The Rich Young Ruler
This account has parallels in Mark 10:17-31 and Matthew 19:16-30. Because it is assumed that Matthew and Luke relied on Mark for their own versions, it can be assumed that any differences between them are intentional on Luke and Matthew’s part. In this passage, the differences are small but help to shed a light on Luke’s purpose behind sharing this account.
Overall, Luke makes this a much more practical account than either Mark or John. Luke gives the questioner more of a role than the other two and leaves the question about whether he accepted what Jesus said or not open to interpretation. It is helpful in this story to remember that Luke was writing his gospel because of gifts from a rich man, and so this story takes on a more optimistic tone that perhaps this rich man accepted Jesus’ sayings instead of leaving without change.
Verse 18: A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (NRSV)
- Luke is the only gospel to record that this man was a “ruler” or “leader.” Mark and Matthew both simply record that he was “a man” who they later describe as having many possessions.
- Matthew does not include “good” in the man’s address to Jesus. Instead, he changes the man’s address to being about “good things” that get you salvation. Jesus in turn replies that the only “good” thing is God and therefore God is the only salvation.
- There is no indication what type of ruler this man is. It might simply mean that he is in the upper echelon of society as it is very general and definitely does not refer to a specific rank or role.
- It seems likely that Luke added that this man was a ruler to help his readers know from the beginning that the man was wealthy. In Mark and Luke it is a surprise when we find out he has money, but Luke wanted us to know from the very beginning.
Verse 19: Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. (NRSV)
- This verse raises many questions for people. Is Jesus’ questioning his goodness? Is Jesus denying his godhood?
- Both of these options seem lacking. A good option is to assume that the ruler addressed Jesus casually as “good” and Jesus is forcing the young man to really think about what he just said Jesus was (Nolland 885).
- The statement is for the ruler, and what he is saying, not a comment on Jesus’ beliefs.
Verse 23: But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich (NRSV)
- This is not new information to Luke’s readers, unlike to Mark and Matthew’s readers. Luke wants us to know this man is rich from the beginning, and reminds us again here.
- This verse marks the major difference between Luke and the other synoptic gospels. Matthew and Mark record the rich man as leaving, his wealth preventing him from doing as Jesus asks.
- Jesus’ following statements in those gospels are recorded as being to the disciples about what just happened.
- In Luke, the young man stays and everything Jesus says, he is saying to that person. It is therefore presented as more practical advise, and while wealth is pictured as being a very large stumbling block, it is not one that overcomes everyone. This ruler stayed to listen.
Verse 24: a (NRSV)
- As mentioned in the previous verse, this section is directed uniquely at the ruler and not at the disciples. This is relevant because the disciples were not wealthy and so took it as a praise for giving up what they had. In Luke’s account, spoken to the ruler himself, it takes on more of the character of trying to convince someone to trust that they will gain instead of lose when they give themselves to God.
Verse 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.” (NRSV)
- Many people have sometimes tried to remove the miraculous from this account. Theories abound about this being a gate in Jerusalem, but that is highly unlikely. Even though we add “the” before “eye of a needle” in English, in Greek it is clear that this is any eye of any needle, not a specific place.
- Jesus is presenting a case that this man needs God’s help to be saved.
- Keep in context that this conversation started with a discussion of salvation through works. He cannot do it through deeds like he asked about. It is impossible.
- This man, though a ruler, came to Jesus for help. He knew he needed God’s help, and Jesus pointed that out by how the man called him “good”. Jesus is simply making this explicitly clear to him with this verse.
Verse 29-30: And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (NRSV)
- This verse is as strongly worded as Jesus can make it that this is a scary, but a very safe bet. “Truly” he tells them “no one” (emphatic) will lose out.
- ”Will not get back” in Greek uses a phrasing called emphatic negation, closer in intensity to “hell no” in modern American English. There is no uncertainly about it, this will happen and you will be rewarded.
- Matthew and Mark both record Jesus using the word “receive” which could mean these blessings coming from anyone. Luke makes it explicit that this is “receiving from” or “receiving back” which makes is much clearer that this is a reciprocal idea and so is coming from God. This might have been to reinforce to his rich readers that the rewards are coming from someone richer than them, and so has the possibility to be more than they have no matter how much they have right now.
- Unlike Mark and Matthew, where these verses are praising the disciples, Luke presents this as a genuine chance for the rich man to change. But Luke does not tell us what the man does, leaving us the chance to make that decision for ourselves.