Two Men, One Question; Two Answers, One Jesus (part 2)

Luke 10:25-37 and Luke 18:18-30 in Tandem

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler

This is part 2 of a 2 part “series.” For part 1, scroll down or click here.  It is based on lessons I taught in an adult Sunday School group at my local church.  Each teaching session was roughly 25 minutes, which is why these two posts will be longer than usual!  I’ve posted this mostly for the benefit of those who are a part of The Well, but all are welcome and I pray whoever reads is edified by the word.

10:25-37 Good Samaritan parable is pinpointing that we cannot claim to be obedient to God if we don’t show love for those he has created.
18:18-30 Rich ruler dialogue is pinpointing that we cannot claim to love God and fellow man while placing greater priority on our possessions. 
  1. The Literary Context
  • Larger Section: 18:15-34: Requirements for discipleship and eternal life.
  • Little children (18:15-17). This is a pretty significant similarity with the context of our previous text, 10:25-37. Each text under consideration is preceded with a story where Jesus highlights the relative merit of child-likeness. We’ll see why this is important later!
  • A good summary of the significance of the literary context:

The different characters in these scenes come to Jesus wanting something from him. The parents want blessing for their children; the rich man, assurance of eternal security; and the disciples, assurance of a reward for their sacrifice.[1]


The Main Idea: “The way to eternal life is through discipleship to Jesus, which entails becoming as dependent as an infant, breaking ties to material goods, and taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.”[2]


The Exposition

  1. Ruler’s Question (v. 18)

The “ruler” is probably a civic Jewish leader, and his question is verbally identical to the lawman’s question in every way. I find it telling that he asks “What must I do…?”, given the context. He almost certainly just heard Jesus’ pronouncement in v. 17, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”…but this clearly didn’t register! Its almost as though he doesn’t even consider the possibility that he, a good, complete, mature religious man, should compare himself to a child. Thus we see an important contrast between “receiving” in v. 17 versus “doing” in v. 18 as the basis of salvation. The difficulty of accepting grace is inbuilt into human nature, it would seem!

  1. Jesus’ “Answer” (vv. 19-20)

Why does Jesus fixate on the fact that the ruler called him “good”? The ruler may have been expecting to be called “good” in reciprocation. None to stroke an ego, Jesus instead alludes to the first commandment, “no other gods before me”, and in doing so, brings the focus onto what the ruler should have been seeking: God’s goodness on his behalf rather than his own good works.

Why doesn’t Jesus throw the question back at the ruler, as he did the lawman in 10:26? The answer, I think, lies in the distinction between a true versus untrue seeker. As we saw in the previous post, the lawman already had an answer and was just looking for a back patting. The ruler is more genuine. How do we know? First, he responds to Jesus’ call with deep sadness (v. 23). If he already had his answer settled, he probably wouldn’t have been so distraught at Jesus’ answer. Second, in Matthew’s account, the ruler asks Jesus, “What do I lack?” (Matt. 19:20). He was looking for an answer, but an easy one.

So Jesus answers by listing commandments 5-10 (the “horizontals”). The essence of the answer: Love your neighbor as yourself, just like the focal point of 10:25ff. In both texts, Jesus’ response leads into the heart of the inquirer.

  • Lawyer: He thought he loved God, but the way he sought to legitimize his un-love toward Samaritans and other “outsiders” proved otherwise.
  • Ruler: He thought he fulfilled God’s requirements toward people, but his idolatry of greed proved that he failed in both this and in the greatest requirement of the law: Love God.

So we see a different answer in each case because Jesus custom-tailors it. But really it’s the same answer.

  1. Ruler’s Reply (v. 21)

 The ruler triumphantly assumes he knows his standing with God based on his own “measurable achievements on the obedience scale.”[3] This recalls Luke 18:9: “…trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.”

  1. Jesus’ Reply (vv. 22)

I love how Mark 10:21 records Jesus’ emotion: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him…” Jesus has compassion for the seeker, but does he affirm and agree with this seeker? No, but rather than making a naked assertion like the ruler did, Jesus is going to show exactly where the ruler has failed. Its like he’s saying, “Let me ask you to do something and we’ll see if you’re telling the truth…we’ll see where your heart’s at.” Jesus’ command, “go and sell all” is a practical summary of commandments 5-10 which he listed off in v. 20.

Its time for yet another “time out”! Is that really the “one thing” the ruler lacks? What about the gospel!? This is similar to our “time out” in the last post, but we’ll approach it differently this time. But still, context saves the day!

  • Look backward: Recall in what Jesus just said in v. 17: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Not do but receive.
  • Look forward: Skip ahead to v. 27 and we find Jesus affirming that salvation is impossible apart from God.

So once again, we find that Jesus is not a heretic, nor does he disagree with Paul. Whew! The gospel will unfold through the remainder of Jesus’ actions on earth and the Holy Spirit illuminated teachings of his apostles as recorded in the New Testament.

Our buddy Darrell Bock is helpful on this point:

Will this man prefer what earth can give him or what heaven offers? This is not a test of works but a probing of his heart, an examination of his fundamental allegiance.[4]

Readers of Luke will recall that Jesus has already proclaimed that we can’t serve both God and money (16:13), so this question gets to which ruler this ruler “prefers” as master.

A question comes to mind: Must we all sell everything? Salvation doesn’t magically come to those with an empty bank account (see Bock), and we see only one chapter later in the Zacchaeus episode (Luke 19) that selling all one’s possessions is not what God requires of every rich man. He does, however, require that we trust in him and center our identity and security on Him alone. Is there something else? Then deal ruthlessly with it. Thats the principle he’s getting at, I think.

  1. Ruler’s Response (v. 23)

The ruler is “deeply grieved”, a very strong expression. Jesus’ call is death…death to other gods. But Jesus’ call is life in the truest sense. When you hear Jesus calling (and I’m not referring to the so-called special revelation of Sara Young), are you happy or sad?

Why the long face? “He was exceedingly rich.” He had probably invested a lot of energy in amassing his fortune. The more time/talent/treasure you put into something, the harder it is to let it go. What are you investing in, with your time, talent, and treasure? Can you draw a very clear, bold line from it to God? In other words, is it something that leads you or others to finding pleasure in God, or does it lead elsewhere?

In the ruler’s case, richness is evidence of two realities:

FirstHe doesn’t love people. If he did, he wouldn’t be “exceedingly rich” in a limited goods society such as 1st century Palestine. Wikipedia informs us:

In anthropology, limited good is the theory commonly held in traditional societies that there is a limited amount of “good” to go around. In other words, the amount of land, money, etc. available is held to be finite, so every time one person profits, another loses.

And I have to quote a NT scholar too, even though we all know that wikipedia is infallible. So here’s Joseph Hellerman:

In a limited goods society, when one person (or group) has more, then someone else inevitably ends up with less.[5]

So basically, if the ruler had truly kept all these commandments from his youth, he would not be so filthy rich. Maybe this is stepping on toes. I’m not sorry! But we will also do well to remember that our society is not a limited goods society, so don’t take this and tell those you perceive as “wealthy” that they shouldn’t have a two car garage, etc., if they claim to be disciples! My pastor helpfully describes the Bible as more of a mirror versus magnifying glass. We should let it reflect our own sin, as a mirror, rather than using it to try to examine others and magnify their sin! Back to the point at hand, the ruler’s response is evidence that he has not truly obeyed 5-10. Moreover, he has not obeyed #1 because money is clearly his god. Which brings me to the second reality his richness points to:

Second, he doesn’t even love God.

Jesus lays open this ruler’s soul and exposes the truth that he does not love God with all his heart, soul, and strength.[6]

To receive the treasure he wants, the ruler must give up the treasure he has. [7]

This man thought he had a righteous heart, but Jesus question exposed that he had other gods who offered him more than he thought heaven could give.[8]

Truly John Calvin was correct when he described the human heart as an “idol factory”!

  1. Jesus’ Soliloquy (vv. 24-25)

Jesus uses a stark metaphor to convey the impossibility of achieving heaven, especially for the very rich. The “eye of a needle” is just about as small an opening as one could imagine. And for their locale and time period, a camel is the biggest animal. Point: Its impossible! 

Time-out: Now if you’ve heard a theory about a supposed small Jerusalem gate called the “Needle’s Eye” through which a camel could feasibly enter, but only by ditching his burdens, bending low, and sucking in his gut, don’t buy into it. This interpretation certainly sounds good and I’m sure it preaches well, but there are three problems with it. First, the first mention of such a gate is very late in history—an 11th century Greek bishop named Theophylact (what does he know about first century Jerusalem!?). This smacks of allegorical interpretation! Second, there is no archeological evidence that there was ever such a gate in Jerusalem. Third, this would destroy the hyperbole—the whole point is to suggest an impossibility!

Back to the point…

Now some of us might be tempted to say, “I’m not rich and I don’t live in a limited goods society, so I will effectively ignore Jesus’ advice to the rich ruler.” The ruler is no exception due to his vast wealth. We’re all at risk. In case you don’t believe me, take a look at Luke 14:33:

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

That sounds pretty all-encompassing to me! So we see that renouncing all is not just for the rich who would follow Jesus, but for all of us who would follow Jesus, beginning with the first 12 in Luke 5:11 who “left everything and followed him” (also 5:27-28, 18:28-30).

At the same time, I don’t want to make the impression that it isn’t about wealth. Wealth and generosity are huge issues for Jesus. Just in Luke, for example, see 3:11; 5:11; 6:23-26, 34-35, 38; 7:5; 8:3, 14; 10:34-35; 11:41; 12:13-21, 33; 14:12-14, 33; 16:9-13, 19-31; 18:22; 19:8. There is indeed a literal, monetary “cost” (i.e. $$) to discipleship!

  1. Dialogue with Disciples and other hearers (vv. 26-30)

The hearers’ response is evidence of a “prosperity gospel, 1st century edition”! Their notion was that wealth indicated blessing, so if the wealthy had that hard a time getting in heaven, what hope had the non-wealthy masses? I love Jesus’ response so much I’ll reproduce it here for your joy in Christ:

What is impossible with man is possible with God (18:27).

This God-centric perspective contrasts starkly with the ruler’s “I” (see vv 18 and 21).

Now along comes Peter, saying, “Look what we’ve done” (vv. 28-31). Sometimes I view Peter as this big bumbling “baby Hughie” figure, always saying something stupid! But before we judge Peter, lets look at what Jesus does. Jesus does not rebuke Peter, but reassures him! So Peter’s comments should be seen as “request for assurance” on the part of the disciples.[9] In the context of Luke’s gospel, its not so much Peter being self-centered, as it may appear, but rather…

  1. An opportunity to underscore again the requirements of discipleship,
  2. And to demonstrate that the disciples indeed had such commitment.
  3. And to assure us as readers that it is within the realm of possibility for us too!

Jesus’ beautiful reply in vv. 29-30 is essentially, “Yes, you must leave all, but you won’t be left hanging.” Again, Jesus calls us to die, but also to live more fully than we could imagine.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer underscores this reality poignantly,

The faith-community of the blessed is the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything.[10]

And notice that, according to Jesus (who I’m told is a reliable source), it begins now! Here we have a glimpse of the mysterious already and not-yet of God’s kingdom. With Jesus, the kingdom of God has already broken in upon our present reality. However, the fullness of his kingdom is not yet here. Oscar Cullmann, a dead Austrian Lutheran,  has compared the already to WWII’s D-Day, and the not yet to V-Day. If you’re looking for a big word, you can call this “inaugurated eschatology.” Regardless… eternal life is not just after we die. We experience it to the extent that we know God now, and everything we may have to leave is eclipsed by what we gain through Christ and His Church, our new family!


Summing Up

What is it that might compel someone to leave all for Jesus? And what might enable us to do so?

Matt Papa writes:

 We worship our way into sin. We must worship our way out. We don’t need more willpower. We don’t need to get ourselves together. We need a greater thrill . . . a more captivating beauty. What we need is a vision of God. We need to see glory… The call is this: Make your life one unflinching gaze upon the glory of Christ.[11]

Whenever we place [worship] on any created thing, the thing is devoured and the soul is disappointed. The insatiable must have the Inexhaustible. The inconsolable must have the Incomparable. [12]

And Timothy Keller writes:

In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his famous observations on America, he noted a ‘strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants…in the midst of abundance.’ …it comes from taking some ‘incomplete joy of this world’ and building your entire life on it.[13]

We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.[14]


Applying the Text

Reflect and Record. All of these questions are different ways of helping you identify what is competing with Jesus for your complete and undivided loyalty:

  1. What earthly things are shackles for you, holding you back from following Jesus and walking in the Spirit wholeheartedly?
  2. Is there a blessing you are currently more passionate about than the giver of blessing himself (God)?
  3. Where do you anchor your identity? Possessions? Money? Pride? Accomplishment? Family? Sex? Influence? …Jesus and his people?
  4. What in your life is “so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living”? What “has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought”[15] (Timothy Keller calls such a thing a “counterfeit god”).
  5. Is there anything in your life that you’re not sure you could give up if Jesus said, “its either that or me”?

Jesus bids you, “Follow me.” But he knows you can’t do so without casting off all other, lesser gods (those you maybe identified in “a”—“e”). How will you work toward casting these things off and following Jesus this week?

 My exhortation: Tell someone about your reflections who can pray for you and ask you about your progress.

 

[1] David Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Darrell Bock, Luke (NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 468.

[5] Joseph H. Hellerman, “Wealth and Sacrifice in Early Christianity: Revisiting Mark’s Presentation of Jesus’ Encounter with the Rich Young Ruler,” TJ 21/2 (2000): 151.

[6] Garland, 731.

[7] James Resseguie, Spiritual Landscape: Images of the Spiritual Life in the Gospel of Luke. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), p. 110.

[8] Bock, 469.

[9] Garland.

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 4. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 109.

[11] Matt Papa, Look and Live: Behold the Soul-Thrilling, Sin-Destroying Glory of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), p. 14-15.

[12] Ibid., p. 24.

[13] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York, NY: Dutton, 2009), p. x-xi.

[14] Ibid., xvii.

[15] Ibid., p. xvii.

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