The Rich Ruler

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

  Peter, I Peter 1:3-9

If you find your heart very desolated and afflicted at the loss of property, believe me, you love it too much.  The strongest proof of love for a lost object is suffering over its loss.

 Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

The Encounter

 18A 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. 20You 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. 

 22When 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.” 

 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, 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.” 

 26Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” 

 27Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” 

 28Peter 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 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” 

Luke 18:18-30

Some Observations

Jesus has just taught his disciples that, unless they become like little children, they cannot enter the kingdom of God.  He is now approached by a ruler with a very direct question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This encounter is also recorded in Mark and Matthew, where it is noted that the ruler is young as well as rich.

Jesus’ first response to the man is to inquire whether he has kept the law, e.g., not committing adultery, murder, stealing, lying; honoring his father and mother, etc.  The man replies that he has kept these commandments since he was a boy.  While his question to Jesus (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”) does not indicate that this man is self-righteous, one detects a certain hope in his response.  I am sure his fingers are crossed that Jesus will say, “Excellent work, my boy, you’re good to go.”

But he doesn’t.  Jesus doesn’t challenge his response (has he really kept all these commandments perfectly?), but rather turns to the one thing he knows the man will struggle to release: “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.”  In the telling of this story in Mark, it records that Jesus looked at the man and loved him (10:21) before making this statement.

I cannot visualize this interaction without thinking of a story told by a friend who is spiritual mentor to many of us.  He tells of a raft trip on a sunny afternoon on a river outside Sacramento with a man who had for a long time resisted faith.  At some point down the river – with the man well into a case of cold beer – he said to our friend something like, “I could see myself maybe becoming a Christian at some point,” but then added with a laugh, “as long as I don’t have to give up beer!”  Our friend’s response makes me grin, but it states a profound spiritual truth that captures the heart of what Jesus is saying here: “Oh, I wish you hadn’t said that.  Jesus requires no one to give up beer to follow him . . . except you.”  The man had stated his one non-negotiable and, by doing so, unwittingly pinpointed the one thing that he must be willing to relinquish to follow Jesus.

In Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler, he fingers the man’s wealth as the one thing that he will unlikely be able to part with.  As for us, the man’s wealth likely meant much more to him than the digits of a bank balance – there are issues of identity, of success, of social standing, of respect from others and of future security that likely radiate from such wealth.  Jesus is therefore asking him for much more than selling everything he owns and giving the proceeds to the poor, even though this request in a vacuum would present a considerable challenge for any of us.

There is no recorded response from the man to Jesus’ instructions.  It simply states that he became very sad.  We know not whether this was sadness over the prospect of parting with wealth and its trappings or sadness knowing that he could never do so and, thus, will not inherit eternal life.

Jesus then says: “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.”  Note the force of Jesus’ first sentence here, emphasized by the exclamation point.  Jesus is simply restating what he taught us in the sermon on the plain earlier in Luke – it is the poor, the hungry, the sad and the despised who will experience richness, feasting, celebration and glory in heaven.  Those who are rich, well-fed, full of laughter and well-respected have already received their reward on earth.  They are likely satisfied with this present set of rewards and therefore will not experience the desperation that makes eternal rewards inherently more accessible to those who suffer now.  

The money itself is not what keeps people from the kingdom, but rather the way we use it to distract and insulate ourselves to avoid having to deal with our true spiritual poverty and inner brokenness.  Just keep moving and accumulating new experiences, new things, new successes, new relationships to stay one step ahead of the ever-chasing demons of insecurity and inadequacy.  We can conclude that wealth and its trappings can provide a fatal and false sense of security and prevent us from embracing the poverty of spirit that is required to repent and follow Jesus.  Take a look around – Is Jesus’ teaching true?

Jesus’ disciples have the same reaction we are probably having here and ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus then provides us great hope:  “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  It is only God who can save us.  Even our ability to comprehend what Jesus is teaching here and experience conviction is a gift from God (even though it may not feel like it at times).

Jesus’ response to the man is instructive in how we should deal with wealth.  It is not a vehicle to be used principally for ourselves, but rather to love God by loving and blessing those in need around us.  In order to follow Jesus and experience the life to the full he promises, there can be no non-negotiable dimension to our lives.  We must be willing to let go of all.  For those of us who have our identities so bound in one thing, it may mean taking Jesus’ radical words here (“Sell everything you have and give to the poor”) literally – we must renounce that one thing that keeps us from fully following Jesus.  Let us examine our lives and take Jesus at his word and believe that what seems impossible for us is possible with God.  

Peter is a bit incredulous at Jesus’ response: “We have left all we had to follow you!”  In other words, “We’re in good shape, right Jesus?”  Jesus then says that no one who has left anything behind (home, wife, brothers, parents, 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.  Jesus says the value of our present reward will surpass that which we have relinquished.  He is not talking about material prosperity or even the replacement of forsaken relationships with new, better ones – if this were true, what should we make of the lives of the very disciples Jesus is saying this to, several of whom were later imprisoned and put to death for their faith?

To be consistent with all other teaching of Jesus, we can understand our present reward to be a new life – one with all the same outer trials, frustrations, heartbreaks and struggles of the old life, but experienced with a new inner being full of hope, joy, peace, love, mercy, graciousness and humility.  This is the life of fullness and abundance Jesus promises those who follow him and it surpasses anything material, relational or experiential we give up to find it.  Our lives, as Peter says above, become pervaded by “an inexpressible and glorious joy.”  

Jesus also says that those who have experienced this transformation will have eternal life in the age to come.  We are filled with hope and experience the daily presence of a loving Lord, who calls us sons and daughters – heirs to his kingdom.  There is no greater hope on earth than this.

The missionary Jim Elliot was killed in 1956 by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador, where he was seeking to bring the Gospel of Jesus to a people who had never heard it.  His oft-cited journal entry from October 28, 1949 contains his most famous quotation, expressing his belief that faithfully doing the work of God was more important than his life itself: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”  Jim Elliot’s literal life of sacrifice testifies to a man who believed and acted on what he said – we will see him in glory in the life to come.  

Wikipedia notes that this quote is most often attributed to Elliot, but apparently it is very close to the English nonconformist preacher Philip Henry (1631-1696) who said, “He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep, when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose.”  I like the reference to Henry as “nonconformist.”  If we follow Jesus’ teaching here and all else we are learning from him, we will, in fact, appear extraordinarily nonconformist within the culture we live (not because we are trying to be nonconformist, but because we are being obedient to Jesus’ teaching).  Which begs the question – do we?

May we have faith in Jesus and his words that all things are possible with God.  By God’s gentle grace and the Spirit’s work in us, may we continue to be transformed more and more into Christ’s image, letting go of the things we cling to that prevent us from experiencing newness of life.  Show us these things, Lord, fill us with your strength and give us undivided hearts as we seek to follow you each day.


“The lamp of the Lord searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being.

All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.”

  Proverbs 20:27; 21:2

A Prayer

“It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp.  For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord, I sing for joy at the works of your hands.  How great are your works, O Lord, how profound your thoughts!”

  Psalm 92:1-5