I did a bible study several years ago about Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler. It rocked me to the core but not in the way I expected. I expected radical change but instead, I walked away with radical doubt (and feelings of condemnation). While I walked away from that study confused, I learned a valuable lesson. The importance of studying scripture for myself, investigating the context and the meaning of the words from the original language.
Have you ever experienced a time when someone was using scripture to teach a lesson but it didn’t sit right with you? Not because it was hard and convicting but because something about it didn’t quite seem right.
Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler
In Matthew 19:16, the Bible tells the account of the rich young ruler who approached Jesus and asked, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (NIV)
Jesus told the man that he must keep the commandments. This wasn’t enough for the young ruler though. He wanted to know which commandments he must keep. When Jesus listed several of the ten commandments, the man responded that he had kept all of those but still wanted to know what he lacked.
Jesus’ response was beautiful in Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come, follow me.”
Don’t get hung up on Jesus telling him he had to do this to be perfect. That is not the point here.
Related Post: Why It’s Okay to Be ‘Never Good Enough’
The young man did not accept this answer well. He left dismayed because he was very rich.
Before we dig too deep, I do want to make sure I’m clear about something. I believe we are called as followers of Christ to take care of the poor. The conclusions I reached through studying this for myself is not to get myself out of caring for the poor (and widows and orphans). It’s simply to clarify and even expand on that principle. Now that we got that out of the way, Let’s move on!
The Misunderstanding in the Rich Young Ruler’s Story
What we can get hung up on in the account of the rich young ruler is that we need to sell all we have and give it to the poor. We may interpret this as having wealth is evil. After all, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into Heaven” (Matthew 19:24).
Doesn’t that sound to you like being rich will send you straight to hell? It does to me.
But hold on, sister!
Let’s take a look at another account in the New Testament. I think it will provide you with a little relief.
Luke (in verses 10:25 – 37) tells the account of the man who was an expert in law who asked Jesus, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus quizzes the expert about what the law says to which the expert replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “
The man asks Jesus to clarify who his neighbor is and that is when we have the famous story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the parable, the expert in the law recognized that the man who had mercy was the one who was being a neighbor. Jesus then tells him, “Go and do likewise.”
Wait a minute! Jesus didn’t tell this man to sell all of his possessions. What’s the deal?
This is where we need to dig a little deeper because if we don’t, we run the risk of misunderstanding the story of the rich young ruler to mean that we must sell everything and that being rich is evil and will keep us from Heaven.
Breaking Down the Rich Young Ruler and the Expert in the Law
So let’s look at what Jesus commands each of the men.
To the rich young ruler, he says “Go and sell your possessions.”
To the expert in the law, Jesus says, “Go and do likewise [be merciful to others].”
I started to notice that these men were not identified by their names. Take a look for yourself. We have a man identified as a rich young ruler and a man identified as an expert in the law. We need to focus on those facts to give us a glimpse into who these men are.
Who They Were
The rich young ruler was identified by his wealth.
The expert in the law was identified by his knowledge of the law.
While one acquired riches and possessions, the other one acquired knowledge. It’s important to recognize too that “Jews [had] no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9) so we understand how important the parable of the Good Samaritan is along with the expert’s response when he recognized that being a neighbor meant having mercy, especially in relation to a Samaritan.
The Men’s Reactions
When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, the man walked away sad because he was very rich.
We don’t know what the expert in the law did afterward but we do see that he recognized the truth when he saw it clearly despite who it was coming from.
Why Jesus Gave Them Different Answers to Their Question
Both men asked Jesus the same question. I think the NIV sheds some light on the two men’s motivations. The rich young ruler asked “How do I get eternal life?” and the expert “How do I inherit eternal life?” It struck me that the man identified as the rich young ruler would ask how to get eternal life. As if it were one more thing to acquire. Just like all of his other possessions.
And I think that’s where the difference lies. We can look at these questions and wonder why on earth Jesus answered them so differently.
The man who was identified by the wealth of possessions he owned was told to sell them all.
The man who was identified as an expert in the law (and perhaps a man who was legalistic because of his knowledge of the law) was told to go and be merciful – to love his neighbor as himself.
Jesus asked them to relinquish the things that kept them from fully chasing after God. They were living a life with abundant wealth and knowledge but not the abundant life that God was calling them too. I think we have a tendency to do that as well, don’t you?
The One Answer that Jesus is Giving All of Us
If we look on the surface only, it’s easy to get confused by all of this. After all, if Jesus gives different answers to two men, then we might assume he would give us a different answer as well, right?
But he’s not.
What Jesus is calling us to do is exactly the one thing he called these men to do. To relinquish the things that we are holding onto with a death grip. The things that are holding us back from living a life of abundance with God.
The Two Commands Jesus is Giving All of Us
Jesus told the rich young ruler to go and sell your possessions. To the expert, he said go and do likewise (have mercy).
And that’s what Jesus is telling us as well.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. This is the what.
When Jesus answered the question, he was telling us the how. To go and do.
When Jesus tells us to GO, he wants us to TAKE ACTION. That’s different for everyone. For the rich young ruler, that was selling all his possessions. For the expert in the law, it was showing mercy.
He also wants us to DO something. That is different for each of us as well but if we sit down and think about it, it’s the one thing that we would be so afraid to relinquish if God asked us to.
For the rich young ruler, it was money. For the expert, it was the law (and knowledge).
So What Do We Need to Do to Get Eternal Life?
Up to this point, we haven’t even addressed the original question presented to Jesus. He answered the rich young ruler in two parts. Go and sell your possessions. Then come, and follow me. The clue to getting eternal life isn’t in the first part of the answer. It’s in the second. Jesus asks us to follow him.
So why didn’t he just say that to begin with?
Well, I like to think of it this way. We have this thing that is holding us back. Not baggage. Jesus wants us to bring that to him because we can’t get rid of that on our own. And frankly, we can’t get rid of the attitude that causes us to cling so tightly to our things, ideas, knowledge, etc. without him either.
In order to follow Jesus, we need to be willing to let go of that stuff. He promised the Rich Young Ruler, and he promises us, that we will have treasure in heaven (Matthew 19: 21).
Who Then Will Be Saved?
When the disciples then asked Jesus, “Who then will be saved?” He tells them that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19: 29).
That first word is everyone. That includes you. me. your neighbor’s aunt’s hairdresser. It includes… you guessed it. EVERYONE! It just requires that we not hold on so tightly to the things of this world. If we are willing to let go of the stuff here, Jesus promises that we will receive a hundred times as much. Oh, and as an added bonus, we will also inherit eternal life.
He wants us to follow him. We can’t do that when we are clinging so tightly to things that do not matter beyond this world. While Jesus is calling us to go and do. We can’t earn salvation. We just need to let go and follow him.
What are you clinging so tightly to that it is keeping you from following Jesus?
What is God calling you to GO and DO?