But Jesus is not proposing buying anything or doing anything glorious. He isn't proposing a massive contribution to the Jesus Christ Evangelistic Association that will spread the Gospel in perpetuity.

Jesus proposes that the man sell all his property and give the proceeds to those who are least able to reciprocate -- the poor. St. James is right when he characterizes true religion:

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).

How Money Corrupts

The truth is that money itself has a way of polluting us, that is, tempting us to compromise our values in order to gain and retain it.

"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." (1 Timothy 6:10)

Recently, Jesus has taught his disciples about the importance of faithfulness with regard to money:

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Luke 16:13)

Now his disciples have an object lesson to learn from -- an actual rich man, fabulously wealthy. Can he -- will he -- become a disciple?

Money, however, isn't the only thing that Jesus asks the young man to give up:

  1. Possessions, what money will buy, the accouterments of wealth. A new car, a nice house, a membership in the country club, and fashionable clothing.
  2. Status and influence that wealth affords. People make way for the wealthy, hoping that some of that wealth might rub off on them. At the very least, people kowtow to the wealthy to keep from becoming their enemies.
  3. Power. Wealth is power. It buys influence. It buys others who will now let the wealthy have their own way.
  4. Community leadership. The man isn't very likely to continue as a respected ruler without his wealth. If he gives up his wealth, he will be misunderstood and resented by the other influential people in his community. No, he won't be a ruler for long.
  5. Family. The young man probably comes from a wealthy family. But if he disposes of a huge chunk of the family wealth, will his siblings understand and accept it? Will his wife and family? His father or mother, if they are still living?

How often have you been tempted to do things that were wrong or unethical or self-serving because of the lure of money, even a little bit of money? Money must either be controlled or it will control us. It is a sad thing when our possessions begin to possess us!

Why Jesus' Words Upset Us

But Jesus' words don't just upset the rich young ruler. They also upset us. As a pastor I have heard many times the response to this passage: "That doesn't mean everyone should sell what they have, does it? If everyone did that it would result in chaos."

Obviously. But why are we even worried with the question? Do we, too, feel possessive of what we have? Do we fear that Jesus may require us to do something that would cost us too much? What are we afraid of? And why do we fear?

We fear because we sense that we are not fully surrendered, that's why. Jesus' words to the rich young ruler are quite consistent with what he has been saying to his disciples throughout his journeys:

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26-27).

"In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:33)

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it" (Matthew 13:44-46).

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it" (Luke 9:24).

"Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Luke 17:33)

Then Come, Follow Me (Luke 18:22b)

The story of the rich young ruler exposes a raw nerve in us that causes a reaction. But disposing of wealth was not all that Jesus asked the man to do.

"When Jesus heard this, he said to him, 'You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" (18:22)

He concludes with two commands. "Come" is Greek deuro, an adverb functioning as an interjection, "here, (come) here, come!"784 The word "follow" is the characteristic word of discipleship, Greek akoloutheō, "follow," figuratively, "to follow someone as a disciple, be a disciple, follow."785

However, I don't think that the following Jesus invites this man to do is just figurative. Jesus looked at this man and loved him (Mark 10:21). I think he is inviting the rich young man to join him on his journeys, to become one of the disciples who enjoys the immense and unspeakable privilege of spending time with Jesus and learning from him on a day-by-day basis. What a wonderful invitation!

But the invitation implicit to us is no less wonderful. We, too, are invited to come to Jesus, and then to follow him on a spiritual life journey. To enjoy his company, his presence. To be taught along the way by his Word and Spirit. To become part of his great extended family, the Body of Christ throughout the world. And to be filled with hope in the closing days of our journey as we know his promises and feel his comfort with us.

"Come, follow me," is the invitation Jesus extends to you and me.

He Became Very Sad (Luke 18:23)

But this radical call to discipleship is too much for the rich young ruler.

"When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth." (18:23)

The word translated "sad" is Greek perilypos, "very sad, deeply grieved."786 Matthew and Mark note that the man went away sorrowful. Jesus remains standing where he is, on the verge of continuing his journey. But the earnest and rich young ruler, his face stricken with grief ("the man's face fell," it says in Mark 10:22), rises from his knees. He averts his eyes from Jesus, as I see it, turns slowly, and moves away from the band of disciples.

He cannot go with them. He cannot go with Jesus, as much as he would love to. Because he loves one thing more, and he cannot leave that to serve God.

In a very real sense he has broken the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). Nor can he obey the Shema which, as a devout Jew, he recites twice a day:

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Jesus has pierced the man's naïveté, and has proved to him, and those who were privy to this conversation, that you cannot serve God and Money! "Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Luke 16:13). It is true. And for the young man, sadly true.

There is more -- Jesus comments on the rarity, the impossibility of the rich or anyone being saved. We'll examine that in the next lesson.

But the challenge for disciples remains. My dear friend, is there anything, any hindrance, that you are unwilling to give up to follow Jesus? You may not be wealthy, but if there is something you possess, or that possesses you, laying it down is a vital part of following the Master. He must have your all. And he calls gently to you: "Come, follow me."


Dear Father, Jesus' words have a way of piercing our hearts and defenses we have built up against you and doing things your way. Make us tender-hearted. Gently expose the reservations of our hearts, as you did for that wealthy young man those many centuries ago. But give us grace to be able to obey you, the Great Physician, who alone can heal our corrupt and deceitful hearts, and make us whole. Forgive us, O Lord, for clinging to the remnants of a life independent of you, and make us wholly yours. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Luke 18:22)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. What does the Scripture tell us about this man? What do we know about him from his words, his manner, and his actions? (Feel free to include parallels from Matthew and Mark in your profile of the man.)
  2. What do we learn about Jesus from this encounter? What does this account tell us about him?
  3. Why does Jesus challenge the man's seemingly innocent form of address: "Good teacher"? What is Jesus' point? Why does Jesus interrupt answering the man's question to make a big thing about something so small?
  4. Why does Jesus tell him to sell all his possessions? Is this something Jesus requires of everyone? If not, why single out this man?
  5. How are we to generalize about "selling all our possessions"? What application does this have to us?
  6. Why did Jesus designate the poor to be the recipients of the man's wealth, do you think?
  7. Could the man have followed Jesus without divesting himself of what he held dear? Can you? Can anyone?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[774] Archōn, BDAG 140.

[775] Neaniskos, BDAG 667.

[776] Plousios, BDAG 831.

[777] Sphodra, BDAG 980.

[778] Klēronomeō, BDAG 547.

[779] Agathos, BDAG 3-4.

[780] Phylassō, BDAG 1068.

[781] Leipō, BDAG 590.

[782] Diadidōmi, BDAG 227.

[783] Thesauros, BDAG 456.

[784] Deuro, BDAG 220.

[785] Akoloutheō, BDAG 36-37.

[786] Perilypos, BDAG 802.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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