The Rich Young Ruler
Pp Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-23
Jesus’ Reply and the Ten Commandments
The Idols that Separate
Some commentators see the progression from the teaching concerning divorce of Mtw 19:3-12 to that concerning the children in Mtw 19:13-15 to be so arranged as to provide a defence against those who might have inadvertently taken Jesus’ words concerning that it was better not to marry as grounds to accuse Him as being against children in general. Therefore Mathag comments in his opening sentences concerning the previous passage
‘That Jesus does not regard marriage unfavourably in the preceding pericope [Mtw 19:3-12] is made clear in the present passage [Mtw 19:13-15] by His affirming attitude toward children’
Of course, this needn’t be taken as a direct consequence of these two passages being combined together here as they are, because Jesus has already spoken very openly in Matthew chapter 18 about the uniqueness of children and the important truths that such young people have to teach the disciples about how they should accept and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The connection between Mtw 19:13-15 and this present passage, however, is less obvious and no one observes that Jesus’ mention of the children who are nothing in the world’s eyes and yet who can enter into the Kingdom solely because they have no status which would hold them back from making a commitment (Mtw 18:1-4, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17) is exactly the principle which the rich young man fails to grasp and by which he’s stumbled in his pursuit of being perfect before God.
The contrast of these two passages is stark when viewed this way and Mathag’s observation that the rich young man has great riches which keep him
‘...from the full and unreserved commitment required of one who would become a disciple’
must necessarily be seen to stand as the obverse of Jesus’ teaching concerning the ‘little believers’ who enter into the Kingdom because they’re neither trusting in their own possessions and status, nor their self-righteousness and worthiness before God.
If there’s a deliberate connection between Mtw 19:3-12 and 19:13-15 - which I omitted writing about on the previous web page because I felt the connection was rather loose - there is most certainly a connection between Mtw 19:13-15 and 19:16-22 simply because they deal with the positive and negative aspects of being acceptable to God.
‘In a culture where wealth was regarded as a sign of God’s blessing...’
writes Matfran, Jesus’ acceptance of the people with no status and His repudiation of those with power and position was strikingly offensive. As I’ve said before, we shouldn’t water down the harsh reality of what Jesus is saying and how what He repeatedly did in Israelite society was to throw away culturally accepted norms to be replaced by the will of God, a statement that, although Israel had the name upon her as being God’s nation, they had developed their lifestyles into something which was opposing the will of God.
The Rich Young Ruler
The man who approaches Jesus has normally been described as the ‘rich young ruler’ when this incident is recited but this owes more to a compilation of descriptors than to one definitive statement in the text. In Mtw 19:20,22 the RSV uses the phrase ‘young man’ to describe him (Strongs Greek number 3495) which is lacking from both Mark and Luke. Unfortunately, the use of this word tells us very little about the age of the man even though, in our own society, a ‘young man’ or ‘youth’ would either be taken as a label on someone below twenty-five or, by an old man, as anyone more than ten years his junior (which could make the person quite old!).
The other occurrences of the word in the NT aren’t immediately helpful, either (Mark 14:51 x2, 16:5, Luke 7:14, Acts 2:17, 5:10, I John 2:13, 2:14), and the only two relevant verses are Acts 2:17 where our word is contrasted with ‘old men’ and I John 2:13-14 where the word stands as the middle age between (spiritual) fathers and (spiritual) children and so must necessarily mean someone who has reached maturity.
However, this is about all that can be said about the description and, now that I’m starting to go grey, I tend to use the phrase with increasing regularity as a label for more and more people I encounter! It could be reasoned that the author of Matthew was struck by the apparent youth of the man who was approaching Jesus or that, when we consider that he was also a ruler, that he was young to be such - and yet still quite old! After all, when he says to Jesus that he’s observed the commandments since he was a ‘youth’ (Strongs Greek number 3503), the word employed is similar in meaning to his current age observed by Matthew.
It’s Luke alone who tells us that the man was a ‘ruler’ (Luke 18:18 - Strongs Greek number 758). This word, again, can mean a great many things and Kittels notes that the term
‘...denotes a “high official” mostly in civil life, rarely in the religious life...’
but this last definition is largely negated by Luke 8:41 which speaks of the ‘ruler of the synagogue’, Mtw 9:18 which, by a comparison with Mark 5:22, can be seen to be referring to one and the same position and Acts 23:5 which is used to refer to the high priest. Perhaps the label used of Nicodemus in John 3:1 which speaks of him simply as ‘a ruler of the Jews’ is more vague but, if we were to attempt a positive identification of the young man’s position, it would be the more likely that ‘ruler of the synagogue’ is what he was - but we can’t be certain.
That the man was rich is variously described in all three Gospel records, Mtw 19:22 and Mark 10:22 stating that
‘...he had great possessions’
and Luke 18:23 that
‘...he was very rich’
He’s also referred to as a ‘rich man’ (Mtw 19:23-24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25) and as one who has ‘riches’ (Mark 10:23, Luke 18:24) but the point of Jesus’ subsequent teaching is not that only men and women who have wealth beyond measure will find it difficult to enter the Kingdom but any and everyone who have ‘great possessions’. There may be one who isn’t even regarded as being part of the middle classes but who has untold possessions that he idolises and which he’s put his life and soul into - this person is in just as much a problem position if he’s unwilling to let go than is the millionaire who is seeking to maintain all that he has but still wants the Kingdom.
The label of ‘rich young ruler’, therefore, is quite an accurate description of this man who approaches Jesus even though we can’t be certain what age the descriptor ‘young’ means, we can’t be certain over what the man was considered to be a ‘ruler’ and what is true of the man because of possessions is equally true of any who have objects in their own lives which they’re unwilling to let go!
I shall be using the term ‘rich young ruler’, however, in the notes - we just have to remember that the phrase actually means very little!
Mtw 19:16-17, Mark 10:17-18, Luke 18:18-19
There are a few issues here which we need to deal with before we go on to look at the reason for Jesus’ response (Mtw 19:17)
‘Why do you ask Me about what is good? One there is who is good...’
Firstly, the opening scene is only vividly described by Mark who writes (Mark 10:17) that
‘...as [Jesus] was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him...’
a statement which appears to be paralleled by Mtw 19:15 which saw Jesus laying His hands upon the children that were being brought to Him and then, afterwards, He ‘went away’. It would appear that, as He was departing from that area in the Judean wilderness, the rich young ruler ran up to Him to catch Him before He left.
The implication appears to be, then, that the man had been impressed by what had been transpiring in the region in which he lived and wanted to have his need met before Jesus moved on elsewhere. It seems logical to assume that this ruler was a resident of the immediate area in which Jesus was ministering at this time rather than him being thought of as one of the pilgrims who had been journeying along with Jesus from Galilee.
His approach is as one who has been impressed by the ‘Rabbi’s’ teaching to the point where he’s demonstrating his willingness to be submissive to the answer he receives from His lips. In the end, the demands of the Gospel will be too much for this young man to accept but, initially, he’s demonstrating his respect and willingness to obey what is about to be taught him.
Secondly, there appears to be a conflict between Mtw 19:16-17 and Mark 10:17-18 and the reader is confronted initially with having to seemingly make a decision as to whether the rich young ruler asked Jesus what ‘good deed’ he had to do or whether he addressed Him as ‘good Teacher’. Indeed, some feel it necessary to decide between either one or the other without realising that there’s no problem in accepting that both passages are recording accurately what took place but that each author is selecting only the material which he feels is relevant for his work.
Therefore, we should see the man’s question as running along the lines of
‘Good Teacher, what righteous deed must I do...?’
and Jesus replying with
‘Why do you call Me good? And why do you ask Me about what is good? No one is good...’
As we will see below shortly, both Mark and Luke aren’t teaching that Jesus was refusing to accept His own sinlessness but that, by His reply, Jesus is calling into question the concept which the rich young ruler has of ‘goodness’. And whether we take the adjective ‘good’ to be added to either ‘teacher’ or ‘deed’, the result would still be the same.
We must give credit where credit’s due - just as Jesus did (Mark 10:21) - and state from the very outset that the rich young ruler had lived a morally good life according to the Mosaic Law and was in a unique position, no doubt, among his fellow Jews to be able to say that he had observed all the commandments from his youngest of years (Mtw 19:20).
But, nevertheless, inside he knew that he didn’t possess eternal life or else he wouldn’t have asked Jesus the direct question as to what it was that needed doing before he could be assured that it was his (Mtw 19:16). Therefore he came to Jesus to try and have his need met - again, his realisation that Jesus was the One who could give him the answer to his question was flawless and may have even been an indication that the young man had already received a revelation from God the Father concerning the absolute authority of the One who’d been ministering in their midst.
The problem with his question, though, was that he came to Jesus asking what good deed he had to do to obtain eternal life (Mtw 19:16) which showed Jesus that he was still trying to earn a place in the Kingdom by works of the Law and not through a gift of mercy in his turning to God for forgiveness - indeed, if the man thought that he’d been living a morally perfect life, how could he ever come to the realisation that there was something amiss which needed forgiving?
Therefore, the unnerving assurance he had which propelled him to come to Jesus to ask what he was lacking betrays his inner doubts that all was not well and that, despite his righteous life, there was still something which needed to be done.
Although externally he was both righteous and rich, internally he was unrighteous and bankrupt as Jesus will go on to show him. Jesus’ opening response (Mtw 19:17) is that
‘One there is who is good’
or (Mark 10:18) that
‘No one is good but God alone’
and He’s beginning to show him that it’s not by works of the Law (that is, by being good) that a man can earn eternal life for there is no one who’s good enough - not, as some have interpreted the parallel passages in both Mark and Luke to be inferring that Jesus is saying that He wasn’t God come in human form (Cp John 8:58, 18:5) but that goodness must be assessed by the One alone who is good and through the application of His revealed will in the commandments to mankind.
The point of Jesus’ reply is to challenge the rich young ruler’s definition of goodness which appears to infer that there’s a level which may be attained on earth that will reach up to God’s perfect standard of holiness. The man saw Jesus as being in a special relationship with God, in a place which far surpassed the position in which he stood and he naturally thought of Jesus as having come to that point where acceptance before God had been achieved.
But, if only God is good, then entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be by man’s goodness but by God’s mercy where the bestowal of forgiveness must be an integral part of what it means to have ‘eternal life’.
Jesus will shortly go on to bring the young man further to his senses when He lists the commandments and allows the man to proclaim his own goodness. As we will see below, however, Jesus’ deliberate omission of one specific commandment is the very one which the man has been running away from and which has been hindering him from committing himself fully to the will of God.
Before we move on to Jesus’ use of the OT Law to show the rich young ruler where his problem lay, we need to pause one moment and consider Mark 10:21 which reads that
‘...Jesus looking upon [the young man] loved him...’
as a response to the man’s statement that
‘...all these [commandments] I have observed from my youth’
It’s incredibly rare in the NT that we find Jesus being spoken of as directly loving individuals and perhaps the most remembered statement is in John 13:23 where we read that
‘One of His disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus’
and which refers to John (see also John 20:2, 21:7,20). The only other place that I can think of such a statement being made is in John 11:5 where the author records that
‘...Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’
In both cases, though, we don’t know why! Was it something which they’d done that had drawn Jesus to consider them as special friends? Was it that their character so matched His that He felt a certain affinity with them? Was it just that these four are mentioned specifically when Jesus actually loved everyone equally? That last question seems hardly likely to be answered with an affirmation simply because it’s difficult to read anything into the passages but that there was something special which caused Him to be able to have it said about Him that He ‘loved them’. But whether it was who they were or what they did is impossible to say.
However, the statement which we read in Mark 10:21 is straightforward in its interpretation. Jesus loved the rich young ruler because there was something either in his response or something which he sensed about him which drew Him to regard him with favour. Although Markcole avoids the subject and speaks in general terms which interpret the reason with a list of questions, Marklane is certain that
‘...there was an earnestness in the man which Jesus recognised’
That is, Jesus was aware that the man’s reply was a genuinely honest answer and that he’d sincerely gone after obeying God’s commandments as he saw them. The tragedy of the situation is not that he wasn’t being honest to Jesus but that he seems to have neglected to think carefully on the tenth and most important commandment to him - the command not to covet which, when interpreted by Jesus into giving away all that he had, was widened to include personal covetousness and a transgression of the first commandment to have no other gods before YHWH (Ex 20:3).
Personal morality is always deceptive - whether it be based on the commandments given to Israel through Moses or on a morality system which we compile and enforce upon others. After all, in the UK’s prisons, the violent will seek to destroy the paedophiles and rapists who serve prison sentences in the same prisons as themselves because the latter have transgressed the morality of the former.
What the former can never come to terms with in the natural is not that sex offenders will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven but that their own offences should be grounds for a refusal of admission. Likewise, amongst the more moral sections of society - it’s all too easy for us to think of others as needing to be judged by God because they transgress our standards rather than see ourselves in dire need of cleansing when compared to the perfect standard of God’s character.
The rich young ruler was blameless under the Law he’d applied to himself - but where he’d glossed over the first and tenth commandments was where he’d failed himself.
Jesus’ Reply and the Ten Commandments
Mtw 19:17-22, Mark 10:19-22, Luke 18:20-23
I began trying to understand the reason for Jesus’ use of the commandments at the end of the previous section to emphasise the way that mankind likes to assimilate together commands which they lift up as being the boundaries of their own personal morality and so are able to condemn as deserving of punishment those who lie outside the definitive statements.
This appears to have been much of what the rich young ruler has already done, presupposing that man can attain a level of goodness which would be acceptable to God when it was only perfection through obedience to the Law which could ever satisfy its requirements. After all, Moses warned the nation (Deut 28:58 - my italics) that they must be
‘...careful to do all the words of this law which are written in this book...’
and that, if they failed to do so (Deut 28:59)
‘...the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions, afflictions severe and lasting, and sicknesses grievous and lasting’
To think that perfection could ever come through the observance of the Law was incorrect but, even so, the rich young ruler had tried to live up to the commandments. Nevertheless, there was one in particular (the tenth - Ex 20:17) and another which was applied (the first - Ex 20:3) which called him to account and which were to shatter his self-confidence in being able to retain his own lifestyle while, at the same time, shatter his own illusions that he might find entry into the Kingdom of Heaven to be easy.
Indeed, entry is easy if we’re willing to forsake all that we have to possess all that God has, but the young man wanted to maintain his own way of living while still to be assured of eternal life.
We should pay particular attention, then, to the commandments which Jesus chooses to declare to the young man when he asks him which commandments are necessary to be observed (Mtw 19:18). The following table presents us with a list which are used by the three Synoptic authors and, even though there is some variation in what’s recorded, the main point is that the tenth of the commandments concerning covetousness is not mentioned.
||You shall not kill
||You shall not commit adultery
||You shall not steal
||You shall not bear false witness
||Do not defraud
||Honour your father and mother
*Note the final 'commandment' which is paralleled
in Mark 12:31 which is used as a summary there of
||You shall love your neighbour as yourself
the fifth to tenth of the ten commandments.
Jesus reply, then, uses five of the six ‘love your fellow man/neighbour’ commands of the ten commandments (the ones which run from the beginning of the fifth to the end of the passages Ex 20:2-17 and Deut 5:6-21) but, significantly, Jesus leaves out the one which deals with covetousness (Ex 20:17, Deut 5:21) knowing the rich young ruler’s need and that he’ll continue to realise that there’s something missing and to ask once more (Mtw 19:20)
‘...what do I still lack?’
Mattask, however, sees not an end of Jesus’ words concerning the commandments and a natural break in the narrative for the ruler to respond, but that
‘At this point the young man interrupts...’
something which is lacking in the text of the incident. We don’t need to presume that this is what occurred here at all but his further words that
‘His conscience is troubling him; and the reason seems to be that he is aware that he has altogether failed to keep the tenth commandment...His riches have increased and he has set his heart upon them. He has become a slave to his possessions’
are correct. The external matters of the commandments were all perfectly kept but it was the internal desires of the heart which found their centre in his own possessions which were the real problem. Externally, he could boast (with justification) that he had been obedient to the letter of the Law but he knew that within there was something which was witnessing to his failure to be fully committed to God.
But, even though covetousness is dealt with in the final commandment, we must also remember that it doesn’t deal with covetousness towards one’s own possessions but other people’s. That is, the rule says nothing about holding fast to what one has but of wanting to gain possession of what belongs to others. We should therefore see an amalgamation of two commandments and include the first in Ex 20:3 which reads (using the marginal reading)
‘You shall have no other gods besides Me’
The man’s heart is in his earthly treasure (Cp Mtw 19:21 with Mtw 6:19-21) and he’s thrown into a conflict between whether he is to serve God or serve Himself. Matmor comments that
‘He had made a god of his wealth and when faced with the challenge he could not forsake that god’
and Mattask, also, is correct on seeing Jesus’ command to sell all that he has as a challenge for him to
‘...make a direct assault upon the covetousness which holds him enthralled’
and, further, Matfran sees the final summation of the commands recorded by Matthew in loving one’s neighbour as oneself as demanding
‘...a practical renunciation for which he is not prepared’
The point is that the Law had achieved it’s purpose of calling the man to give an account of himself to God and to face up to personal truth which he was trying to flee. Jesus pinpoints the imperfection when asked and so demonstrates the hindrance which would always hold him back from a full and wholehearted commitment to God. Only when this would be overthrown could the man face up to his lack, turn to God for forgiveness and mercy and so begin a new life unhindered by the stumbling block of his material wealth.
It wasn’t just that the young man lacked one thing but that he lacked everything - He could not serve God because of the other god that was being served in his life. If he truly forsook all he had and turned to follow Jesus with nothing to hinder his service, then he would have entered into all that God wanted to do in him through forgiveness and mercy (Mtw 19:21) but, as Jesus said in Mtw 6:24
‘...You cannot serve God and mammon [material riches]’
Finally, by telling the rich young ruler to do a ‘good deed’ (Mtw 19:21), was Jesus saying that salvation could be obtained by works of the Law and that perfection might be achieved by keeping it wholly? To say ‘yes’ to the question would be to negate what Jesus has already said in Mtw 19:17 where we noted that Jesus’ words that
‘No one is good [enough]...but God alone’
called into question relative good and demonstrated that the young man had failed to perceive that his goodness through the keeping of the Law was not an absolute as he was hoping to make it out to be. What Jesus does is to highlight that area in his life which is lacking so that he may turn to God in repentance for the forgiveness of sins and therefore obtain the salvation that he is earnestly desiring.
Unfortunately, the rich young ruler went away from Jesus with the issue unresolved (Mtw 19:22) and, whether he ever came to the right decision, is impossible to say. But each believer may covet a possession that causes full commitment to the Gospel to be impossible, even though they may not possess the sorts of riches that this young man did who approached Jesus.
The demands of the Gospel are plain, however. Everything must be given up for the sake of the Gospel (Luke 14:33 Cp Mtw 19:27) in order that the will of God might not be hindered from being done fully. The problem with the ruler was not that he was rich but that his heart was in his possessions and that he couldn’t bring himself to be fully committed to the will of God. Jesus’ demands upon men and women are equally applicable whether they be given the label by society as belonging to the upper, middle or lower classes - there are still ownership problems that need to be resolved which hinder complete and perfect obedience to God.
A disciple must deal with these to fully enter in to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Idols that Separate
It’s very easy for us to look at the rich young ruler, see that we don’t have the sort of material wealth that he must have had and so move on to another passage because we find the message irrelevant. But, as always, there are principles here which have important considerations for us as we try and follow Jesus wholly in our lives, and we are forced into asking ourselves what it would be in our own lives that we would be unwilling to sacrifice for the Kingdom’s sake.
The problem with the young man of the story wasn’t that he had something but that he had his heart in it so that especially the first of the ten commandments is being flaunted internally which reads (Ex 20:3 -marginal reading)
‘You shall have no other gods besides Me’
It’s too easy to justify ourselves by saying that we’ve removed the statues of Buddha from our houses and the objects which are connected with foreign religions and to proclaim ourselves to have a clean bill of spiritual health, not realising that idolatry is just as much a matter of the heart as it is in the objects which we build to represent the internal beliefs.
If we could render down the incident of the rich young ruler into a sentence or two, we’d see that Jesus is simply challenging something in him that’s a hindrance to him being able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 19:23). The idol of his heart which was centred in his material wealth was, for him, a more important object to serve than was Jesus and the Kingdom which He was bringing.
It was primarily his unwillingness to forsake earthly treasure that was being challenged (Luke 14:33) and it was this which proved to be too costly a price to pay for the certain knowledge that he could have had of eternal life.
But to different men and women, there’s something equally problematical which seeks to stumble them - whether it be external to their own lives or internal - and such an idol has to be broken from a believer’s life if they’re ever to be set free to serve God in fulness. Indeed, if we read some of the Scriptures which deal with the idols of man’s heart, the removal of the idolatrous isn’t just necessary that they might serve God in fulness but serve God at all.
To Peter, the problem was his self-assertion and over-confidence (Mtw 16:22, 17:4, 17:25, 26:33,35), broken in Mtw 26:75 and seen to be so in John 21:15-19. In short, his reliance upon his own strengths became a threat to the very advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven.
To a would-be disciple, it was hardship (Mtw 8:20), to another it was family commitments (Mtw 8:21-22, Luke 14:26). To yet others it will be a denial of self (Luke 14:27, Mtw 10:38 - that is, of not doing what we ourselves want to do, to alternatively chose God’s will). In fact, it will always be a love of self in a specific way that will be challenged and which needs to be broken in a believer’s life that reliance upon God becomes the prime characteristic of the believer’s life.
In the parable of the banquet (Luke 14:15-24), to one it was a field that needed to be seen (14:18), another had a yoke of oxen to be examined (14:19) and yet another a wife that had just been married (14:20).
To Simon the magician, it was a quest for power (Acts 8:18-24), to some Jews it was their devotion to legalism (Mtw 12:2, 15:2) and to some christians also (Acts 15:1, Gal 5:2-4, 5:11-12) and to the Jewish leaders and fellow Jews it was jealousy (Mtw 21:37-39, Acts 5:17, 13:45, 17:5).
With each believer it will be something different but it will be equally a challenge that cuts at the very heart of the people we are. We might look at another and say that such and such a thing was easy to sacrifice for God but we cannot perceive of the inner difficulties such an idol might present. And, likewise, another might wonder at our own struggles to be rid of something which is so integrated into who we are that they think we’re delaying a decision through neglect.
When God calls a believer, there are numerous idols which must be challenged that they might be set free from the former things which held them captive. The rich young ruler didn’t, in the end, see the idol for what it was and destroy it - rather, he chose to cling fast to his earthly possessions rather than find the assurance of eternal life.
Whatever shape or form an idol takes in a believer’s life, however, it has to be dealt a fatal blow if the disciple is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
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