Rich Young Ruler | Reflections on a Few Interpretive Options

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It’s really impossible to talk about the Bible and money and not talk about a man commonly known as the Rich Young Ruler.  Wouldn’t you feel cheated if you took a Bible class on the Bible and personal finance, and you never at least read that story?  I think for many of us, that this is a pinnacle story.  Within this story, we think there might be some really important lessons for our own finances.

But we struggle with the story of the Rich Young Ruler.

Why?

Because we don’t immediately know what to do with that story.

As a result, we may often take the path of least resistance and decide not to allow the Bible to transform us.

That’s the wrong approach.

As I’ve been doing some reading this month I’ve come across several places where people have referenced that story, so I thought it might be helpful to do a roundup of what different people say is the ‘meaning’ of the story of the Rich Young Ruler.

Alternative Interpretations of the Rich Young Ruler

Max Lucado – The Applause of Heaven

Max, what’s the point of the story?  Pride.

He assumes the key question in this text is, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I think Martin Luther has helped develop a theology where we’re taught to assume that Judaism was nothing but a works based belief system.  The Old Testament is explicit that Israel was saved by the mercy and power of God.  Not that everyone got it.  By the way, not everyone gets grace today.

If you asked an ancient Hebrew how they were saved, I doubt very many of them would say they were saved by their own might and strength.

“Don’t miss the trust of this verse: you cannot save yourself.”

“You see, it wasn’t the money that hindered the rich man; it was the self-sufficiency.”

Thus, I think this interpretation is moving in the right direction, but a little too agenda driven.

George Eldon Ladd – The Gospel of the Kingdom

In some ways, Ladd and Lucado have a similar interpretive bent.  However, Ladd moves away from the focus of self-sufficiency and gives his attention to the love of stuff.

Our love of stuff must be replaced with a love of Christ.  Our priority list must be altered, and money with possessions must slide downward. Christ must be offered a place of honor in our lives.

“Entrance into eternal life in the Kingdom of God is no more possible for men to attain by all human resources than it is possible for a camel to go through a needle’s eye. … And so it is a miracle for a rich man – or a poor man either for that matter  – to have his affections turned from his possessions that he may become a disciple of Jesus and thus be prepared to enter the future Kingdom of Heaven.”

Craig Groeschel – Weird

“The more a person is able to control life through the power of money, wealth, and status, the more inclined he is to rely on his money’s ability to make things happen, instead of relying on God.”

Thus, the danger of riches is the danger of dependence.  Money buys results, money influences others, and money is a catalyst in our world.

As a result, Groeschel implies that we, like the man in this Bible story, will fall into the trap of self dependence.  It is impossible to please God when we depend on our own resources.

Craig Evans – Word Biblical Commentary

Perhaps because it’s a commentary and should be more thorough, Evans was the first to point out the connection between this story and the one that proceeds – the Little Children.

Mark 10:15 says, “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

What I can tell you beyond a doubt is that the Rich Man is not ‘like a child’.  Thus, Jesus does clearly illustrate his point by telling the story of the Rich Man.

“People cannot enter the kingdom of God” explains Evans, “without God’s enabling power.  But pursuit of the kingdom of God is not without costs.”

Craig Ford’s concluding thoughts

(That’s me, and it’s weird to refer to myself in the third person.)

The trajectory of this passage seems clear to me.

Things get in the way of following Christ. None of these individuals involved are willing to say that it is money in and of itself.  To give away all my money in order to get into heaven would seems like a strategy to get heaven – which we know is impossible for man.

Giving away all one has could be a tool of control, not sacrifice.  We give to get.  That would be wrong.

While one cannot earn God’s kingdom, entrance surely comes through childlike sacrifice.  As Christians, we give up what our society tells us is important in order to gain something that society tells us doesn’t exist.

So we start with the inside of the cup.

We put everything on the altar of Christian sacrifice and discipleship, and when God calls for something, ‘we’ have we give it because he is our source of meaning, strength, and purpose.

Here’s more information on the Rich young ruler.

Do you interpret the story of the rich ruler in a way I didn’t introduce here?  What are others saying about the story that helps you find the truth of this passage?

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with the general thrust of the 5 commentaries (including yours) and I think perhaps that the meaning can be distilled down to a simple question:

    Q. What are you relying on to get eternal life?
    A. It better not be yourself, your stuff, your status or your moral performance. These are the things that stopped the Rich Young Ruler from going away with joy. It was the pride and self-sufficiency that comes with living a ‘good life’ i.e. status, money and morality. Jesus precisely applied the intent of the law to his heart because if following Christ meant giving up his wealth, then he wasn’t willing to do it.

    • says

      David,
      I think that is a good question to point us in the right direction. And we need to be thinking about what we’re trusting in today.

  2. James Benford says

    My take on this story Craig is:

    No matter what we possess in terms of our earthly riches (large or small), the true riches always start, point to, and find its emminet place with the Father and His Son. Jesus was merely directing the rich young ruler to the path and relationship that was lost by all mankind by Adam’s disobedience. Jesus makes an awesome call to all mankind in this story…… your heart will determine where and what your treasure is. I recall one of the most powerful true riches bible stories when Moses asked God about knowning Him (the true riches) to the extent he wanted to see God. This was where Jesus was taking the rich young ruler…….to the place where he would have been rich beyond his imagination. Thanks for this bible story and truth.

    • says

      James,
      Thanks for your insightful comment.

      Like you point out, the interesting things about this story is that in some ways it has nothing to do with money and in other ways it has everything to do with money.
      It is indeed a story about heart, love, and passion. Who has our heart? What do we love? Where is our passion?

  3. AM says

    Perhaps the rich man’s issue was covetousness, and that is why Jesus wanted to see if he would give up everything. Perhaps if he was a rich man, yet not covetous, then Jesus would not have asked him to give up everything? Maybe covetousness was the thing standing in this rich man’s way. Jesus sees our hearts. You cannot serve God and mammon simultaneously…

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