Luke 18.18-23 — The Rich Young Ruler

Today’s text is very famous: Lk. 18.18-23: The Rich Young Ruler

Remember the contextual theme for several chapters now has been “justice.” Here we have a man who is most likely a magistrate or an official of the high priest, and probably one of the people of their culture who is responsible for bringing about justice. Already that suggests a connection back to the widow and judge (18.1-8), and also to “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (14.) So the story is more about justice than wealth. Also, coming from the mouths of the OT prophets, the “rulers” were people who abused their offices and opposed the prophets of God, and God spoke many times of their judgment.

Now to the man himself. We find out he has every physical and material advantage. He is a man of privilege, wealth, influence, education, and position. He also has a spiritual advantage. He’s a Jew, a ruler (perhaps even of the high priest’s  “employees”), and we know he adheres to God’s law. If anyone could earn their way, get into heaven on religious points, deserve heaven, or be considered “righteous” (just), this is the man.

Paying attention to the details, he approaches Jesus (a good start!) and addresses him as “Good teacher.” Interesting. This ruler approaches the true Ruler, and yet calls him “Good teacher.” Even Bartimaeus, the blind guy, called him “Son of David.” Remember the children of the previous story? They are peasants; he is wealthy and powerful. They embody humility; he speaks of his confidence in having obeyed all the laws. But also remember back to  the beginning of this section in 18.1: Pray, and never give up. What does this ruler request (pray)? “Give me information about eternal life.”

It’s hard to tell, but the question could belie a “works” mentality, where the man just wants to know what he has to do the earn his way, which would not be out of place in Judaistic understanding. He assumes it’s something he has to do. Now, this is speculative, and I would hate to read into his question something that isn’t there. He may just be concerned about making to the positive “half” of “the other side,” but since their understanding of the afterlife was foggy, it’s hard to know what he was asking. My guess is that all of us want to believe in a positive afterlife, and all of us have some notion of things we have to do to get there, and that’s what he wants to know. But based on Jesus’ response in the next verse, yeah, he was thinking he could earn his way.

“What must I do to be saved?” Jesus is asked this question twice during his life, and here he gives his answer:

– Love God with all that you are
– Love your neighbor as yourself
– Do God’s will by obeying his moral commands.
– Do whatever it takes to follow Him

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. Of all the things the ruler said for Jesus to capitalize on, this is a surprise. You would think Jesus would be eager to let him know how to be saved. But first things first. This is a very subtle and gentle reply to a man who thinks heaven and salvation are to be earned (“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”). Jesus is letting him know very directly that heaven is not earnable, that it’s not a matter of works (what I do), and that goodness doesn’t cut it. The only being really capable of earning their way is God himself, who has no sin, but then, He has nothing to earn either.

Jesus then adds, “No one is good, except God alone.” It’s not so much our behavior that separates us from God, but our nature. Our nature is that of sin. Only God has a perfectly righteous nature, so only God is truly good. Our sin nature erupts as sin behavior, and that’s the part we see, but even people whose behavior is pretty good still have a sin nature and, therefore, don’t qualify for being able to earn their way to heaven. Jesus wants him to know it’s not about rules. Christianity isn’t about rules. Jesus never gave rules, he didn’t live by a list of rules, and he doesn’t expect us to live by a list of rules either. There’s a world out there that God wants us in, and it’s not confined by accounting. Go out the door, take off the reading glasses, and breathe in the fresh air and do something active. We somehow have to grasp that God made us for freedom. He relentlessly pursues us with love, and wants to burn out of us everything that keeps us from being free. What we should see as Christians is to roof opening up, and the endless sky above us, stretching to eternity. There should be no notions of closed, tight, bound, restricted, or chained. We should see possibilities, options, and openness.

“I’ve been good,” the man said. Being good is a good thing. Jesus doesn’t knock it. But it has no value as far as getting you to heaven—inheriting eternal life. There is nothing in keeping the commandments (being good) that works in your favor for salvation. You can score all the touchdowns you want while you’re playing sandlot football, but it doesn’t count for anything unless you’re on the team in the stadium.

“You still lack one thing.” Notice that what Jesus says here is not one of the commandments. It’s not on anybody’s list of rules. The idea isn’t to be a person of the rule book, but a person of true righteousness. It’s to pursue the love of God and people with a passionate abandon of faith and grace. The kingdom of God is breaking in.

Back to the justice theme. As the kingdom of God is breaking in, Jesus (the Davidic king who will bring about true justice), confronts one of Israel’s rulers, and tells him that if he wants to be part of the kingdom of God he must also play his part in justice, and with his that starts with restitution to the poor. Jesus is addressing the endemic system of inequality in society, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Jesus says the whole system needs to be changed, and everyone must do their part to bring about a society of socio-economic justice. It’s a call to us all. It’s not just a matter of giving some money to a poor person, but in changing the whole abusive system that keeps things as skewed as they are.

“And you will have treasure in heaven.” Treasure in heaven is contingent on our nature, and on the relationship. Our nature (not just our behavior) has to be that of God’s righteousness, not of self-righteousness. Self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus is the key. Selling all to acquire the pearl, or the treasure hidden in the field. The relationship, moreover, has to that of seeking the heart of God, here specified as justice for the poor, and a sincerity of heart characterized by a lack of hypocrisy in cultic ritual (Isa. 1.11-18).

And finally: “Come, follow me.” This is the crux. Not a bunch of rules, lists, or earning, but a relationship of people on the same road with God.

The man walked away. It wasn’t the money. He was unwilling to let go of his godless mindset to embrace the true God.

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