The Rich Young Ruler

When a rich, young ruler comes to Jesus to ask how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him that he must sell all he has and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:18-23). Despite how this passage is sometimes used in sermons and books as an attempt to get the rich to give more money to the church, the point of this passage actually lies elsewhere.

Rich Young Ruler

In Jewish ways of thinking, much like today, money and wealth was a sign of God’s grace and blessing. The Mosaic Law promised that if a person obeyed God and followed the Covenant, then God would bless them with land, crops, cattle, peace, prosperity, and health (Deut 28:1-14). If, however, someone did not have all these things, then it was a sign that they (or their ancestors) were sinful and had rebelled against God, and so God was punishing them (Deut 28:15-68).

So when Jesus told the rich man to keep the entire law, it seems arrogant and preposterous to us today for the man to respond as he did, that he had kept the entire law since he was a boy. But from a Jewish perspective, the evidence was clear: Look how rich he was! God’s grace was irrefutably upon him. Again, this is much like today in our churches. We tend to believe that if a church become large and wealthy, it is evidence that God’s grace is upon them, and they must be doing most things right. After all, look how much God has blessed them!

It is only after the man claims to have kept the whole law that Jesus turns the tables on him. He tells the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give the money to the poor. Jesus is not really concerned with what the man does with his wealth. Though this is the way this passage is often taught, it is not the point of Jesus. Instead, Jesus is concerned with how the man views himself as a result of his wealth, and how he views the poor as a result of their lack of wealth.

The man viewed his wealth as evidence of God’s grace upon him, and viewed the lack of wealth among the poor as evidence that they were rebellious sinners. By telling the man to give all his wealth to the poor, Jesus was essentially telling him to give up all his evidence of God’s love and grace, and give all that evidence of love and grace to those who the man considered to be wicked and rebellious. And the man himself, now that he was penniless, would be viewed by others as being under the judgment and condemnation of God.

Is Wealth an Evidence of God’s Grace?

This is why the man went away sad. He did not want to give up the evidence of God’s grace upon him, especially not to those whom he felt were undeserving.  Jesus was trying to point out to the rich young ruler that in God’s economy, all are blessed, all are welcome, all are accepted. The rich and the poor alike. Those whom we think are within the grace of God, and those we judge as being without.

Let Rich People Run the Churches

Though we may deny it, many Christians do in fact feel that God blesses obedience with riches and wealth, and He disciplines the disobedient with poverty.

Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most popular preachers of his day, was quite in line with Protestant thought when he declared, “Looking comprehensively through city and town and village and country, the general truth will stand, that no man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault—unless it be his sin.” It is little wonder that in 1874 Beecher could say, without embarrassment, “Our churches are largely for the mutual insurance of prosperous families, and not for the upbuilding of the great underclass of humanity.” In the same year, the Rev. Charles Wood with similar indifference, observed, “The poor are not provided for, nor are they wanted as part of the congregations which worship in the majority of our city churches.” (from Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics).

Many churches view their buildings, possessions, and prestige in the community the same way this rich young ruler viewed his vast wealth. They see their riches as a sign of God’s grace and blessing upon them. If they give such things away to the poor, there will be nothing left to provide evidence of God’s grace.

Tomorrow we will look at how Jesus wanted the Rich Young Ruler (and churches today) to view wealth and possessions.


Comments

  1. Sam says

    Isn’t this just a version of the “prosperity gospel”? One problem with the idea is that if I’ve got the money or possessions, that means someone who needs it more than I do does not have these things.

    What I consider a really strange permutation of this idea that I frequently observe among some Christians is underpaying the lowest paid people to “serve” them (the Christians). For example, ask the waiter at the restaurant for excellent service, but leave a lousy tip. Or, hire illegals for gardening or housecleaning work and pay them even less than minimum wage. After all, God has blessed us, not them, right?

    • says

      Sam,

      Yes, it is a form of the prosperity gospel.

      You make a great point about underpaying people also.

      People say, “They will know we are Christians by our love” and I think that one of the greatest ways of showing love is through generosity toward others.

      • Sobee says

        I do believe God wants to prosper his people, but somehow some churches, like the one I once was apart of, tainted it with some sort of discrimination between the rich and the poor. They succeed because of their faith, those who are not as prosperous as them lacks faith. Its evident in their teachings. They even equated their prosperity with being righteous in front of God. This hit me so hard, that it hurts me, although, Im not that rich or that poor. I decided to leave that church lest I become a rebel.

        Do you believe or even teach that kind of prosperity theology? I mean how much money should I earn to be called righteous, or how many houses should I have, or even travel the whole of Europe just to prove God blesses me?

        Sorry for the long post, just thinking out loud. Thanks!

  2. Dave Leaumont says

    Nice blog post. I think the rich young ruler actually breaks the law twice in Jesus’ presence. First, he has pride in his wealth, which Jesus sees and addresses by telling him to get rid of his source of pride. Your blog post really does a great job of addressing the underlying nature of society of the time which helped to generate his pride. Second, he said he kept the law since his youth, which is in itself a prideful statement, which is self-refuting (a lie) since pride (in the way he displays it) is a sin.

    • says

      Dave,

      Good insights. You might be right about this. Jesus is trying to show the man he may not be as holy as he assumes.

      But remember, at this time, most Jewish law was highly codified in oral tradition, and so it is possible that by the oral traditions, this man truly had kept the entire law.

      Jesus, of course, taught that the attitude and motives of the heart mattered more than outward conformity to tradition, but He didn’t really bring up that point here.

  3. Gideon says

    Good post Jeremy – never thought about it in this way. I’ve never brought the various concepts of Jewsih World view and what Jesus was saying together. Really insightful.

    • says

      Thanks, Gideon.

      There is so much in this passage from the Jewish backgrounds…. so much in EVERY passage.

      If I could, I think I would spend all my writing time focusing on bringing the historical and cultural backgrounds of Scripture to light for modern readers. In my research and writing, this is the area I love the most.

      • Sam says

        “If I could, I think I would spend all my writing time focusing on bringing the historical and cultural backgrounds of Scripture to light for modern readers. In my research and writing, this is the area I love the most.”

        I love that area also. However one looks at Scripture, as the “word of God” or just old writings, understanding the historical and cultural context in which the writer’s lived and wrote can give us lots of insight.

        How often I have heard “the Bible is clear” (in what it says), followed by a proclamation (actually their “interpretation”) of what the Bible says on a particular topic or in a particular passage that is probably way off base if one knows the historical and cultural context. How can I forget the fellow who said “so according to these passages, it’s o.k. to go to a prostitute, right?”

  4. Clive Clifton says

    I do dislike this on going criticism of the Church and people. When jesus spoke to this man and gave him advice I do not believe there was a hint of sarcasm or judgement, yet all I here from you and your respondents is exactly that.

    Jesus said to the men who were ready to stone the woman to death(not the man) that he that has no sin let him first cast the first stone. It’s so easy to feel good when we accuse someone as it enables us to ignore our sin and make us feel so righteous.

    Remember when you are pointing one finger at someone there are three pointing back to accuse you.

    Come on, where is your compassion, will you always pass by on the other side of the road. If you perceive someone to be weaker than you, don’t rub his nose in it. love him even more. When jesus spent more time with some of his disciples it was not because he favored one over the other but because their need was greater.

    Love one another as I have loved you. Clive

    • says

      Clive,

      I did not read any sarcasm or judgment in my post, or in those of the comments above. I did read some in yours though.

      I have nothing but concern for the church, as I am part of the church, and love it very dearly.

      But I do view my role as somewhat “prophetic” calling those within the church who have strayed from our primary purpose to return to what Jesus wants us to do. Yet I do attempt to “speak the truth in love.” That is what this website is all about.

  5. Clive Clifton says

    I apologize if I have misread you. I will return to your blog when you have completed your studies on money. Clive

  6. Sobee says

    It is said in Deuteronomy 28 that if you carefully obey and follow all the commands you will be blessed, if not you are under the curses. ALL meaning every single one of the command and I doubt if any human being alive has done that. In Romans, it states the nature of man, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So we have a dilemma, all have sinned, all are under the curse. That’s why grace was given to us all to do away with the law and be free from its bondage.
    Good insight, he can obey the law but cannot obey Christ…

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