The gospel accounts of Jesus’ exchange with a rich ruler are often used to discuss the principal that following Jesus means choosing Him over things we value. While this is true, I believe there’s a greater truth at play. Here’s some thoughts on the account in Luke.
Luke 18:18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (ESV)
This initial exchange gives us an idea of how things will progress. The rich ruler seems to use the right words. He calls Jesus, ‘Good Teacher’, and asks an appropriate question about how he might obtain eternal life. Jesus’ first response is unexpected:
Luke 18:19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (ESV)
He is not flattered by the rich ruler, but perceives a shallowness in the man’s use of the word “good”. He senses the rich ruler is going to boast about his righteous works and immediately lays down a definition of true goodness – no one is good, only God (Rom 3:10-18).
Luke 18:20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” (ESV)
The man persists with the notion that he can be good enough. His self-righteousness is laid bare. He believes that his actions are enough to secure favor with God and merit eternal life. “Commandments? I’ve kept them all!”
Luke 18:22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (ESV)
Jesus gets straight to the heart of the matter. Keeping rules is not the righteousness that God desires (Rom 3:20). Jesus knows the rich ruler doesn’t understand the Kingdom of God, or its value. His words strike at the heart of the man’s identity, passion, and self-righteousness, and uncover what he really cares about.
Luke 18:23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. (ESV)
It’s too much for the rich ruler. Jesus has uncovered the one thing he can’t do, the one thing that separates Him from God’s kingdom. Given the choice, the man still would rather hold on to what he wants rather than do what God wants. All his rule keeping amounted to nothing when his true heart was exposed.
Luke 18:24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth 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 person to enter the kingdom of God.” (ESV)
Jesus turns the conversation to the gathered crowd and uses a surreal analogy involving a camel and a needle to destroy their misconceptions. It was believed that rich people were blessed by God, and their riches were a sign of God’s favor. Surely those favored by God with riches would have full access to the kingdom? Jesus says that wealth doesn’t mean God’s blessing, nor are the rich closer to God and His kingdom. The hyperbole of the camel and needle hammers home the point that it is impossible for even a rich man, with all his resources, to save himself. The people are shocked:
Luke 18:26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” (ESV)
If the rich, with all their perceived ‘blessing’ haven’t done enough to be saved, then what about the poor? If the ‘best’ among us don’t have access to God, just how far away are the ‘worst’ of us? Who is able to be saved? Jesus arrives at the point of the whole discussion:
Luke 18:27 But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (ESV)
Salvation is not based upon the righteous works of people, but the will of God (Rom 9:16). People, despite their best efforts, cannot do enough to be saved (Rom 8:7-8). Even those that appear to be righteous and good still fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). It is the grace of God that transforms men’s hearts, clothing them in Christ’s righteousness, and saving them in spite of all their good and bad actions (Eph 2:8-9).
The story of the rich ruler is not just about choosing Jesus over valuable things in our lives. It’s about the fact that none of us, not even the ‘best’ people, can ever do enough to save themselves. Every one of us has rejected the holiness of God, and can’t earn our way back into the Kingdom. It takes the atoning sacrifice of a Savior, and the graceful opening of our eyes by the Holy Spirit to bring us back into righteous relationship with our Father (John 6:63-65, Luke 10:22)