Jesus’s encounter with the rich young ruler is fascinating. Unfortunately, the most we ever retain of it is the command for the man to give away his fortune and his walking away disappointed. But it’s the rest of the story and Jesus’s insight on the human heart that makes this account intriguing.
We know from the story itself that this gentleman was young, rich, and some type of ruler, perhaps of a synagogue or political institution. We also know that he was eagerly devout but now troubled in his spiritual life, which brought him to Jesus.
In my mind, I always envision this guy as the newbie executive, good-looking and not long out of grad school, boasting a remarkable resume and impeccable work record and reputed to be a go-getter. Everyone loves being around him, even the old-heads. But, although he’s sharp and soaring to the top, he still needs some tweaking, and he runs smack into the one who can help him the most see what he’s missing.
This man finds Jesus on his way out of town. He respectfully bows, acknowledging Jesus’s status as a great teacher. Then he makes a mistake—“Good teacher…” The mistake isn’t apparent to us because we don’t share the language or cultural context in which it was expressed. Surely we consider Jesus a good teacher in every possible sense.
Yet Jesus stops him…on a technicality. The word good—the way it was conveyed—denotes intrinsic goodness and was mainly used when referring to Jehovah. Jesus challenges the man’s needless flattery: “Why do you refer to me with such divine language but respect me as a mere man?” There was much Jesus could’ve said to affirm his divinity with the statement, but this wasn’t the point. Instead, it is a lesson about simplicity and avoiding pretension that this “executive” quickly learns with Jesus.
So what was he to do to inherit eternal life? Something agitated this young man. He was devout but searching, and his audience with the great Galilean had come. Jesus points him to the Law of Moses to which he discloses his lifelong history of discreet living.
There is a correlation here between this man and the seeker. What we see in the ruler is an awakened spiritual conscience being drawn by the Holy Spirit. We should not doubt his words to Jesus that he had obeyed the precepts of God as best he could. But Jesus, already knowing the condition of his heart, lures him to a perch in his own soul where he could perceive that religion-by-the-book falls terribly short of unbridled devotion from the heart.
“One thing you lack,” Jesus tells him. This was the climactic moment this Jesus admirer had long awaited. He was going to get the solution to his problem. “Go, sell everything you have.” What! This was no letdown; it was a shock. But he was cornered, and he understood exactly what Jesus was telling him.
Jesus wasn’t condemning this man’s status, wealth, or reputation. Instead, he was attacking the covetousness that festered in his heart. Money had a grip on this man’s life, and his devotion to God, something he treasured, suffered because of it. Jesus’s instruction was a major test that served to reveal the root problem—idolatry—that prevented him from having the peace he sought.
Jesus asked him to do the impossible for himself—for someone else it could be the directive to end a relationship, to quit a job or activity, or to assume a responsibility. The command, whatever it is, exposes what might be controlling us, and within it we always face a decision. Unfortunately for this man, covetousness proved that he could not freely serve God because he would not.
Before I move on, notice something Jesus said: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Does that formula sound familiar? The text explains that Jesus had a fondness for this guy. Surely Jesus appraised his inner purity and strength of character.
Was he inviting this gentleman to be part of his circle…a disciple? The other twelve had indeed left everything behind to follow Jesus. Certainly, there was some type of ministry Jesus intended for him. Here was a break this young executive could’ve only imagined, but his heart wouldn’t allow him to have it.
After the man leaves Jesus dejected, Jesus exclaims, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” In fact, he says it twice. Then, he states something incredibly revealing: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
He speaks of the transformation of the heart, with regard to the rich who have idolized their wealth but not limited to them. The verse is similar to those given in Genesis (18:14) and Jeremiah (32:27) where the reference is more about physical might: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Of course, Jesus would aim the notion toward the heart.
What is possible is the ability for the human heart to overcome even the strongest vices by God’s grace. It may be incredibly difficult and people might never believe it about one, but God will help us, if we let him.
And is this not the gospel? Isn’t this the fullest expression of the cross? That we need not be dominated…mastered by sin…controlled by our weaknesses? After a while sin isn’t fun anymore. Jesus offers us freedom.
(Drawn from Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30)