The Rich Young Ruler

Rich fools, however, do not appear only in parables. They also appear in real life.

On one notable occasion Jesus met one. He was a wealthy young man, and his interview with our Lord is both familiar and classic. It was an interview that plainly disclosed the Savior's striking capacity to probe beneath the issues men raise--in order that He might reach the issues they should have raised.

The disciples as usual were with Him. And they stood to profit immensely from the exchange, which they are allowed to overhear. Indeed, Jesus makes sure that they do profit by His direct dealing with the problems which the encounter raised for them. In the process He achieves -as He so often did- a double result.

On the one hand, He softens the ground in the young man's heart in order to prepare it for the seed of the simple gospel of His saving grace. On the other hand, He drives home to the disciples important truths about heavenly treasure.

The Young Man's Question

According to the account given in the Gospel of Mark, the interview began when the ruler reached Jesus on the run. Though he is only called "young" by Matthew (19:22), the eagerness of youth is apparent in this hasty form of approach. Perhaps, then, there was a breathless quality to his words when he said,

    Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? (Mark 10:17).

The question plainly reflects the typical Jewish perspective. According to common Jewish theology of that time, eternal life was a privilege that belonged to the age to come. Moreover, it could be acquired only by those whom God deemed worthy to have it. The man's choice of the word "inherit" simply underscored this perception of things. That was a word which the rabbis often used to describe the meritorious acquisition of bliss in the future world.1

No wonder, then, that the young man thought he must do something to get eternal life. In fact, in Matthew's account the adjective "good" is added to the question: "What good thing must I do . . .?" (Matt. 19:16.)

The Jewish outlook was both right and wrong. It was quite true that when eternal life was perceived as an acquisition in the age to come it could only be meritoriously obtained. In that respect Jewish thought was not misguided. But that was only half the story.

There remained a severe problem. Man was a sinner. He stood under divine condemnation. If he could acquire eternal life only at some future day -and only on the basis of his merits- then his situation was hopeless. He could, in fact, never acquire it at all.

But the coming of Jesus Christ into the world shed light on this issue in a fresh way. As Paul was later to say, He "brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Tim. 1:10). What was always latent in the Old Covenant revelation -what was there in shadowy form- was now brilliantly illuminated by the incarnation of the Son of God and by the gospel message which He proclaimed.

Now it was possible -such was the Savior's message- for a man to acquire the life of the age to come immediately. And not on the basis of merit at all, but as a free gift!

What else, indeed, did the Son of God mean when He declared,

    Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life (John 5:24; emphasis added)?

Or again, when He went on to state,

    Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live (John 5:25; emphasis added)?

Staggering revelation! Resurrection, spiritually, at once! The life of the age to come possessed right here and now -by faith and nothing more!

But of this the rich young ruler knew nothing. His was not a wrong question to ask -it just wasn't the primary one. But that first question was one which he could not even guess.

No One is Good But God

How then could he be moved in the right direction? What could deflect him from his preoccupation with merit? The response of Jesus could do that, if the young man would rightly hear it.

That response, however, must have sounded initially as if it had no connection whatever with the rich man's inquiry. No doubt he was even taken aback when Jesus replied:

    Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God (Mark 10:18).

But nothing could have been more to the point. It was precisely the issue on which this man needed to focus.

He had addressed Jesus as "Good Teacher." No doubt it was glibly said no matter how respectfully it was intended. But was He really good? In the definitive sense of that word, He could not be "good" if He was a mere mortal man. The Old Testament bore witness to that fact (and Paul appealed to it!) when it affirmed, "There is none who does good, no, not one" (Ps. 14:3; cf. Rom. 3:12).

Only God was good and that could mean only one thing. Jesus could not be good unless He was also God. The young man perceived Him to be a teacher, and such He was. But He was very much more than that! And until the rich young ruler could hear His voice as the voice of the Son of God, eternal life -whether here or hereafter- lay beyond his reach.

But there was more. The young man himself was not good. Only God was good. But this perception also had not truly dawned on him, as his response to the Savior's next statement painfully shows.

His concept of "good" was therefore precisely his problem. That concept clouded his perception of Jesus, and it clouded his perception of himself. Until these perceptions were corrected, he was very far from God's Kingdom indeed.

You Know the Law

How could such correction take place? Ideally, it ought to have taken place by means of the law. Here, again, was the divinely appointed schoolmaster whose role was to lead men to Christ. By the law one could normally acquire the knowledge of his sin.2

Jesus says, therefore:

    You know the commandments: "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not bear false witness," "Do not defraud," "Honor your father and your mother" (Mark 10:19).

To this list Matthew reports that Jesus even added, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:19).

It ought to have been convicting. But it wasn't! Indeed, it actually elicits one of the most sanguine replies in all of religious history. The young man says:

    Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth (Mark 10:20).

Had he? Of course not! What child is there who has always honored his father and mother? Where is the man who loves his neighbor as himself from his youth and upwardly?3 Even if he had avoided the grosser sins on the list, he had certainly not avoided them all.

He was not good of course. But he was self-righteous! And like all self-righteous people he had lowered the standard of good to the level of his own imagined attainments. His darkness seems impenetrable.

One Thing you Lack

Yet there follows one of the loveliest statements of Scripture:

    Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him . . . (Mark 10:21).

How or why Jesus loved him is beyond our ability to fathom. But so is His love for all men -and for us. That love is mysterious, it is marvelous. It is not called forth by our deluded claims to goodness, nor is it deflected by our arrogant self-righteousness.

But it is our ultimate resource, "for God so loved the world that He gave. . . "!

It is, therefore, Jesus' love for this blind young inquirer which motivates our Lord's next words:

    One thing you lack (Mark 10:21).

What was that? The answer should be obvious to every Christian with a New Testament in his hands. The one thing he lacked was faith -saving faith!4

No doubt it will be objected to this that it does not at all accord with the words of Jesus which follow immediately. But in fact it does accord with those words, properly considered. But not in the explicit one-to-one form which some readers inappropriately expect.

Here, too, the eclipse of grace casts its shadow over the interpretation of Scripture. Can anyone suppose that selling all and giving to the poor are really conditions for going to heaven? Were they even really conditions for this particular man? And if they are, or were, how can that conception of things be harmonized with the simple offer of a free gift of life to needy men?

"Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17) is far from being identical with "sell whatever you have and give to the poor." Such declarations are manifestly not saying the same thing. Casuistry alone can reduce them to some form of equivalence.

No, this man lacked saving faith, just as does every unsaved man. He lacked the simple spirit of trust so characteristic of the little children Jesus had just received (see Mark 10:13-16). But the young man was not prepared just now to have his deficiency explicitly stated. He was much too self-righteous to feel the need for a Savior. After all, had he not said, "What must I do"?

Jesus did not believe in pouring water down a clogged hole. This man must be prepared to comprehend the thing he really needed. Shock treatment was clearly in order.

Thus it is that Jesus' challenge takes the form it does:

    Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me (Mark 10:21).

Clearly, this is a call to discipleship. It is an invitation to the utmost self-denial in the form of unstinting generosity.5 Its outcome, Jesus declares, will be heavenly treasure.6

Was the young man prepared for this? Naturally not. In fact he goes away saddened since his wealth was considerable. But why did he go away? Above all, because he had more faith in his money than he had in Jesus.

Indeed, our Lord subsequently points this out to His disciples when He tells them:

    Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! (Mark 10:24; emphasis added).7

Let there be no mistake about it. The man lacked saving faith. No doubt when he asked what he might do to inherit eternal life, he suspected that his wealth might be tapped for some act or acts of benevolence. But it had not entered his mind that Jesus might ask him to surrender everything!

That he was unprepared to do, for then he would be surrendering the very thing in which he trusted: his money! He was clearly not ready to give up all that just on the bare word of this Teacher. And so he went sorrowfully away.

Life and Treasure

And that was a mistake. But it was a mistake Jesus knew he would make and which, in fact, conditioned the form of His challenge.

This man was confused about who was good. He himself was not good and his response to Jesus proved it. He was selfish, as are all sinners. For if he truly loved his neighbor as himself (as he had claimed to do from his youth), it would not have mattered to him whether he himself had his money or his neighbor. But it did matter. The rich young ruler was not good.

But Jesus was good, since He was God. If he were not God, His demand to give up all for Him was both fantastic and egotistical. Could a mere human Teacher talk like that and still be sane? How could a mere man offer eternal treasure to his followers on no other authority than his own? Would it not be foolish to trust an offer like that?

Ordinarily it would be. But not where Jesus was concerned. Yet such a leap of faith required the rich young ruler to adopt a much higher view of this rabbi than he currently held. Indeed, it required him to reach the conclusion that Jesus was exactly who He had hinted He was -a divine Person! And that meant that He was the Christ, the Son of God. But to reach that conclusion was to be born again, as the Gospel of John so plainly declares (John 20:30-31).

Did the rich young ruler ever reach it? He probably did, because Jesus "loved him" and had designed His words to meet this man at the very point where his spiritual progress was blocked.

All the implications were there. He now had reason to suspect that his own goodness was far less than he thought. And he had received unmistakable clues about the dignity of the Person to whom he had come.

All that remained was to believe in Him. That would have brought him the free gift of eternal life. Then he could take up the Lord's challenge to become a disciple. And that would have brought him treasure in heaven!8

Aftermath and Surprise

The ruler was gone now, thwarted and dismayed by Jesus' words. Now it was the disciples' turn to be startled. Jesus says to them:

    How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! (Mark 10:23.)

And, to the disciples' amazement, He adds:

    Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 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 (Mark 10:24-25).

The disciples are dumbfounded by these words, and they reply,

    Who then can be saved? (Mark 10:26.)

Naturally, the disciples shared the common Jewish view that God enriched and prospered the righteous. There were many Old Testament examples of this: Abraham, Solomon, and Job, to name only a few. If salvation was hard for people like that, must it not be nearly impossible for those less signally blessed?

For a few moments the disciples themselves are tempted to lose their grip on the gospel of divine grace. (They were certainly not the last to be swayed in this way.) But there were no grounds for their perplexity if they considered Jesus' words with care.

Salvation was hard for the rich man precisely because he trusted in his own riches. He found it difficult, therefore, to feel totally dependent on Another, particularly on Jesus. The exchange with the rich young ruler had certainly demonstrated that!

It followed that a rich man was very much like an ungainly camel. He was too big, too self-sufficient, to pass through the minuscule entryway into the realm of eternal bliss. That, of course, was the narrow gate all over again. Only this time the image had undergone impressive miniaturization!

But the disciples need not worry, Jesus assures them. Salvation was always a miracle of God in any case. That which man could never bring to pass in the humblest of sinner, God could accomplish even in a rich man:

    With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible (Mark 10:27).

It was an important point. If we were to judge from the attitude of that wealthy young man, we might easily have said: "That man will never get saved!" From all appearances he was much too big a camel -much too proud a man- to ever become "small" enough to pass through the needle's eye by a childlike act of faith.

But it would be wise not to write him off entirely. Nor, for that matter, any other man of wealth. For what was truly impossible for human means to accomplish, God could do. Indeed, the masterly skill with which Jesus had handled the young ruler had no doubt set this miraculous process in motion. The camel had gone away smaller -less self-assured- than when he arrived. There was hope!

Life More Abundant

That ought to have set the disciples' minds at rest. Perhaps it did. In any case the focus of the conversation changes swiftly. Peter is the catalyst:

    Then Peter began to say to Him, "See we have left all and followed you (Mark 10:28).

According to Matthew, he also added:

    "Therefore what shall we have?" (Matt. 19:27.)

It was an appropriate question. After all, Jesus had offered the rich young ruler treasure in heaven if he left all. Was this promise applicable to the disciples as well?

No doubt there is a temptation to censure Peter for greed. But why? Already the disciples had been specifically taught to store up eternal wealth (Matt. 6:19-21; Luke 12:32-34). It is not selfish to take an interest in matters Jesus Himself has told us to be concerned about. It is not wrong to seek what He tells us to seek.

It is wrong not to seek. It is, in fact, a sin to refuse to lay up heavenly treasure when we are explicitly commanded to do it. Moreover, the effects on our hearts of not doing it will be calamitous. For where our treasures are, there our hearts will be also!

The rich young ruler's heart was on earth. The thought of losing his earthly treasures saddened him. But Peter and the other disciples had abandoned everything for Jesus. It was only natural that they should be curious about their heavenly reward.

Our Lord's answer to this query is memorable:

    Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions- and in the age to come, eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).

The answer was rich, exciting, and sobering. There were compensations to be experienced in the present age -along with its troubles- and there was compensation in the age to come as well.

With regard to the present age, the reward was to come in the form of rich personal relationships. And how often the servants of Christ have proved the truth of that guarantee! Leaving behind their earthly families, traveling often to the remote quarters of the globe, they have discovered new relationships created by the shared gospel of Jesus Christ. In those souls, therefore, whom they have won to Christ, in those to whom they have ministered the truth, they have found new brothers and sisters, new mothers and children. Homes have been opened to them and lands laid at their service as though they owned them themselves. And the depths of the spiritual communion established in this way with men have often seemed to be indeed a hundredfold more rich than those ties which Christ's servants have left behind. No doubt, in fact, it was in the spirit of these very words of Jesus that Paul greets "Rufus . . . and his mother and mine" (Rom. 16:13)!

But if obedience to Jesus enriched a man's temporal lot, it equally enriched his eternal one. And here the reward was... "eternal life"!

Yes, a reward! Plainly presented as such. But a reward belonging to the future age, not to the present one.

And thus Jewish theology was right -in part. Eternal life would be awarded meritoriously in a future day. What that theology failed to perceive was that, for such a reward to be within man's reach, eternal life must first be received as a gift.

Eternal life, be it understood, is no static entity, no mere fixed and unchanging object. Eternal life is the very life of God Himself, and as such its potentials are without limit. Had not Jesus Himself affirmed:

    I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly (John 10:10; emphasis added).

Yes, the possibilities were as infinite as the life itself. But to have that life more abundantly, one must first have it. To receive the enrichment of that life as a future reward, one must first accept it as a free gift.

The rich young ruler had put the cart before the horse. He had asked how to earn life before receiving it. He had inquired about God's rewards, before seeking His gift. Jesus had sought to push him back to the proper starting point, but one thing remained true. Leaving all for Christ did lead to heavenly treasure after all.

The rich young ruler was by no means ready to do that yet. The disciples had already done it. It was well for them, therefore, to hear about it. It was needful for them to discover that both present and future experience would be enriched and enhanced by their loyalty and commitment to Christ.

There was no need, then, to envy the rich young ruler at all. Perhaps he seemed to be far ahead of them in all respects. But the balance sheets of eternity could reverse that appraisal.

After all, Jesus assures them, "many who are first will be last, and the last first"! (Mark 10:31.)

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(After the first reference to an author's work, later references to the same work use a shortened form and the reader is referred back to the initial reference for full bibliographic details.)

1 For a discussion of the rabbinic perspective, see William E. Brown, The New Testament Concept of the Believer's Inheritance (unpublished Th.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1984), pp. 34-40.

2 Very appropriately it has been said, "in the greatly misunderstood incident of the rich young ruler, it is striking that every commandment quoted by our Lord is from the Second Table of the Law; not because in the observance of these social laws men could earn eternal life, but in order that the young man might be tested by his own claims of moral perfection and come to see himself as a sinner whose only hope is in what God can do (Matt. 19:19-26)." Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids Zondervan, 1959)." p. 290. Ray Summers also observes that, "In his response, Jesus led the young ruler to see that not even a sincere effort at obedience to the law could give life. All the law could do was point him to his need and reflect his inability to keep it. The young man's downfall was in relation to the tenth command, `You shall not covet.'" Ray Summers, Commentary on Luke (Waco, Tx.: Word Books, 1972), p. 214.

3 The phrase "from my youth" may be a reference to his twelfth year, at which time Jewish youths assumed responsibility for obedience to the law's commands. See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 366. Lane cites the Mishnah (Berachoth II. 2) and Luke 2:42.

4 Summers, Luke, p. 215 (see note 2, this chapter), thinks that the one thing which the young man lacked was love. This, too, would emphasize his failure and sinfulness. But since the young man's need for eternal life could not be met by any conceivable expression of love, it is more likely that our Lord is pointing to his most basic deficiency -faith.

5 Naturally, some have tried to put Jesus' interview with the rich young man into the service of a doctrine of Lordship salvation. This is explicitly done by Walter J. Chantry, Today's Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970). For an effective critique of Lordship teaching, see G. Michael Cocoris, Lordship Salvation - Is It Biblical? (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1983).

6 Lane is not correct to observe that,"The assurance of `treasure in heaven' reflects an idiom that was current in Judaism, which allowed Jesus to enter the thought-world of his contemporaries. Here, however, it is stripped of its customary associations of merit (as if selling one's property and givingthe money received to the poor will earn a significant reward),since the promised treasure signifies the gift of eternal life or salvation at the revelation of the Kingdom of God." Lane, Mark, p. 367 (see note 3, this chapter). It is entirely gratuitous to read into Jesus' words the concept of "the gift of eternal life." Rather, our Lord stands fully within the contemporary Jewish "thought-world" in associating "treasure in heaven" with meritorious behavior.

7 The statement quoted from Mark 10:24 is not found in two famous ancient manuscripts: the Codex Vaticanus (B) and Codex Sinaiticus (Aleph). A few other witnesses also support the omission. But the longer text is overwhelmingly attested in the vast majority of the surviving Greek manuscripts of Mark. The accidental omission of a "colon" (sense-line) in a common ancestor of Aleph and B is perhaps the source of the omission. The adoption of the omission as the original reading by many modern editors and translators reflects an inappropriately high regard for the two manuscripts in question. But even so, the truth affirmed by Mark 10:24 is self-evident when the story is reflected on properly.

8 "Jesus believed that heaven will be richer for one who has used earthly riches in good stewardship to God and compassion for needy men." Summers, Luke, p. 215 (see note 2, this chapter).


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