Someone of privilege, high status, probably wealth, and standing, approaches Jesus. The question is to the point, with little time to waste, and appropriately polite as if the “ruler” knew how to address people with deference and politeness. “Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18). The question is the question of the ages: how do I get to heaven, what must I do to ensure that I get to heaven?
Jesus’ response appears at first to be a diversion, but is actually the very nub of the issue. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (18:19). The point that Jesus is making is that the ruler spoke more truly than he realized. Jesus was indeed “good,” and he was indeed “God” as well.
Jesus’ recitation of the Ten Commandments (18:20) is then fascinating, for it is only the “Second Table” of the Ten Commandments. In other words, Jesus leaves out of his quotation of the Ten Commandments all those of the “First Table.” And they all relate to worship and love of God. The ruler claims to have kept all these commandments of the Second Table (18:21) (though we may have our doubts if they are interpreted as matters of the heart as Jesus interprets them in his Sermon on the Mount). But the First Table, that of love towards God with all his heart and mind and soul, is entirely lacking.
This is the context we need to understand verse 22: “One thing you lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” What Jesus is identifying is the ruler’s idol. He is not worshipping God; he is not following the first half of the Ten Commandments; he has an idol that he is worshipping instead. What is that idol? In the ruler’s case, that idol is money. The only option he has is to kill it.
Jesus’ teaching in verse 22 does not mean that everyone should sell all their possessions. Jesus was not talking to everyone; he was talking to this man. Nor does it mean that every rich person should sell all their possessions. What it means is that in order for an idol to be dealt with it must be cut down. Gideon had to cut down the idol at the center of his village. Moses had to destroy the golden calf. Idols have a hold over men and women, and with them there can be no half measures. They must be cut out entirely.
That said, there is a particular danger that comes with being wealthy. Jesus makes that clear in verses 24 and 25. Having lots of money lands you in the situation of being constantly surrounded by something for which the heart longs and is therefore an ever-present temptation to idolatry. That is why it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom. This is a statement intended to be humorous in its extreme imagery. You can almost see the camel attempting to squeeze through the eye of a needle! Absurd!
But though it is absurd, it is also impossible. Does it mean that it is impossible for a rich man to be saved? Not at all. As those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” (18:26). In other words, if someone like this ruler—probably an upstanding, respected citizen—cannot be saved, then surely no one can. While we tend, through our Marxist-influenced lens, to view the wealthy as unlikely to be virtuous, the precise reverse was the assumption in Jesus’ time. Because God is sovereign, if someone was wealthy, it was assumed that they must be doing good things for which they were being rewarded. So, think of the most likely person you can think of to be saved; assume that Jesus says that for that kind of person to be saved, it is as impossible as for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Then you will have an idea of their shock at what Jesus said. Surely, then, no one can be saved!
But look, “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (18:27). In other words, all salvation is humanly impossible, but God is able to do the impossible, and it is only by God’s power and grace that any one is saved.
Peter then strikes up and says that they have left so much to follow him (18:28). Jesus gives comforting words for all committed disciples. For those who have left behind home and family in the service of the kingdom, they will receive many times more in this life, and in the age to come eternal life (18:29-30). This is not payment for their service, but a God-given byproduct of such devoted service to that which truly matters: Jesus and his kingdom.
Therefore, let us ask ourselves what idol we might have? What is there that might be the “one thing” that we could not possibly give up?
And also let us encourage ourselves by the thought that if we have given up that idol, Jesus promises us so much more, both in this life and in the life to come.
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