Jesus' Parables for Disciples
81. Leaving All to Follow (Luke 18:24-34)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'Jesus Discourses with His Disciples' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"24 Jesus looked at him and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.' 26 Those who heard this asked, 'Who then can be saved?' 27 Jesus replied, 'What is impossible with men is possible with God.'
28 Peter said to him, 'We have left all we had to follow you!' 29 'I tell you the truth,' Jesus said to them, 'no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.'
31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, 'We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33 On the third day he will rise again.' 34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about." (Luke 18:24-34, NIV)
The very wealthy young ruler has heard Jesus' direction to him: "Sell everything you have and give to the poor.... Then come, follow me."
Mark's Gospel records: "At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth" (Mark 10:22). The man is moving away now, and Jesus, who Mark says "loved him," is watching him as he goes.
I can hear a sigh, a sorrow, in Jesus' voice as he reflects on the encounter. "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" (18:24).
I'm going to take Jesus' sayings out of order for a moment, because to understand what he is saying in verse 24, we need to understand his figure of speech in verse 25:
"Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (18:25)
Camels were a curiosity to Israelites. Farmers didn't use them -- the donkey was their animal of choice. But camels were used by traders whose caravans would travel through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem and the trading centers of Egypt. Nevertheless, the camel was the largest animal they regularly saw in Palestine. I can imagine Israelites looking up at these towering beasts as the caravans made their way through town.
The eye of a sewing needle was a tiny opening. If you've ever tried to thread a needle, then you know just how tiny it is. In some rabbinical writings we see a similar phrase: "Draw an elephant through the eye of a needle."787 Both this saying and Jesus' saying share the same contrast between the huge beast and the proverbially small eye of a needle. The point of both these figures of speech is impossibility; they are proverbs of impossibility. We know this because Jesus uses the word "impossibility" (Greek adynatos) in verse 27.
For hundreds of years there have been various explanations floating around to soften Jesus' teaching of "impossibility" to some kind of "you can do it if you really try" approach. One of these pseudo-explanations imagines a gate through the wall of Jerusalem called "the needle's eye," so small that a laden camel couldn't get through unless it were to be unloaded and kneel down. Preachers and tour guides love the story. It is very picturesque. But it has absolutely no support in fact. It also distorts what Jesus is trying to say from "impossible for man" to "possible by man." Note that the disciples' reaction was surprise at the impossibility of salvation for the rich.
I have researched this considerably and found nothing that provides any support whatsoever for the "gate in the wall" theory. All my sources -- from older commentators such as Matthew Henry (1710), to respected scholars in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1974), to my newest scholarly commentaries on Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- all of them, discredit the story as unsupported, if they mention it at all.788
"Jesus looked at him and said, 'How hard it is
for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go
through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'
"Those who heard this asked, 'Who then can be saved?'
Jesus replied, 'What is impossible with men is possible with God.'" (18:24-27)
Riches and prosperity were commonly seen as a sign of God's blessing. Remember Job? When he was wealthy his friends saw him as righteous. But when he had a turn of fortune and lost his family, his wealth, and his health, his friends concluded -- wrongly -- that he must have sinned.
For this reason Jesus' hearers questioned, as if to say, "If the rich can't be saved, then can anyone?"
Jesus teaches the impossibility of salvation through one's own merits. The word "hard" in 18:24 is Greek dyskolos, "pertaining to that which is difficult to fulfill or do, hard, difficult."789 But entering the Kingdom (18:25) -- used synonymously with "being saved (18:26) -- is more than difficult. Jesus gives a common parable of impossibility. And then concludes, "What is impossible with men is possible with God" (18:27).
The rich trust in their wealth to open doors for them. But the net value of their estates in heaven is Zero. Only if they become as little children will they enter the Kingdom -- humble, trusting.
You've probably heard the story about how to capture a monkey. You attach a chain to a cage with narrow bars -- just wide enough for the monkey's hand to slip through. In the cage you place a piece of food. The monkey reaches through the bars and grasps the food, but his fist is too big to slip back through the bars -- and he is determined not to let go of the food he is holding. He is now captive, and can be led around by the chain on the cage.
I've never tested this out with a real monkey, but it illustrates how our grasping desire to hold onto our wealth can enslave us and render us prisoners to our possessions. Only when we release them can we be free. The rich young ruler could have become free. But unwilling to let go, he remains a captive.
Salvation is impossible for men to achieve by their own efforts. But God does the impossible in rescuing us, cleansing us, making us holy, and changing our hearts. How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom -- impossible, in fact. But possible through God.
"Peter said to him, 'We have left all we had to follow you!' (18:28)
Peter, often the spokesman for the group, sees the rich young ruler who is unwilling to give up everything to follow Jesus. The man has been unable. But impetuous Peter says, "We've left everything! We've done what this rich man has been unable to do." Matthew's Gospel adds the implied question, "What then will there be for us?" (Matthew 19:27b).
I don't think Peter's question arises from greed. Peter has just heard Jesus offer the rich young ruler "treasure in heaven." I think Peter is really asking, "If the rich young ruler can exchange all of his fabulous wealth for treasure in heaven that allows him to inherit eternal life, what will we receive since we haven't given up anywhere nearly as much."
Peter says, however, "We have left all we had." They have no more to give but their all. Yes, Peter may have still owned a boat rented out to other fisherman. And his wife probably still lives in the family home in Capernaum. Peter doesn't irrevocably distribute all his money to the poor. But Peter and his friends do give up everything they have of value to follow -- the comfort of their homes and wives and children, their status in the community, a place to sleep at night, relative security compared to the death-threats of Jesus' growing list of enemies. Peter and his friends have given up everything they had to give in order to follow Jesus -- everything that has dimensions of space and time.
I wonder if we can fail give up less than our all to serve Jesus and still be counted as disciples? As we considered in the previous lesson, to enter the Kingdom will take all we have and more. The Kingdom with its promise of salvation is like the Pearl of Great Price for which the merchant exchanges everything he has (Matthew 13:45-46). The Kingdom with its promise of salvation is like Hidden Treasure for which a man sells all he has and purchases the field in which treasure is buried (Matthew 13:44).
Jesus has specifically told his disciples, "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (14:33). This isn't just a requirement of the rich young ruler, it is required of all us disciples.
Jesus answers Peter's question simply and fully:
"'I tell you the truth,' Jesus said to them, 'no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.'" (18:29-30)
He doesn't say that somehow the rich young ruler will receive more in the Kingdom. Jesus lists the various kinds of sacrifices his disciples have made for the sake of the Kingdom -- leaving homes, wives, brothers, parents, and children -- and promises that they will receive many times as much in this age, that is, in this present life.
Mark and Matthew are even more specific: 100 times as much. In other words -- super abundantly, far more than they have given up! But Mark reminds us that these temporal rewards have a complement -- "and with them, persecutions" (Mark 10:30).
Is this a literal promise or a figurative one? The persecutions are literal enough! I think the promise is figurative, that Jesus is referring to precious relationships in the family of God that compensate for the natural family relationships we may need to give up so we can choose to follow Jesus. In some Muslim countries today, when a person becomes a Christian his family considers him to be dead -- and some feel duty-bound to help him towards death. The bonds of love of Christians are our reward. How much we Christians must fulfill Jesus' saying,
"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35)!
But there is a sense in which Jesus' promise is literal, too. In Mark's Gospel Jesus includes "lands." The cliché is actually true! We can't out-give God. Whatever we give him he returns many-fold, in this life and in eternity.
At first glance the third prediction of Jesus' death may seem unconnected to Jesus' teaching that precedes it regarding giving up everything:
"Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, 'We
are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about
the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They
will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day
he will rise again.'
The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about." (18:31-34)
Certainly, this is a different topic. But in another way it concludes this section by Jesus sharing with his disciples how very much he is willing to give up for their sakes. It isn't just we who are asked to give. Jesus gave his all to follow the Father's will and to give us eternal life, the greatest treasure of all. Jesus' disciples can't comprehend this -- it makes no sense to them at all. But after it takes place, they remember that he had said it. His death is no fluke, his resurrection is no afterthought. It is part of God's plan.
What are we disciples to learn from this week's lesson?
- The reality that our possessions can make it impossible to inherit eternal life.
- That we must give up everything we have to follow Jesus. Following is not just a religious phrase, it will cost us everything we have.
- God makes salvation possible, though achieving salvation is impossible to us. Salvation is the gift of God.
- God will reward us in this life for whatever sacrifices we are called on to make. We cannot outgive God. He will also reward us in the age to come with eternal life. Sacrifices have both a temporal and eternal reward.
Through Jesus, God, too, gives that which is most precious to him. Jesus is willing to give his all. This talk of giving is not one-sided, but is integral to the very nature of the Gospel itself.
Heavenly Father, I can be so cheap and stingy towards you. I see in myself a tendency to want to give only what you require -- and that only grudgingly -- not all of myself freely to you. Forgive me. Teach me how to give of myself without complaint. And teach me to be able to receive the abundant blessings you want to give me both here and in heaven. Thank you for your own unmeasured gift of Jesus Christ the Lord. In His name, I pray. Amen.
"Peter said to him, 'We have left all we had to
'I tell you the truth,' Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.'" (Luke 18:28-30)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Why is impossible for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God? Is it really impossible? Is Jesus speaking in hyperbole in order to make a point? Why or why not? (18:24-27)
- How is Peter's question in 18:28 similar to Jesus' direction in 18:22? In what sense must disciple give up everything to follow Jesus? How literally should we take this?
- Are the rewards Jesus promises in 18:29-30 literal or figurative?
- How do Jesus' sacrifices to follow the Father's will parallel our own sacrifices to follow Jesus? What are the points of comparison? What are the points of contrast? (18:31-34)
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 Marshall, Luke, p. 687 cites Ber. 55b; BM 38b; Strack and Billerback I, 828, dating from the third century AD.
 See Otto Michael, TDNT 3:592-594. Marshall, Luke, p. 687.
 Dyskolos, BDAG 265.
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