Wealth, God and the Rich Young Ruler


Despositphotos Image ID: 1254235 Copyright:hsfelix

Depositphotos Image ID: 1254235 Copyright: hsfelix

In reading through the Gospel of Luke, the doctor, historian and traveling companion of Paul, two dialogues appear in chapters 18 and 19 about men of wealth. They are the stories of the Rich Young Ruler and Zacchaeus, the tax collector.

Both men are rich and are tied into the local power structure. They both seek out Jesus and encounter Him, but one turns away, saddened because of his wealth, while the other receives Jesus joyfully. And, then there is the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They had become part of the early church, but wealth became their undoing.

All three stories deal with wealth and possessions and relationships with God. And more importantly, they deal with the heart. We will review each story in this three part series on wealth and relationship to God.

These pieces have been particularly difficult for me to write. I make decent money, but I am admittedly not a good manager of it. When I factor in that even middle to lower class people in the USA are “wealthy” compared to most of the world population, I am convicted all the more of the need to face god may be telling me about the wealth I have and my heart.

The rich young ruler seems to be, at first, seems to be an exemplary person. He sought Jesus out.[1] He identified Jesus as a “Good Teacher” and asked Jesus point blank, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Then Jesus, the heart doctor, went to work. In His usual style, He began asking questions: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

The rich young ruler misidentified Jesus, as many do today. He saw him merely as a good teacher, not God in human form, reflecting the exact image of the Father in heaven. Packed into the question is the answer – yes, Jesus is good because He is God.

Then Jesus inquired of the man’s knowledge of the commandments, and the man not only acknowledged them, but proudly affirmed, “I have kept the commandments from my youth.” In this response we see that the man was focused on the wrong things, as many of us are today. He was focused on what he could do, himself, to inherit eternal life. He mistakenly thought that he could be good enough and obtain eternal life. In modern terms, we might say he was looking for a formula for living well. If only he knew the secret formula to achieving eternal life….

Jesus had already stated that no one is good but God alone, but the rich young ruler didn’t get it. He wasn’t really listening. He thought he already knew the answer. He was sure that if he knew what he must do, he would be able to inherit eternal life.

Interestingly, inheritance is something we “obtain”, not by doing anything, but by being something, and that something is not of our own doing. Children inherit from their parents. Nothing a child can do is sufficient to earn an inheritance. An inheritance is given because of the relationship of child to parent.

Yet, we feel like we must earn our way to God’s favor. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, it works exactly the opposite of that. Eternal life is a gift from God. Why? So that no one can boast about it.[2] Pride is an impediment to our relationship with God. We only enter into relationship with God when we get past our pride.

But, there was something else that was in the way of eternal life for the rich young ruler.

Jesus didn’t question the rich young ruler’s statement, that he had kept all God’s commandments since his youth, even though that certainly was not true. No one is good but God. Instead, Jesus told him he still lacked one thing: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

This response from Jesus went straight to the heart of the rich young ruler because, as the next verse indicates, he was very rich. The rich young ruler went from hopeful and expectant to “very sad”. And in this context Jesus spoke these famous words that, if taken to heart, might cause the knees to buckle for many of us:

“How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 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.”

We, in the Western world, are very rich compared to the rest of the world. Even those among us who are considered middle class, and even lower middle class, are extremely wealthy compared to most people in most other countries of the world. This is story, then, is for us.

One of the problems with having wealth is that we become self-reliant, like the rich young ruler who thought that what he needed for eternal life was the right thing for him to do. He was reliant on his wealth and his own efforts, and he didn’t understand that eternal life requires us to learn to be reliant on God alone.

No one is good, but God. We have all sinned and fallen short.[3] Eternal life is the gift of God for all those who are willing to let go of our own self-reliance, reliance on what we can do and, more importantly for the rich young ruler (and for many of us), to let go of our reliance on wealth and possessions.

Jesus said

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.[4]

The disciples who were present when the rich young ruler engaged Jesus realized that Jesus’ words went far beyond the rich young ruler, and they impact all of us who have anything that we hold onto for our confidence, comfort and support other than God. The asked poignantly, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus said,

“What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

The answer lies in our willingness to leave all for Jesus, to let go of reliance on anything by God, and to follow Jesus. Wealth is just one thing that gets in the way of a relationship with God. It isn’t the wealth that is the problem, but our heart reliance on it that causes us to cling to it, rather than cling to God.

Thanks be to God that we don’t have to rely on ourselves. Even in the area of our wrong attitudes and wrong orientation to God. Jesus didn’t come for the healthy; He came for the sick. He didn’t come for the righteous (not that there are any!); He came for the sinners.[5] He is the surgeon who can heal that sickness in our hearts.

In the next two installments of this three part series on wealth and relationship with God, we will look at two more stories. We will look at the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus as He passed by. When Jesus came to dine with him, he gave away half of his wealth on the spot. We will also look at the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who claimed they sold their land and gave all the proceeds to the church. But, in fact, they held back, and they were struck dead by God. One is a heartwarming tale, and the other is sobering.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] Luke 18:18-30 (And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 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.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”)

[2] Ephesians 2:4-9 (“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”)

[3] Romans 3:23-26 (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”)

[4] Luke 16:13

[5] Mark 2:17

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