A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When 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.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “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.”
Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Luke 18:18-27 (NIV)
My wife and I were reading together tonight and this story came up. It is a hard story because of what it suggests. Indeed, I have heard sermons or essays written around this story and some of them state that the point Jesus is making here is one of material sacrifice. We in America are “rich young rulers” who must be willing to give up all our possessions to donate to the poor. But does Christ really call us to this?
I don’t wish to negate that possibility, but tonight I had another interpretation. I admit that I have no background at this point in academic or professional theological studies, so please bear with me. It seems the key to understanding Jesus’ response is in the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (emphasis mine). Jesus had encountered many questions from people with a variety of motivations. Some wished to trick or test him, some were sincere. What I find interesting is that this same question was asked of Jesus by a teacher of the law in Luke 10: 25. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In this instance, Jesus doesn’t ask the teacher of the law to give up his wealth. Jesus responds with a question of his own. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The teacher answers,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.'”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
So, why did Jesus respond in two different ways to the same question? My theory is that the motivation of each man was different. Perhaps Jesus didn’t quite discern the intent of the teacher of the law or perhaps he was paying the man a type of professional courtesy, but Jesus probed his question to find a response. Maybe he wanted the teacher to get it right. (As the teacher then asks for clarification on the definition of “neighbor” one might assume that he didn’t quite get it.)
The rich young ruler, however, didn’t seem to have motivations as seemingly pure. Perhaps Jesus knew the question was self-serving. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Wealth implies success, whether successfully inheriting or successfully working. Either way, success can usually be achieved through hard work and self-sufficiency. While these things are not necessarily bad in themselves, when you can achieve a decent amount of success by yourself, one can fall into the belief that God is not necessary. I can live a life of moderate to extreme luxury and comfort in America and I wouldn’t have to rely on God one bit to do so. What use, then, is God?
Well, if there is an afterlife and that afterlife is ordained by God, then perhaps my self-sufficiency wouldn’t be enough. Hence, ask the “good teacher.” Sensing this self-focus, Jesus responded in truth. He cites The Law. If one can keep The Law, one can enter in to eternal life. However, where the teacher of The Law understood that love of God and love of others were the core and purpose of The Law, the young ruler didn’t get it. In essence he flippantly states, “Yeah, I did all that. Anything else?”
One can almost imagine Jesus readying to make a fool of this man. “Okay, one more thing. Sell everything you own, give it to the poor, then come follow me.”
This was not the answer the man wanted. Jesus, on seeing the man struck speechless, pushed harder. “Is this too hard for you and your riches? A camel could more easily pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man enter the kingdom of God.”
Faced with this seemingly impossible standard, the people around Jesus cried out in shock. “How is it possible, then, to be saved?”
Jesus makes his point, the one that the rich man missed. “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” That is the key of this passage to me. That we cannot earn our way into the kingdom with our good behavior or our wealth. Our self-sufficiency is useless. We need God. Jesus didn’t just tell the man to sell everything and give it to the poor (which would have been a worthy cause indeed). He also commanded to follow him.
So are all those other sermons and essays wrong? Not necessarily. While the point of this passage isn’t rejection of material wealth, it does point out the dangers of wealth. As stated earlier, when we take our pride in our possessions or money, we lose sight of God. When we achieve success and wealth through our own work, we start to think we can accomplish all things, even our own spiritual atonement. Wealth makes us comfortable and gives us more control over our own lives and makes us rely upon God and listen to him less. We should be mindful of our standard of living, for Christ teaches that it could be destroyed in an instant. Our peace should instead be in Christ.