There is a story in the gospels that has always bothered me. It is the story about the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he needs to do to have eternal life. I’ve been bothered by this story primarily because at the end of it Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23b). In Luke he says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).
How disturbing is that! I consider myself to be wealthy. I’ve been told by pastors and educators that I’m wealthy. And I don’t specifically mean me but Americans in general. I’ve been told that America is one of the richest nations in the world, and that our poor still live better than most of the world’s population. So I start worrying that I need to sell all my possessions and live in a cardboard box because my wealth is going to somehow disqualify me from heaven.
Plus, I've found several aspects about this story puzzling. Like why does Jesus ask the man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19b). Why would Jesus correct the man like this? Wasn’t the rich young ruler correct in calling Jesus good?
And if it’s impossible for any of us to be perfect apart from Christ, why does Jesus say, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21b)? Certainly Jesus didn’t mean that if the man went and sold all his possessions, he would be perfect and have earned himself a place in heaven.
And one more peculiar bit: after Jesus says it's hard for a rich person to be saved, why did the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25b). Did they think that being wealthy automatically got you a place in God’s kingdom?
See. Doesn’t make sense.
And that’s why I don’t think this story is talking about wealth at all. Bear with me as I propose something that I have yet to find in a bible commentary.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke precede the story of the rich young ruler with Jesus asking the little children to come to him. I believe the take-away from that is that we must recognize our helplessness and total reliance on Jesus in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
So next this rich young ruler asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answers him, saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:18-19).
I would like to propose that the ruler’s question might be reworded like this: “You are a particularly upright person, Jesus. So certainly you’ll be a good judge of my character. See it’s like this, I’ve been good my whole life, but I’m worried. How can I know that I’ve been good enough?”
Jesus’ response challenges the ruler’s use of the word "good." Jesus wants the man to consider who is actually good and who is not. As we learn later, the man thinks himself pretty good. So Jesus pulls the rug out from under the man’s feet. The man wants to know how good he has to be in order to go to heaven, and Jesus is saying, “You can’t be good enough. No one is good enough but God, i.e. me."
But then Jesus seems to answer the rich ruler’s question. “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 the ruler replies saying, “All these I have kept from my youth” (Matt 18:20-21).
I think Jesus is giving the ruler a chance to assess himself. “Do you really think that you haven’t committed adultery or murder or stolen? Do you really think you’ve never lied or dishonored your parents? You called me good, but how good do you think you are?” And in reply, the rich young ruler says, “I’ve been pretty good.”
Then Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Now, if we can agree that Jesus isn’t actually saying that the man will have met God’s standard of perfection by selling all he possesses, then Jesus must be saying something else.
Might Jesus be asking the rich young ruler to give up more than just his wealth? That is, to give up himself? Such a question would’ve prompted the man to ask himself, “How can I do that? I can’t govern from poverty. I can’t continue being good outside this position.” Jesus is asking the man to deny his rich-young-ruler-ness, take up his cross and follow Jesus.
All the gospels show how both the rich and the poor are able to follow Jesus. And while Jesus has plenty to say about wealth, I don’t think this is one of those instances. I don't think Jesus is saying that the one thing keeping the rich ruler from following Christ is the ruler’s wealth. But rather, I think Jesus is saying that the one thing keeping the rich ruler from following Jesus is the ruler himself. He isn’t ready to deny himself and his own goodness in order to follow Jesus and rely on Jesus’ goodness. So the man goes away sad. He can’t die to himself.
Jesus next statement may seem to muddle the argument, but bear with me. Jesus says, “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 18:24-25). Yes, this part does seem like Jesus is talking about financial wealth, but I think that’s because wealth was thought to be a result of inward goodness.
The disciples next question makes it seem even more apparent that Jesus can't be just talking about financial wealth. “Who then can be saved?” they ask (Matt. 19:25b).
Why would the disciples be asking this? Certainly they knew plenty of wealthy people who weren't good. They had the Romans around them, after all. Their question only makes sense if they’re not just talking about the man’s wealth, but his moral goodness. “If that good man can’t make it to heaven, who can?” Jesus must mean not just physical wealth but moral wealth.
So Jesus then looks at the disciples and says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26b). The point can’t be driven home anymore than that! No man can be good, even the ones that seem good! But with God, through the blood of Jesus, anyone can be good enough, both the wealthy and the poor.
This reminds me again of what Jesus said prior to this story: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17). Like needy children we all must rely on God for our moral goodness because there is none good but God. We cannot make it on our own steam. We must deny our own goodness and accept Jesus’.
All verses used are in English Standard Version.