18 Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: “Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “Only God is truly good. 20 But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.’”
21 The man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
22 When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.
24 When Jesus saw this, he said, “How hard it is for
the rich those who have money to enter the Kingdom of God! 25 In fact, 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!”
26 Those who heard this said, “Then who in the world can be saved?”
27 He replied, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.”
28 Peter said, “We’ve left our homes to follow you.”
29 “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, 30 will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.”
31 Taking the twelve disciples aside, Jesus said, “Listen, we’re going up to Jerusalem, where all the predictions of the prophets concerning the Son of Man will come true. 32 He will be handed over to the Romans, and he will be mocked, treated shamefully, and spit upon. 33 They will flog him with a whip and kill him, but on the third day he will rise again.”
34 But they didn’t understand any of this. The significance of his words was hidden from them, and they failed to grasp what he was talking about.
Luke makes three significant changes in the story of the rich ruler. First of all, he is not a young man in Luke’s account. Instead he is both an active ruler and extremely wealthy. This makes him a candidate to be on the wrong end of the coming reversal. No one fitting his description has been anything but hostile to Jesus since he started toward Jerusalem. Still, he is either asking a serious question or at the very least Jesus treats the question as serious. It is impossible to tell if the man had actually kept the commandments as he claimed or if he is delusional like the last Pharisee. Jesus doesn’t argue his claim, because whether he has kept them or not, his problem is not one of rule-breaking, it is one of idol worship. As he does so well, Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter with a prophetic command. It is a serious command and it seems both Jesus and the rich ruler are disappointed it doesn’t work out.
The second change Luke makes is that the rich ruler does not leave. In Mark and Matthew, he goes away sad after Jesus gives him the one command he won’t keep. But in Luke he remains present to hear what Jesus has to say, which applies to him but also much more broadly. Note the change I made to the NLT. It is not just rich people Jesus is talking about here, but all those who have money. Uh oh. That encompasses a lot more of us. And just in case you’ve heard bad teaching on this before, let me clear something up. When Jesus uses the words “camel and needle,” he means just what you’d expect: a desert pack animal with humps and a little sharp thing you sew with. There never was such thing as a “Needle Gate” and no people or camels knelt down to get through it. That is nothing more than fanciful nonsense concocted to insulate us against the very invasive claim Jesus is making on us here. We will mitigate this somewhat with the story of Zaccheus, which Luke positions just after this story for that very reason. But know this, you follower of Jesus: at any point Jesus can demand of you everything, all your possessions, all of whatever you have positioned between you and God. When that happens (and I promise it will), you will have two choices: do what Jesus commands or stop following him. I would like another way as much as anyone, but there isn’t one.
Speaking of giving things up – this passage ends with Luke’s last cross prediction and the most explicit one yet. It’s hard to argue about giving up stuff to a Savior who has given up literally everything he had to give. I don’t mean to belittle the hardness and reality of our own sacrifices (some of mine have been excruciating), but follow the dialogue here (my paraphrase).
Peter: we’ve given up everything to follow you.
Jesus: I know and it will be okay and totally worth it. In the end you won’t have lost anything and you will have gained a lot.
Peter: sounds good.
Jesus: Oh, by the way, we’re heading to Jerusalem so these angry religious leaders can torture and kill me, fyi.
Once we get past the “huh” stage, what can we possibly say, except yes? Which brings us to Zaccheus and tomorrow’s passage…
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.