The story is so important that all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) tell it. He’s got money, power, and the rest of his life ahead of him. Yet he’s acutely aware that his life is lacking.
From each Gospel account, we get a fact about who he is. Matthew tells us he’s wealthy. Mark says he is young, and Luke tells us he’s a ruler. He’s probably from the priestly aristocracy – the Sadducees. Imagine the crowd parting as this rich young ruler walks through them straight to Jesus and gets down on his knees.
Here is a wealthy man, a young man of high social status, a leader in political and religious life, maybe about Jesus’ own age. He seems to know God’s law and have some confidence that he’s keeping it. Yet he also appears to understand that there’s something big missing.
He asks a question no one in Israel would’ve asked – because they thought they already knew the answer – and no Sadducee would’ve considered, because they believed it wasn’t possible: “How do I get eternal life?”
The Sadducees didn’t believe in the supernatural, the resurrection or any real life after death. But this doesn’t have the ring of a trick question. All three synoptic Gospel writers portray this young man as sincere.
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks him. The idea that man is not good on his own doesn’t originate in the New Testament. If this young man is a priest, he should know this.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness ….
– Psalm 130:3
Jesus is pointing to the man’s need for salvation. But it seems his money, status, and all the power that comes with them is deluding him. Having achieved those at such a young age, he’s still dissatisfied enough to question the system that had given him all it had to give.
If these things couldn’t satisfy him, maybe eternal life would. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that he’s staring the source of eternal life right in the face! Jesus is inviting him into exactly the life he’s looking for!
And he misses it.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus says, “If you would be perfect [complete, mature], go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.” Pastor and author Tim Keller points out that Jesus was satisfied when Zacchaeus offered to give 50 percent of his money away (Luke 19). But from this man, Jesus asks for all of it, because the man needs its influence removed if he’s ever going to be saved, if he’s ever going to find his satisfaction in knowing Christ.
The things making this man respected and powerful are standing directly between him and eternal life. They’re robbing him of his chance to know the life that is truly life.
Most have heard the rest of the story. The young man doesn’t accept Jesus’ offer. He goes away sad because of his wealth, “deeply sad, to the point of disorientation,” Keller says.
All of the riches and treasures and mysteries of eternity, the fullness of God, and an open invitation right in front of him, offering him exactly what he’s looking for, and he turns and walks away, bewildered.
Jesus gives what money can’t
Money can do that. It’s blinding. It can make us think we have rights we don’t have, importance we shouldn’t assume, knowledge we don’t possess. People ask our opinions, more than they should, and this just makes it worse. And money can obliterate our compassion and humility, unless we give it boundaries.
Material possessions and money in the bank don’t bring people joy, and they don’t teach contentment. But Jesus does. Timothy wrote that the desire for riches leads people “into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:6).
Why such strong words? Because money may blind the person who has never come to know Christ to his sinfulness and need, so that he never comes to Jesus … just like this young man. And even for those who do know Christ, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” By craving it, “Some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9).
King David, one of the wealthiest men to ever walk the face of the earth, began a Psalm with a verse most of us know well: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want …”
There is peace and contentment that comes from believing those simple words. Jesus is enough for you. You shall not want.
And he is the one who is caring for your life. Colossians 1 says he is all-sufficient, the one who created the world and holds it all together, the one in whom wisdom and knowledge and the “hope of glory” are stored and in whom the fullness of deity dwells.
Everything you really want is with him. And he wants to take care of you. He is taking care of you, now. He is our treasure in heaven, and we can enjoy that treasure even now.
Had the rich young ruler laid down his wealth and followed Jesus, he would have had everything he needed, including eternal life, and a community of friends to share it with. He would have set off on an adventure of trust and a joy unimaginable.
All the way my Savior leads me
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His faithful mercies?
Who through life has been my guide
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort
Ere by faith in Him to dwell
For I know whate’er fall me
Jesus doeth all things well
– Fanny Crosby
Image: Heinrich Hoffman, 1889