Three Gospels report an incident in which a young man approaches Jesus and asks specifically how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response is a bit confusing and makes it difficult – not impossible – to achieve a clear interpretation. Because of the confusion this passage is often ignored or misrepresented.
This post is an attempt to bring sense to an otherwise perplexing situation.
The young man, who happened to be of the ruling class and therefore wealthy, approaches Jesus (Mark says he ran to Jesus and knelt) asking how he might inherit eternal life.
It’s a good question. We have to give him high marks just for asking.
The interesting thing is, Jesus did not convulsively respond with the standard “confess your sinfulness and trust in me” answer.
Instead, in this situation, He attempted to explore the heart of this young man and in the conversation that followed, Jesus said three things that cause us to raise our eyebrows:
- One, He asked “why do you call me good,” making the point that only God was good, seemingly insinuating that He was neither good nor God.
- Two, He told the man eternal life could be entered by keeping the commandments.
- Three, He directed the man to sell everything he owned and give the proceeds to the poor.
Obviously, these remarks don’t gel with our understanding of truth. They really make us wonder:
- Why would Jesus insinuate He wasn’t good?
- Why would He suggest that obeying commandments would merit eternal life?
- And why would this man have to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor before he could be right with God?
There is no evidence that Jesus said any of these things to any other person and in some passages He says just the opposite.
- Jesus told the Pharisees, “before Abraham was, I am” and the meaning wasn’t lost on them.
It was a clear reference to His eternal self-existence and His equality with God. Why was He straightforward with the Pharisees about this issue but a bit cryptic with the young ruler?
- Jesus made it clear that He was the only way to God and heaven. In a conversation with the disciples and specifically in response to a question by Thomas, Jesus said, “
I am the way , the truth, and the life; no man comes unto the Father, but by me.” He also indicated the plan of salvation…
“He that hears my word and believes on Him that sent me has everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation but it passed from death unto life.” (John 5:24)
There is nothing in that statement about keeping commandments or liquidating assets for the benefit of the poor. The formula is, “hear and believe,” period.
So, is Jesus teaching a double standard or what?
- In the Gospel of Luke Jesus said salvation had come to the house of Zaccheus, a man who had given only half of his earnings to the poor.
Why the difference? If one must sell everything and give all proceeds to the poor why not the other?
Are we to believe Jesus was playing favorites?
Additionally, there are other passages in the New Testament that clearly contradict what Jesus was apparently suggesting.
Relative to His goodness and His equality with God Paul said Jesus had equal status with God before His incarnation and He not only created everything but also holds it all together.
So why did Jesus side step the issue with the young ruler?
Relative to keeping commandments Paul said a man is not justified by the deeds of the law and salvation is a gift entirely undeserved.
Why did Jesus suggest the opposite?
Relative to wealth there are many spiritual greats in the Bible who were quite wealthy: Abraham, Job, Caleb and David in the Old Testament and in the New Testament Joseph of Arimathea, Lydia, Philemon and more.
Why were these people accepted without downsizing financially?
Well, the answers are considerably simpler that you might think.
Jesus wasn’t teaching us salvation truth in this passage He was teaching us about people and how to guide them to salvation. Salvation is always the same and people are always different.
Every person is an individual physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually and most importantly, every person is an individual circumstantially. This man’s circumstances are significant. They provide the context that helps us understand Jesus’ response.
Not only did he come from a political family – privileged and wealthy – but he also observed religion from a distance, like a scientist peering at a test tube. He was intrigued not compelled.
But when Jesus came along that changed. Not only was Jesus more accepting – touching lepers and eating with the religiously questionable – He fielded and answered questions.
And this young man had an important question to ask, a question that no one else had been able to answer before. It may be that no one would have entertained it before Jesus.
But did the young man really understand who Jesus was? He may have been sincere but sincerity isn’t enough. He needed information and Jesus’ reaction indicates there were some gaps in his understanding.
Living in a predominantly Jewish area – a little bit like Moses only in reverse – he would have been familiar with Jewish concepts but his knowledge was superficial. The finer points of Jewish religious/philosophical concepts were reserved for the committed only. Being political made him even less a candidate for training in religious issues.
When this man approached Jesus he was interested but poorly informed.
And the old adage that a little knowledge is worse than none at all, applies. He does come across as sincere. In response to one of his answers the Bible actually says Jesus loved him. I doubt Jesus was fooled. He knew what was in his heart and drew it out for our benefit.
Jesus statements were designed to instruct this man in particular not establish a general principle for everyone else to apply. Following are the reasons Jesus said what He did.
Jesus focused on three important points of truth.
One, Goodness Isn’t Relative
The young ruler referred to Jesus as “good master” and the response was, “why do you call me good, only God is good” and that brief statement suggests a couple of interesting ideas.
One, “good” is not relative. It doesn’t apply to everyone in a general sense although that is how most people use the term.
From God’s point of view, and according to Jesus, goodness is an absolute quality. You are either completely good or you are not and Paul verified this understanding. When talking about humanity he said:
There is none righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10).
This young ruler may have sincerely wanted to be better than most and Jesus baited him to draw him out but Jesus made it clear that “good” is an absolute quality and is not possible for humans.
This man nor anyone else can be good enough to qualify for heaven. Any motivation to achieve it that way is miss aimed.
Note: by all means be as good as you can. You and everyone around you will be better off for it but please don’t think it is your ticket to heaven. You can’t be that good!
There is another observation to be made from the “good” statements.
Jesus wasn’t flattered by the compliment and responded not with “thank you” but a question that tests the man’s understanding. Did he really understand the nature of “good” – that it only applied to God? Was he being ingratiating or did he genuinely see Jesus as divine?
- How “good” did the young man believe Jesus was?
- Was he trying to be good like Jesus or was he seeing in Jesus a goodness he could not achieve on his own?
- Did he believe Jesus was good because He was God or God because He was good?
From our perspective, Jesus’ statement could be taken in two ways: insinuating He isn’t God or implying He is. Jesus asked His question to see where he stood. He knew Jesus was good. Did he also understand that Jesus was God?
It was subtle but Jesus was making the point that He was, in fact, God and therefore able to save.
Secondly, The Best Way To Verify Your Inability To Be Absolutely Good Is To Try And Obey The Commandments.
And that’s why Jesus told him to obey them.
The Bible teaches that the primary function of law is to convince us we are less than perfect, therefore, deserving of judgment and needing salvation desperately.
Romans 3:20 plainly says, “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” and the author of Romans, Paul, later admits “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Romans 7:7).
Any person who genuinely tries to keep the commandments will soon realize that it can’t be done and the truth is, if we were truly good in the absolute sense we wouldn’t need laws. We would be living embodiments of law every minute of every day.
By the way, the ones who try the hardest to live “up” to the law are the ones who admit to the most wretchedness such as Martin Luther, St. Augustine and others. It can’t be done. The harder we try the more disappointed we are.
Most people are honest about this. They admit to sincerely trying to obey but not quite getting to the level of perfection. Being right with the law requires a constant vigil that is never satisfied. People who say they have never broken a command are either speaking “tongue in cheek,” hiding something or, worse, delusional.
So where does the young man fit in?
When told to obey the commandments he asked which ones (Matthew). He obviously thought some were beyond his ability to comply. That in itself is an admission of imperfection although I don’t think he realized it. Anyone who really understood the issues wouldn’t have asked the question.
Jesus was actually setting this guy up. He wanted to guide him to the place where he could see his problem clearly.
By the way, Jesus only mentioned the five commands related to other humans – don’t dishonor parents or adulterate, steal from, murder or lie to/about your neighbors – or in other words “love your neighbor as yourself.”
And the young man enthusiastically exclaimed, “all of these I have obeyed from my youth up.” Really? Was he fooling himself?
What we have is a situation in which both Jesus and the young man acknowledged specific commandments as characterizing “good.” The young man thought he qualified, probably sincerely, and Jesus knew better.
Since the young man couldn’t see how he was missing the point Jesus went one step further to drive it home, “sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.”
That brings us to issue number three which is…
You Can’t Walk Hand In Hand With God And The Devil At The Same Time
Most people cannot understand why Jesus told this man to sell all his possessions and donate the proceeds to the poor. Christians either ignore this or make under-the-breath suggestions that we should “go and do thou likewise.” Understanding the background helps us see why this instruction applied specifically to the young man’s situation and not to everyone generally.
In those days politicians were not elected. They got into office by appointment and they stayed in office by manipulating the system. It wasn’t uncommon for political figures to accumulate wealth by graft. As long as local governors kept relative peace and met tax quotas the Roman government wasn’t too concerned about how they did it.
Being born into a political family (read “crime” family) meant this young man enjoyed the benefits of corruption. He couldn’t claim to even care about his neighbor, much less love him, as long as he stayed in that situation.
Political leaders could be like mafia dons and they weren’t the kinds of people you associated with when you were serious about following Jesus.
Moses again serves as an example of this very truth. He was born into a Jewish slave family but adopted into the highest ranking family of Egypt, by Pharaoh’s daughter, shortly after his birth. He enjoyed the luxury and privilege of his position. He went to the best schools and not only had opportunity but was also encouraged to prove himself as a leader. Tradition tells us he ranked high in the Egyptian military having successively led armies into battle.
The only thing that prevented him from being completely absorbed into Egyptian life and philosophy was the influence of his mother. She had a strong commitment to God. It was her courageous action that got him adopted into Pharaoh’s family. There is no doubt she taught Moses about God and probably suggested God would use him to deliver Israel from slavery.
Before that happened, however, Moses still had to give up all the benefits and pleasures of Egypt. We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus required the same from the young ruler. You can’t walk hand in hand with God and the Devil at the same time.
Jesus wasn’t changing the rules. He was applying the Gospel to this man according to his life situation. We should learn to do the same.
So, did the Rich Young Ruler miss heaven? We can’t say for sure but hopefully after a little time and thought he may have seen the wisdom of Jesus words and by faith sold everything. He wasn’t the first enquirer to walk away confused and unhappy with Jesus. Nicodemus walked away undecided after first hearing Gospel truth but later believed. If the young ruler followed that pattern we will see him in heaven.