This week we’re looking at the short stories in Luke 18 – each individual story, as well as the big picture. We’ve been keeping score as to who “wins” in each story. So far we’ve seen a rich litigant, a Pharisee, and some adults (the disciples) unexpectedly in the “loss” column. By contrast, a poor widow, a tax collector, and little children scored a “win.” The score is currently: low status people – 3, high status people – 0. Today, we get a slightly longer story; the famous one about a rich young ruler.
18:18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Good question, right? Deserves a straight answer? But Jesus seems to go into combat mode straight away:18:19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.
Slap. Take that.
Is he just trying to make the point that this ruler has inadvertently acknowledged his identity as God? Or is it because he knows where his heart’s at – perhaps as evidenced by his question “what must I do to inherit…” (Remember the Pharisee, who was all about doing.)
At any rate, Jesus answers his question, at least in terms of how it was asked. He tells him exactly what he has to do. Keep the law. Duh.18:20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”
But I think the ruler was looking for a less obvious answer.18:21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
Perhaps he’s got a funny feeling that keeping the commandments isn’t what it’s really all about. So Jesus then answers his real question – and gets to the state of his heart.18:22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
This is a test of the heart. Will he love God with all his heart, soul, and mind – and love his neighbour as himself? Will he put God before that which is dearest to him?18:23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Apparently not.18:24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!
How hard is it?18:25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
That’s pretty hard.18:26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
And they’ve got a good point, haven’t they? Who is able to put God before all the things of this world? Particularly to the extent Jesus was demanding of the rich ruler!
And the more wealthy you are, the harder you tend to cling onto it. The harder it is to give it up in order to gain Christ, as Paul might put it. Although there are some who try – I’ve heard it said (meaning it’s probably made up) that there’s a group of wealthy Christian philanthropists who call themselves “the society of the squashed camel.” Another pulpit myth is that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “needle’s gate” that a camel could only get through by stooping down with great difficulty. (That factoid was made up by someone in the 15th century and has been repeated enough times to give it credence. There is now a needle gate in the Russian quarter of Jerusalem, but it was built in the 16th century.)
But the point of the story is it’s impossible! You can’t get a camel through the eye of a needle. And a rich person can’t give up their love of wealth, in order to enter the kingdom of God, humanly speaking. Which is why Jesus says next:18:27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
In other words – the ability for a rich person (or anyone, for that matter) to enter the kingdom is a miracle. It’s God doing the impossible. Effectual calling, as the Calvinist might put it. Or a heart of flesh replacing a heart of stone, and God’s spirit entering dry bones – as Jesus might have put it, if he were in the mood to quote Ezekiel.18:28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
Peter now points out the fact that they have done the impossible. (Or God has done the impossible in them, as he might later admit, 1 Pet 1:18-21.) In contrast with the rich ruler, they’ve left all their possessions – even their family – and put God first.18:29-30 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Don’t worry, Peter. Trust me. It’s worth it.
Is that a truth you need to be reminded of, as each day you fight the battle against the love of money that’s so prevalent in our culture. If you’re reading this in the West, you’re wealthy. You’re the “rich ruler” in this story who has only entered the kingdom because God himself has pureed your camel in Christ. (Search that phrase on Google, I guarantee no-one’s ever used it before.) And you’re the disciple who, every day, is choosing to relinquish your hold on your earthly possessions so you can pick up your cross. You can’t carry both.
And by the way, for those still keeping score at home: today, the disciples are in the “win” column, redeeming themselves from yesterday’s story. Why? Because they are the ones who lack (worldly) status, but gain eternal life. By contrast, the rich ruler misses out. Running tally: low status people – 4; high status people – 0.