Luke 18:18–30: The Rich Ruler
In this passage a “ruler” approaches Jesus and asks him what must he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus initially responds with a seeming non sequitur before answering the actual question:
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." (verse 19)
But then he goes on to list off some of what we might call the “basics” of obeying God:
"You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” (verse 20, Jesus speaking)
It seems like it’s almost an offhand thing; as if Jesus knows this conversation is going to go deeper than just a simple listing of rules, so he’s just kind of getting past this initial part to get to the heart of the matter. Which is what happens next, because the ruler tells Jesus that he has been keeping these rules, ever since his youth. And to the reader it feels like this is exactly why this man has come to Jesus in the first place: he seems to have a grasp of Jewish theology, he feels that he’s been doing what he’s supposed to have been doing, but… something still feels to him like it’s missing.
So Jesus goes further, and tells the man that there’s still one thing that he still “lacks” in his quest for righteousness: he should sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor (which will give the man “treasure in heaven”), and then come and follow Jesus. Unfortunately, instead of taking Jesus’ instruction/advice, the man becomes very sad. (This passage doesn’t explicitly say so, but the parallel passage in Matthew indicates that the man also leaves.)
Jesus then uses this as a teaching moment for the rest of his disciples:
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.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (verses 24–27)
Peter, at this point, reminds Jesus that he and the others have left their homes to follow him, and Jesus lets Peter know that he—and others who have also “left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God” (verse 29)—will receive much, much more, followed by eternal life.
For the first time, I’ll break this up into sections. If it works, I’ll keep doing it; I might be going a bit overboard this time, as I try it out.
No One is Good
As mentioned, Jesus’ initial response to the ruler—“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”—seems like a non sequitur on first glance. But it’s also the heart of the matter: How do you live a life that’s pleasing to God? The first step in answering this question is to understand that you can’t. No one is actually good—only God is! So what can you do to earn eternal life from Him? Nothing! The only one who ever could have done such a thing was Jesus himself; the ruler couldn’t, I can’t, and nobody reading reading this can. We rightfully read this passage as one of Jesus’ warnings about the dangers of having too much money, and how money can ensnare us away from true and proper worship of God, but we should also realize that money was only a symptom of this man’s larger problem: he wasn’t trusting in God to save him, he was trusting in his money instead.
Which is probably why he came to Jesus in the first place. As mentioned above, he seems to feel like he’s still missing something. He knows the rules, he feels that he’s been keeping them, but he still doesn’t feel right with God. (It’s possible I’m misreading this man’s intentions—maybe he just wanted to brag in front of Jesus, the way the Pharisee was bragging through his prayers in Luke 18:9–14—but the fact that this young man goes away sad after talking to Jesus makes me think he’s not bragging he’s genuinely searching. Just not to the point where he’s willing to give up his riches.)
Which is, frankly, why Jesus tells the man to go and give away everything to the poor. Not because money is inherently evil—I feel like I’ve talked about that a lot, lately!—but because this man’s wealth is getting in the way of him worshipping God properly. The passage makes it seem as if this man is so close to being right with God, and it does seem like he is genuinely seeking with Jesus to find out what he’s still missing, and yet he still can’t bring himself to worship God fully if that means throwing away what is really meaningful to him: his wealth.
It’s More Difficult for the Rich to Worship God
What’s even more interesting, to me, is Jesus’ disciples’ reaction to his statement that it’s difficult for wealthy people to enter the Kingdom of God—that it is, in fact, easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom!
(If you’ve heard the thing about the “camel through the eye of a needle” referring to some gate called the eye of the needle, it’s not true; see my post on Matthew 19:16–30 for a discussion on that topic. Suffice it to say here that there was no such gate, and Jesus is being literal: A literal “camel” trying to go through the literal “eye of a needle.” Impossible, right? That’s the point.)
The disciples react to Jesus’ words with shock. With more than 2,000 years of this verse in front of us it might seem less shocking to our ears, but to Jesus’ original listeners he has just said something amazing! Since when is it more difficult for the rich to do anything? And doesn’t wealth demonstrate God’s favour—if they’re rich, doesn’t that mean they’re more likely to get into heaven? So it shouldn’t be surprising that his disciples ask him in verse 26, “Who then can be saved?”
It’s Possible With God
Which brings Jesus to the same point I keep mentioning:
But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (verse 27)
It may not be an exaggeration to say that the rich man in this encounter was closer to God than many other of Jesus’ listeners—when he claims he’s been obeying God’s commands since his youth, Jesus doesn’t argue the point with him—but even if that’s the case, being “closer than a lot of other people” still means that you’re way, way off from being actually close. An example I’ve been using lately: This man might have been a foot or two feet closer to God than many of the others he was talking to; maybe he was a couple of inches closer to God than some of the Pharisees; maybe he was an inch or two further from God than some others who were even more righteous; but if the distance we’re talking about from us to God is from the Earth to the Sun, then being a couple of feet or a couple of inches closer to God or further from Him aren’t really all that meaningful. There is a vast gulf between us and God, but “what is impossible with man is possible with God.” It’s what Jesus came to this world for: to bridge that gulf, to make the impossible possible, and to provide a means for us to have a relationship with God.
Rewards In This Time and in the Age to Come
It might be a personal failing of mine—let’s assume that it is—but every time I read Peter reminding Jesus that he and the others have left their homes to follow Him, there’s a part of me that’s expecting Jesus to rebuke him for it. But Jesus doesn’t rebuke him at all; he commends them for doing the right thing, and promises them rewards for it:
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (verses 29–30)
As usual, I’ll say that the part about “many times more in this time” shouldn’t be taken in a “health and wealth” kind of way—Jesus isn’t promising his followers that Christians will be rich or have an easy time in this life—but he is promising them that, if they follow Him and put Him first, they’ll be glad they did, not just in the next life but even in this one. Will we be rich? Maybe, but probably not. Will we live easy lives? Maybe, but probably not. Will we be content with what we have, and be thankful to Him? Yes. Definitely yes.
And then Jesus also promises his followers “eternal life.” Does that mean that only God’s children will have eternal life? Sort of. Everyone will “live” forever, but God isn’t just promising His followers that they’ll continue to exist, He’s promising life, which is qualitatively more than just continuing to exist.