The Lesson of the Rich Ruler
In Luke 18:18-30, Luke gives us one final instruction from Jesus in view of Jerusalem’s coming destruction. It starts out as a simple question about how to be lawful in going about one’s daily life. But then we find out that being lawful also has to do with priorities that are established by the First Commandment.
18 And a certain ruler [archon, “leader, chief, commander, magistrate”] questioned Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
This ruler certainly believed in Jesus, for his question was not designed to trap Jesus in any way. It was an honest question, and yet in calling Jesus “good Teacher,” he went beyond the norms of the day. Lightfoot points out,
“It was very unusual to salute the Rabbins of that nation with this title. For however they were wont to adorn (not to say load) either the dead or the absent with very splendid epithets, yet if they spoke to them while present, they gave them no other title than either Rabbi, or Mar, or Mari.” (Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. III, p. 189).
In other words, calling Jesus “good rabbi” had crossed the line into flattery, however sincere the ruler was. This seems to be the reason for Jesus’ negative response.
19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.”
Jesus “felt a love for him” (Mark 10:21) in his zeal to be lawful in all things, and yet He also saw a problem with his priorities. Calling Him “good” seemed, on the surface, to be his way of honoring Jesus, and because of this one might praise the man, rather than scold him. But Jesus discerned that he was in danger of violating the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” It seems that his wealth had become a priority in life, and this also caused him to overcompensate by addressing Jesus in flattering terms.
In Luke 18:19 Jesus continues by answering the man’s question about what to do to inherit eternal life:
19 “You know the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother’.”
Matthew’s account adds to this list, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:19).
The immediate question one might have is how this answer may differ from Paul’s theology about being justified by faith, rather than by the works of the law. But this was not a question of justification but of inheriting “eternal” life, or more literally, “life in The Age.” In other words, how does one inherit the first resurrection at the beginning of the Messianic Age, so that one is immortal during that Sabbath Millennium?
All who are of faith will be raised from the dead, but there are two resurrections, one at the start and one at the end of the thousand years (Rev. 20:1-6). A complete study of this is in my book, The Purpose of Resurrection. The ruler in question was one who already had faith in Jesus, as the story shows. He was already a believer, and so he was already justified. His question was not how to be a believer, but how to be an overcomer. The simple answer was to be lawful and obedient, that is, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 18:21 continues,
21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
The ruler had been raised on the commandments and no doubt was in good standing with the community for his obedience to the law. Compared to any of his contemporaries, he was as good as the best of them. More importantly, he was sincere, not hypocritical.
Priorities to Ponder
Jesus then pointed out his problem with priorities.
22 And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 23 But when he had heard these things, he became very sad; for he was extremely rich.
Matt. 19:22 and Mark 10:22 said that the rich ruler “went away grieving.” In other words, Jesus’ words stunned him. The fact that he was sad and grieved shows that he really did want to follow Jesus. However, such a huge decision required some time to ponder. He did not make this decision immediately, although we are told by a Church historian that he was one of those who gave his wealth to the apostles (Acts 4:34, 35) not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
According to the old manuscript, Life of St. Mary Magdalene, compiled by Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mayence (776-856 A.D.), this rich man was St. Maximin, or Maximinus. The Archbishop writes that he became the chief of The Seventy disciples of Jesus. From that old historical account, we find that this rich ruler, after pondering Jesus’ admonition, did indeed do as Jesus instructed him.
Later, He was one of the exiles placed in the oarless boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea along with the Bethany family and Joseph of Arimathea a few years after Jesus’ ascension. These survived the ordeal and made their way to Marseilles on the southern coast of what is now France. Martha committed herself to the care of St. Parmenas, while St. Maximin took care of Mary Magdalene. Some time after Mary’s death, “the chief relic, the head of St. Mary Magdalene, [was] preserved in a small crypt in the great church of St. Maximin” (The Coming of the Saints, J. W. Taylor, p. 104).
In Luke 18:24, 25 we read,
24 And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For 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.”
Matthew 19:23 says,
23 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Mark 10:23 says,
23 And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”
Both Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus spoke these words to His disciples and not to the rich ruler. But Luke’s account seems to have Jesus addressing the ruler himself. Which is it?
The apparent discrepancy is resolved by The Emphatic Diaglott, which renders Luke 18:24,
24 And Jesus seeing him, said, “With what difficulty will those having riches enter the kingdom of God!”
In other words, Jesus and the rich ruler were not looking at each other when these words were spoken. Jesus spoke the words to the disciples as he watched the rich ruler walk away. Neither did Luke’s account tell us the final decision of the rich ruler. But what did Jesus mean about a camel going through the eye of a needle?
Eye of the Needle
The Babylonian Talmud gives a similar metaphor, saying, “Who can make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle?” (Baba Mezi’a, 38b)
The primary meaning, then, is to show the impossibility of such large objects passing through the eye of a needle. In the case of the rich man, he was carrying too much baggage. Some have said that the “needle” was a small gate leading into a city, a gate too small for a loaded camel to enter. In order to enter the gate, the camel had to be unloaded.
George Lamsa’s Aramaic translation (Peshitta) translates it,
25 It is easier for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
The Aramic word gamla means both a rope and a camel, perhaps because ropes were made from camel hair. Whichever way we translate it, the meaning is the same. The response from the disciples is found in Luke 18:26,
26 And they who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”
I find this response somewhat strange. Did the disciples believe that it was easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven? Since the great religious men of Jerusalem were, more often than not, men of great wealth, and they were supposedly the most righteous as well—judging from their position in the temple—then it would seem that wealth gives a person a better opportunity to gain righteousness. The rich ruler in the story was obviously a man of outstanding character who was scrupulous insofar as the commandments were concerned. Yet he was grieved at the thought of unloading the baggage from his proverbial camel.
The common people had to labor all day to make a living and had little time to study the Word or to spend time in the temple. How could they ever be expected to find the time necessary to be saved?
Jesus showed that the kingdom is given mostly to the common people and to the poor. Riches were more often a hindrance to the Kingdom, for wealth often brings pride. I have witnessed personally how people have changed suddenly from being humble to being arrogant when they came into sudden wealth.
But the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” If the wealthy can hardly be saved, how could a poor man possibly be saved when he had to work all day to make a living? Jesus simply answered in Luke 18:27,
27 But He said, “The things impossible with men are possible with God.”
Perhaps this was a reference to the idea that salvation by works or by one’s ability to keep the vow of the Old Covenant (Exodus 19:8) was an impossibility. Nonetheless, salvation is indeed possible, as the New Covenant depended upon God’s vow to make us His people (Deut. 29:12). Salvation comes by the promise of God, and since nothing is impossible for God, He is able to keep His vows.
Peter then, seeing how he and the other disciples had left their wealth behind to follow Jesus, played the spokesman for the other disciples in Luke 18:28-30, where we read,
28 And Peter said, “Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.” 29 And He said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”
The disciples’ reward would not necessarily be physical wealth. The real wealth, after all, is not measured in monetary terms, but in the knowledge and wisdom of God and in one’s relationship with Christ. In fact, all physical wealth must be subjected to the First Command-ment to have no other gods before Him. In other words, wealth must be viewed as a means to advance the sovereignty of God and to expand the influence of His Kingdom.
If this is done, then one’s priorities are lawful, and one’s wealth is sanctified, regardless of its size. Whether rich or poor, if we understand that God owns us by right of creation, then all that we have belongs to God. That is, God has sovereignty, and what He has given us is only ours by the law of authority, which is always subject to God’s sovereign claim on all things.
This is Luke’s final lesson in view of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The rich rulers of Jerusalem had usurped the throne of Christ, claiming it for themselves. Luke uses the rich ruler as a prophetic type of the rich religious rulers in Jerusalem, who thought they were scrupulous in following the law, and yet lacked the ability to keep the First Commandment. They were violating the First Commandment—and, indeed, all of the commandments—for their priority was to themselves before God, whether they realized it or not.
If their hearts had been right, they—like the rich ruler who came to Jesus—might have avoided the destruction that was soon to come.