Luke 18:18-23 (ESV)
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.
Note that this is not a parable. The ruler is a real person with a real history. There’s no way he has kept all the commandments. Jesus says, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” When he replies, “All these I have kept from my youth,” Jesus has a golden opportunity to shoot him down; he just said, “No one is good except God alone.”
Instead, He acts like He buys it and zooms in on the ruler’s real weakness. “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.” This is a straight invitation to become a disciple. The real disciples accepted a similar offer, leaving everything (e.g., boatloads of fish) behind.
Bang. No deal. Jesus is serious and he’s not. But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
But why does his being extremely rich automatically mean he’s very sad and the deal’s off? Since every American is extremely rich by biblical standards, does this mean we’re not really willing to be disciples?
It is good to be challenged by these questions, but the historical context softens them. In the first century, there was no industrialization, no machinery, and very few inventions. It was virtually impossible for an individual to have become extremely rich by creating that much wealth. Wealthy people got rich off the labor of others. The ruler’s wealth was created by their productivity that he “collected.”
This guy was no Thomas Edison. His wealth showed his approach to life, and it’s not that of a disciple.
Of course, we’re no Thomas Edison either. Still, everyone has more “wealth” because of all the Thomas Edison like things people have invented. Life without electricity would be a big step back.
So, what level of wealth is OK?
That’s the wrong question. We can’t possibly achieve the level of poverty that was acceptable in the first century. We’d be less healthy and less productive. Jesus doesn’t want us to make stupid sacrifices.
This issue is how we treat other people – and not just their money.
We mustn’t be selfish in the way the ruler was.
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