Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

147. The Rich Young Ruler (Matt. 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30)*

Little children and their parents, alike eager to tome to Jesus, had been almost scared away by ie roughness of the disciples. Now came one whorn Jesus himself scared away by the austerity of his demands. The children, who could not be harmed by their exalted privilege, received matchless blessing. The high status of the ruler's wealth and religious standing was brought low in order that the blessing might be his also.

"Behold!" Matthew begins, as who should say: "Here is a story worth telling!'

The newcomer was young (Mt.) and yet already a ruler (Lk.) that is (see Jn.3 :1), a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin—not merely a ruler of the synagogue or this would have been specified. This fact immediately speaks volumes concerning him. For a young man to be elected to such an assembly of well-qualified men, he must be of outstanding ability and exceptional character. And certainly his character was altogether exceptional, for he was prepared to demean himself to seek counsel and directive from Jesus of Nazareth, and to show his eagerness for the Teacher's help by running to overtake him just as he was setting out on the next stage of his journey (Mk.).

When he reached Jesus, he knelt humbly before him (Mk.), and put his enquiry most earnestly: "Good Teacher (Mk. Lk.), what good thing (Mt.) shall I do to inherit (Mk. Lk.) eternal life?"(cp. Lk. l0:25).

Here was an example of the best type of Jew who thought to "attain to the law of righteousness by works of the law" (Rom.9:31,32). It is unlikely that he had heard Jesus say: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Mt. 5:5). And it is fairly certain that a week or two later he did not hear Jesus anticipate the Day of Judgment with the words: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt.25 :34). Neither saying included this rich ruler, for the first used the Old Testament word describing the uninfluential and under-privileged, but devout, section of the people, whilst the other pronounced blessing on those who were all unconscious of having done anything meritorious.

A mistaken approach

There was little of encouragement, then, for this fervent seeker after righteousness in the reply of Jesus:, "Why calledst thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God." The words would have been unkind if they had not been necessary. A man inherits what he has a right to, or in another sense—what comes to him from his father Adam. By this brief incisive comment on that word "good" Jesus put the whole question in proper perspective. True essential goodness is not possible in human nature. Only God is good (Ps.22 :3), and He only can bestow that gift. If any man sets out to earn eternal life for himself, he cries for the moon.

This reply of Jesus was also a staggering assertion concerning himself. He, who earlier had had the temerity to ask: "Which of you convicteth me of sin?", now disclaimed the absolute goodness which belongs to God only. The enquiry assumed that by dedicated effort it is possible for human nature to achieve goodness. 'Not so,' Jesus insisted, 'even I, fettered with the inheritance that comes to all men from Adam, would not lay claim to true goodness.' It was a startling thing to say. No wonder the early church moving steadily towards Trinitarianism, was tempted to tinker with the manuscripts here.

But an alternative, and diametrically opposite, interpretation has been suggested: 'Do you realise what you are saying? Only God is good. Yet you use that word about me! It is the context and purpose of the discussion which veto this idea. It has no relevance to the man's problem nor to the way in which Jesus proceeded to answer it.

This response of Jesus is complicated by a different reading in Matthew: "Why askest thou me concerning that which is good?" (RV). This variation must be rejected, if only because It sets the gospels contradicting each other. The textual evidence against this RV reading is massive. Not only do all the available texts of Mark and Luke ignore it, but also in Matthew twenty-one early Fathers and Versions (2nd-6th centuries) and all the manuscripts, except a handful, support the more familiar reading. Only obsession with a textual theory can explain this preference of the modern versions.

Christ's first Answer

Jesus went on to answer the question more directly: "Thou knowest the commandments (Mk.Lk.) If thou wishest to enter into life, keep the commandments (Mt.)"

"What kind (Mt.) of commandments do you mean?" came the rejoinder.

To this the answer was a repetition of the last six commandments in the Decalogue, with the tenth taking the form: "Defraud not" (Mk.),that is, 'Withhold not what is due to another." This could be a tacit rebuke of riches acquired at the expense of poor tenants and employees, but (as will be seen in Study 148) this detail has special appropriateness in another respect.

It is not easy to explain why Luke's record should reverse the order of Commandments 6 and 7, nor indeed why Jesus should now appear to fall in with the ruler's pre-conception that sufficient devotion to the keeping of laws and ordinances would earn the prize he sought, However, any misconstruing of the Lord's meaning was soon rectified by what followed.

It is possible that the immediate reaction was one of surprise, perhaps even a sigh of relief: Is that all? This has always been the basis of my religious life.' So Jesus added yet another: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Mt.)-“these things" (Lk.18 :22) seems to imply a two-part answer by Jesus.

Even now self-confidence was unshaken, as with the rabbi who on his death-bed said: "Go and fetch the Book of Law, and see whether there is anything in it which I have not kept!" Or did this young man vaguely realise that Jesus was holding something back?: "Master, all these have I been careful about from my youth" (cp. Lk.15 :29). Jesus had said: Keep the commandments." His reply used a stronger word, and in a form which implies: "not so much for the honour of God as for my own sake."

That phrase: "from my youth," spoken by one still a young man, told of incessant devotion to the Law ever since the day of his Bar-Mitzvah, when he became a son of the Commandment. Perhaps also his words implied that so far the demands of Jesus were elementary. Clearly he hadn't realised the wide scope of "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Was there not some other thing he must attempt?—something great and altogether exceptional in self — discipline, or religious devotion?

"What lack I yet?" he asked. (Mt.) Was it inadvertence or intention which led him to use the words of Psalm 39 :4 (LXX), which in the Hebrew text read: "Let me know how frail I am"? Probably it was by design, for there the immediate context is: "Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee'—hence his seeking for eternal life.

Had he known it, his encounter with Jesus was written in the same psalm: "When thou with rebukes dost instruct men concerning iniquity thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth... for I am (called to be) a stranger with thee, a sojourner, as all my fathers were" (v.11,12).

What was it about this eager young seeker which set Jesus yearning to have him in his band of disciples? "Looking intently on him he loved him" (Mk.)—it is language used only about the lord's special regard for his apostle John and for the beloved family at Bethany.

A Second answer

Then with what unwillingness did he now proceed to present his austere demands: "One thing thou lackest (Mk.). If thou wouldst be perfect, mature, really grown-up (Mt.), go, sell all that thou hast, and distribute it (Lk.) to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

Here was a challenge far surpassing the fulfilment of any "Thou shalt not." The young man had asked: "What shall I do?" And now he had his answer, he must do it, or fail. It was a call to qualify for the place soon to be vacated by Judas who was already on his way out—a self-denying rich man to replace one obsessed with money.

This frightening demand, at least comparable with what had been required of the twelve (Mt.19 :27), and putting such strong emphasis on love of one's neighbour, was a more peremptory repetition of one of Christ's least read and most neglected precepts—the terribly idealistic: "Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heaven that faileth not" (Lk.l2:33).

There were rich disciples of the Lord on whom apparently he laid no such exacting demands. And Zacchaeus was evidently in a class to himself in his willingness to give a half of his goods to the poor (Lk.19 :8). Then why should Jesus require so much more of this eager servant of God than he had asked of other close followers? The usual answer that here was one who was too much in love with his wealth is no answer at all, for the same is true for practically everybody.

The better explanation of this matter must wait till Study 148. Here, it is important to observe that Jesus was not content to stress love of one's neighbour; there must be love of God also: "Come, follow me."

This was the kernel of his multiple demand. In saying: "One thing is lacking thee," Jesus had quoted from the 23rd Psalm, but with a significant difference: "The Lord is my shepherd: one thing is not lacking to me" (LXX). The one thing lacking was: "The Lord is my shepherd'— "Come, follow me!"

The great refusal

The Lord's ultimatum was too much for him. His face clouded (Mk; s.w. Mt.16 :3) as he swiftly pondered the impact this claim would make on his life (Mk.) 'No, Jesus, no! you are asking too much.' He turned away slowly, miserably. Wycliff "he was ful sorie'—and no wonder for he was not just well off, he was very wealthy.

Watt's picture in the Tate Gallery hits this off perfectly. It portrays the man in his expensive clothes—the fine material perfectly tailored, the jewelled turban, the rings on his fingers. With a hand over his face he turns away—and now, before him, a blank wall!

If, instead, he had invited Jesus and the twelve to come and spend the sabbath at his house, how much easier full response to the Lord's challenge would have been. But he didn't, so Jesus went to the home of Zaccheus, and heard a superb renunciation from him instead (see Study 152).

The Lord was made very sad by this great refusal. For a while his eyes followed this fine idealist, shackled by worldly standards. Then deliberately his piercing look travelled round the group of disciples about him: "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God" (and Judas was among those who heard this!).

Jesus did not need to be rich himself in order to see "the deceitfulness of riches" doing its evil work in the lives of others (Mt.13 :22). And in later days, Paul, equally aware of the problem, bade Timothy "charge them that are rich in this world that they . . . trust not in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy." So he called instead to a life "rich in good works", a life made gracious by sharing and fellowship with the less fortunate. Thus the rich can "lay up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come." It is the faith that lets go its hold on riches which enables a man to "lay hold on eternal life" (1 Tim. 6:9, 10, 17-19).

Startled disciples

The disciples, accustomed though they were to the revolutionary character of their Lord's teaching, were nevertheless staggered (Mk.) at this pronouncement. So, in case they thought this another of his parabolic sayings well flavoured with hyperbole, he said it again (Mk.) with marvellous plainness: "Children'—this apostrophe was not a rebuke, but an affectionate appreciation of the sacrifices they had made in following him—"Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mk.). It was a principle more sweeping than the followers of Jesus have ever been prepared to admit, if only because the number of those who trust in wealth is almost exactly the same as the number of those who have it. Centuries before, a man of God had seen this problem in perspective: "They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him and not see corruption, for the redemption of their life is costly, and must be let alone for this age (i.e. until the Redeemer comes)" (Ps.49:6-8).

Camel and needle's eye

Jesus went on to illustrate: "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."

The attractive alternative of "rope", for "camel", must be firmly rejected as being entirely devoid of support in the manuscripts, even though it means only one letter difference in the Greek.

The current fashion of treating this saying as another of the Lord's grotesque exaggerations for the sake of emphasis also comes up against a difficulty with the Greek verb used by Matthew and Luke. It means "enter", and by itself strongly supports the old explanation that Jesus was alluding to the extreme difficulty of getting a loaded camel through the small side-gate in an eastern city wall—"the eye of a needle." Certainly such a figure of speech is appropriate enough in all its details.

There is perhaps further support for this in Mark's word for the eye of a needle. In LXX uniform usage applies it to "the holes of the rocks" (e.g. Jud.6 :2; 15 :8,11; Jer.13 :4; 16 :16), a meaning which has some resemblance to a gate as a hole in a massive city wall.

Also, the Greek word used by Jesus: "How hardly," implies constipation, again appropriate enough to the figure of a camel going with difficulty through a small city gate.

And the Midrash on Song of Songs 5 :2 has this: "God spake to the Israelites, Open for me a gateway of repentance as big as a needle's eye, and I will open for you gates wide enough for chariots and horses."

More bewilderment

The obvious reference of this figure of speech to the present case only served to increase the bewilderment of the twelve. They were completely flummoxed. "Absolutely knocked out," would be a fairly literal translation of Matthew's phrase. And the Greek verb implies that they were a long time coming round!

"Who then can be saved?" they asked in their astonishment. Are not the rich rich because of God's blessing on their righteousness? Was not this Deuteronomy's much repeated encouragement to Israel? (e.g. 7:12,13; 11:13-15).Then if those whom God had prospered hardly find salvation, what hope for the poor?

As he replied, Jesus again gave them a specially penetrating look (Mk.). In this incident there is marked emphasis on the eyes of Jesus (Mark 10: 21,23-27; Lk. 18:24).

"With men it is impossible, but not with God (Mk.): for with God all things are possible." God can save even this man, even though he turns away from me now. It was allusion to Ps.62 :11. "Power belongeth unto God," the marvellous relevance of which is brought out in the next study. And yet there is also an echo of the heavenly message to Sarah about the birth of Isaac (Gen.18:14 LXX). Since Jesus went on immediately to talk about the New Birth (Mt.19 :28), was he not prophesying the new birth of this one whom he loved?

What about us?

Whilst his fellow-disciples were remonstrating regarding this idealistic unpractical doctrine, Peter's mind was dwelling on the immediate relevance of this incident to his own case. Yet it is to his credit that although he used the pronoun ‘I’ when speaking of personal duty (Mt. 18:21), now-when the topic was reward for service—he said "we": "Lo, we did leave all we had (Lk.), and we have followed and are following (Mk.) you." True enough! At the second call from the Master, he and James and John had "left all and followed him" (Lk.5 :11). And so also the rest of the twelve in due time. Yet if there was emphasis here on personal merit, it was misplaced; for Jesus was to remind them: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you" (Jn,15 :16). Assuredly they had had less to lose than this wealthy would-be disciple, but the plain and admirable fact was that they had done just what Jesus had required of this man. "What shall we have therefore?"

Future and Present Reward

The reply of Jesus was full and explicit, the pronc'ins indicating that Peter's question was in the minds of all and on behalf of all: "Verily I say unto you, that ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mt; cp. Lk.22 :30). That word "regeneration" is, quite simply, "new birth." Its only other occurrence in the New Testament is with reference to baptism (Tit.3 :5). So possibly, though not certainly, the AV punctuation is in error: "Ye which have followed me in this new birth . . .", which was, of course the very crux of the recent encounter.

In any case, there was plain and clear promise of thrones of glory at a time when Jesus himself is enthroned above the Cherubim (as in Ez.l :26-28). Even Judas was not excluded. Until the moment when he went out into the night (Jn.13 :30), this exalted future was still open even to him.

The careful reader of the Greek text of this passage notes with special interest that the form of the verb "followed" implies a discipleship untainted by any selfish motive. So by implication the man who follows because he has his eye on glory and power in the Kingdom instead of on Christ his Lord may be excluded. The Book of Revelation takes up the story with its vision of "thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment (i.e. authority) was given unto them . . them that were beheaded tor the witness of Jesus . . . and they lived, and reigned with Christ" (20 :4). Those called upon to contend against arrogant Roman claims will also note that in neither place is there a special throne for Peter, or for the Pope.

Jesus went on to promise a corresponding reward to all others who follow him loyally: "And every one who has left houses (or wife; Lk; cp. 1 Cor. 9 :5), or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name's sake and the gospel's (Mk.), shall receive back (Lk.) an hundredfold (now in this time: Mk)."

The Lord assumed that there will be a forsaking and self-denial, and this with every justification, for if men seeking reputation, advancement or power in this world are willing to make sacrifices of this nature, how much more ought the disciple of Jesus with such blessings held out to him! Indeed the division of families had already been foreseen: "three against two, and two against three; father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against mother; mother in law against her daughter in law, and daughter in law against her mother in law" (Lk.12 :52,53).

The Lord's new Levites

The Biblical allusion in the Lord's words can easily be missed. There was a time when men of the tribe of Levi were called by Moses to disregard all personal reputation and pleasure, in order to be actively on the Lord's side (Ex.32 :26-29). This self-consecration was commended in the Blessing of Moses: "Thy holy one (Levi) . . . who said unto his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; neither did he acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children.. .they shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law . . ." (Dt.33 :8-10). Now the disciples, drawn from any tribe of Israel, or even from the Gentiles, were become Christ's own tribe of Levi, joined and consecrated to the service of the new Sanctuary of God.

The emphasis on present reward—"now in this time'—points to the ecclesia as the means of heavenly recompense—hence the sequence of plurals in Mk. 10 :30. Did not Jesus himself find it needful to deny his own kin in order to draw round him a new and better family?: "Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother" (Mk.3:35). Here, then, for the one who will set his priorities right, is the "hundredfold" by which severed human ties are made good. Many a disciple of the Lord has taken him at his word in this and has proved him abundantly true to it (cp.2Chr.25:9).

Specially noteworthy here is the Lord's deliberate switch from "... or... or... or..." to ". . . and . . . and . . . and . . ." (see the text in Mark), thus implying that the forsaking of any of the treasured blessing in life will find recompense in God's hundredfold gift of all that He has promised instead, albeit "with persecutions" (Mk.) Never at any time did Christ promise his followers freedom from hatred and active hostility. Indeed, in this place he almost seemed to list persecutions as one of the rewards for a faithful forsaking. There is a natural reluctance in this age of softness and ease to believe in the blessedness of persecution, yet always when the ecclesia of Christ has had to struggle against such adversity, the gain has far outweighed the loss. "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church."

Even so, had Jesus stopped there, his promise would have been sadly incomplete. The superlative blessing is that "in the age to come he shall inherit eternal life." Although the rich ruler had been reproved for his expectation of inheriting eternal life, as by right, the Lord now deliberately used the same word regarding the high destiny of his disciples. It is their relationship to him which makes all the difference.

Yet even they are warned against any spirit of cocksureness: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." The first part of this antithesis was doubtless intended as o warning to James and John intent on the chief places in Christ's kingdom, and to Peter, not immune from a spirit of self-righteousness (Mt.19 :27). In the spiritual life high privilege, brings high responsibility: "My brethren, benot many teachers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment" (Jas.3 :1 RV).

But also, "many that are last shall be first," Here is encouragement to any disciple who, despairing of his own powers of achievement in Christ, feels that he has nothing to lay before the Lord of Glory. Here also, if perchance he heard it, was a hint of hope for the young man who had just made his great refusal. He who, with his wealth and high religious standing, wos generally deemed to be one of the "first", hod been set "last" by Jesus; but now, being "last" he might yet become "first" (Study 148).

But Jesus said "many" will be first in the world, yet last in the kingdom; first in time, and last in power and fame; first in privilege, and last in faith; first in zeal and self-sacrifice, but last in value of service given (through wrong motives). So A. B. Bruce.

Notes: Mk. 10:17-31

Running. Thus, indirectly, Mk. confirms Mt's detail that he was a young man.
Why callest thou me good? Both Burgon and Plummer are very emphatic that the alternative reading in Ml, (RVm) completely ruins the sequence of thought in these verses.
Thou knowest the commandments. ln Lk. the order is 7,6,8,9, and so also in Rom. 13:9 and Philo and Tertullian-in harmony with God. Alex. (LXX). There is good evidence that it was this recension of LXX which was used regularly by Paul. Here Mt. adds: “and thy neighbour as thyself” – like David and Jonathon 1Sam. 20:17?
From my youth. Mt's word neaniskos might describe a man in his thirties. Such could say "from my youth" without absurdity.
Looking on him, loved him. The expression surely requires the reader to believe that Jesus made some gestured affection — putting his arm round his shoulders?

Whatsoever thou hast. Mt's text implies inherited wealth.

Sell (aorist) . . . follow (cont.) One great act of renunciation to be followed by a life of ceaseless discipleship.

Treasure in heaven. It is possible to demonstrate that Jas. l :12 is alluding to this.
Here the Gosp. ace. to the Hebrews has: "But the rich man began to scratch his head, and it pleased him not,"
Children. It is children who find difficulty in the more profound principles of the gospel.

Them that have riches. This Gk. perf. tense implies: They did trust in riches and still do (when they should have learned better).

The kingdom of God. Mt. surprisingly has this phrase also (as in 12 :28;21 :31,43; 19 :24) in place of his usual "kingdom of heaven" (e.g. v.23). But why the change in these five places?
Astonished out of measure This is a great chapter for studying the reactions of the Lord's disciples: verses 10, 13, 24, 26, 32, 35, 41, 45, 52 . One wonders: Did the rich man hear any of this ensuing discussion? Note Lk. 18 :24,
Peter began to say. What else was in his mind which never got said?
House. Mt.: houses, with special reference to the rich young ruler. And so also lands.
Cp. Rom. 16:13; 1 Cor. 4:14-17; Gal. 4:19; 1 Tim. 5:2; 2 Tim. l :2; Tit. l:2

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