Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 4)
October 3, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Discipleship (Part 4)
In looking at what Jesus said about believing and living His teachings as a disciple, it becomes evident that true belief in Him calls for modifying our priorities. As seen in earlier articles on this topic, Jesus said that believers are called to be loyal to Him above other loyalties, that disciples are meant to give their primary allegiance to Him. As we will explore in the current article, this includes giving Him priority over our material possessions, as His encounter with a wealthy young man highlighted.
All three synoptic Gospels tell the story of a rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he needed to do in order to have eternal life.1 We’ll look at the text from the Gospel of Mark, and will bring in points from Matthew and Luke. The story begins this way:
As [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and 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.”2
Mark tells us that this man was rich. In the Gospel of Matthew, he is described as being young. Luke calls him a ruler.3 So, traditionally he is referred to as “the rich young ruler.” It is unlikely that he was a synagogue leader, as he would have needed to be older for that, but he may have been an influential wealthy civic leader.4
Jesus objected to the man calling Him “good.” Why was that? There is some difference of opinion, as it can be understood as a gesture of respect, but also, as many commentators suggest, it seems that the man was offering flattery—perhaps with the hope of having Jesus repay the flattery in some way, which was common in those days. However, Jesus instead responded by giving the man a mild reproof, stating that only God is good. Whatever the reason for Jesus’ objection to being called good, it seems likely that He was making the point that ultimate goodness and perfection belong to God alone, and that His Father is the source of all goodness.5
Jesus then said to the man:
“You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”6
Neither Matthew nor Luke include “do not defraud,” and Matthew adds: “and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”7
Jesus, knowing that the man was familiar with the Law, responded by quoting from the Ten Commandments, which reflected God’s will for His people. Perhaps, because the man was rich, he didn’t “covet his neighbor’s goods,” and therefore Jesus didn’t include that in the list. However, He may have suspected that the young man, being rich, could have defrauded others in the course of business, and thus added that point, as it is not one of the Ten Commandments.
Jesus stated that the man knew the commandments, and the man confirmed this when he replied that he had kept them since he was young. He must have regularly attended synagogue, and made the point that not only was he familiar with the commandments, but he had observed them. His outlook reflected the conventional Jewish view of what it meant to be good.8 He was a Torah-observant Jew, who probably lived a good life and wanted to be certain that he would inherit eternal life.
In Matthew’s account, the young man says:
“All these I have kept. What do I still lack?”9
Even though he kept the commandments, he sensed that something was missing, that just keeping the commandments hadn’t fulfilled his quest to sincerely know and serve God. He asked Jesus what that something was.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”10
The young man was challenged to realign his priorities. While he kept most of the commandments, he wasn’t willing to keep a key one: You shall have no other gods before me.11 He couldn’t shift his allegiance to God. His wealth on earth was more important to him than treasure in heaven. His wealth stood between him and God. Jesus’ call was to remove that obstruction.
This wasn’t a universal demand for all believers to sell everything they owned and follow Jesus, but rather served to highlight what the young man was putting before God. There were followers of Jesus who had wealth, but they had their wealth in right priority; they put God first. This can be seen in the examples of Joseph of Arimathea, Joanna, Susanna, and others who shared their wealth with other disciples. In the book of Acts we read of faithful disciples like Barnabas, who owned property, and Lydia, who owned a business.
As Jesus stated in the Sermon on the Mount:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.12
This man, whom Jesus looked upon with love, was unwilling to put his love for God and his desire “to inherit eternal life” above the love of his possessions.
Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.13
Some translations render this as he was stunned, was saddened, his face fell. He chose to serve his wealth rather than God.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words.14
R. T. France comments on why the disciples were astonished at what Jesus said:
The disciples’ astonishment arises from the common Jewish assumption … that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and his reward for faithful service, so that when Jesus instead declares it to be an impediment to salvation, he is undermining a fundamental part of their religious worldview.15
Just as in many other instances, Jesus’ teaching interjects new understanding into the Jewish religious worldview of His time.
While Jesus said it was difficult for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom, He didn’t say it was impossible. Nevertheless, in Mark’s Gospel He made the same point a second time:
Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!”16
He went on, using hyperbole:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.17
Darrell Bock comments:
A camel was the largest animal in Palestine, while the eye of the needle is one of the smallest items a person might deal with on a daily basis … The point of the hyperbolic, seemingly silly illustration is clear: it is impossible for rich people on their own strength to gain entry into the kingdom.18
Some Bible interpreters have tried to soften the blow of this statement by claiming that there was a small gate in the walls of Jerusalem which required a camel to kneel to get through it, and that the gate was called “the eye of the needle.” There is no evidence that such a door ever existed. Jesus’ statement was meant to portray something which is impossible. The rich man, through his own efforts, cannot enter the kingdom of God.
They were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”19
What was true of the rich young man is actually true of everyone—no one, rich or poor, can be saved through their own efforts. It’s impossible. But what is impossible for people is possible with God. Salvation requires God’s gracious action.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”20
Peter spoke for the disciples, pointing out that they had done what the rich man was unwilling to do; they accepted the call to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost. Perhaps he was seeking some reassurance, since Jesus had said salvation wasn’t something which could be received based on human action. Jesus assured His disciples that those who follow His call, who sacrifice the things that are important to them to follow Him, will be greatly rewarded—both in this life and eternally.
Those who have put Christ before their belongings, relatives, houses, or land will be rewarded in this life and the next. John Cassian expresses the idea of how we can gain a hundredfold family, houses, and land in this life through the worldwide body of Christians:
You have each left but one father and mother and home, and as you have done so you have gained without any effort or care countless fathers and mothers and brothers, as well as houses and lands and most faithful servants, in any part of the world to which you go, who receive you as their own family and welcome, and respect, and take care of you with the utmost attention.21
As Christians, we are members of a worldwide family of faith, and as such have family everywhere. We are to likewise show hospitality to those who are our brothers and sisters in faith.
The next phase of the reward Jesus spoke of comes in the age to come, meaning eternal life. Those who believe and follow Jesus, who put Him first, above other loves and above the riches of this world, are promised life everlasting.
The account of the rich young ruler teaches us that loyalty to other things can keep us from following Jesus. In this case, the young man wasn’t willing to shift allegiance from his riches to God—his wealth was his priority. Through this encounter, Jesus showed that putting God first is a requisite for true discipleship.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–30, and Luke 18:18–30.
2 Mark 10:17–18.
3 Luke 18:18, Matthew 19:20.
4 Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, 1476.
5 Evans, World Biblical Commentary: Mark, 34B, 96.
6 Mark 10:19–20.
7 Matthew 19:19.
8 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 734.
9 Matthew 19:20.
10 Mark 10:21.
11 Deuteronomy 5:7.
12 Matthew 6:24.
13 Mark 10:22.
14 Mark 10:23–24.
15 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 728.
16 Mark 10:24.
17 Mark 10:25.
18 Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, 1485.
19 Mark 10:26–27.
20 Mark 10:28–30.
21 As quoted in Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 285.