The account of Jesus encountering the “rich young ruler” is often used to illustrate the spiritual difficulties that result from wealth. But in reading it this way, I’ve often struggled with certain parts, especially the version in Mark. Why did Mark point out Jesus’s love for the man, considering what follows? Why did Jesus give the man a work to do, when we know that works can’t save? And is it impossible for a rich person to get into Heaven, or is it one more thing “possible with God”? These puzzled me for years, until I prayed about it.
I began to see that the man asked Jesus how he could get himself into Heaven, and Jesus showed him the answer by giving him something he could not do. Of course, it’s impossible for us to get into Heaven on our own. But rather than stop with what’s impossible with man, we need to continue on to see what’s possible with God…
Let’s start by walking through the account in Mark 10.
As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17)
The man came to Jesus in an expectant manner, seeking to know the secret to eternal life. Perhaps he had encountered Jesus’s teaching before, but somehow the man had become convinced that he was missing something, and had come to believe that Jesus had the answer. Note that the man clearly expected that the way to eternal life was through his actions. He was asking what he could do.
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. 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, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” (vv. 18-20)
From the standpoint of grace, Jesus gives a surprising answer by pointing him to the Law. Using the man’s address of Him, Jesus points out to the man that only God is good. (Presumably not expecting the man to understand Jesus’s full nature.) He then points him to the Law as if it were somehow possible that its fulfillment would work. Apparently the man is a devout Jew and believes he has followed the Law with a clean heart all his life. Now, we know that isn’t possible, that what’s really required is complete sinlessness, and that no one is capable of that. The man claims to have fulfilled the Law, but clearly doesn’t expect it to be enough, otherwise he wouldn’t ask.
Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. (vv. 21-22)
Jesus shows that the man cannot achieve the level of selflessness required for salvation. In a sense this shouldn’t be surprising, since we know that no work can save. Jesus knew the man’s wealth was a barrier for him, but don’t we all have some sin that keeps us from perfection? Any attitude that places our interests above God is a sin, and we have all sinned.
What’s really striking here is that the final challenge starts with a statement of Jesus’s love for the man. Often, when Scripture describes His emotions this way, it then describes His actions. So how does that work here? Basically, Jesus answered the man’s original question of what he could do to be saved, by saying in effect: “Nothing!” How is that an expression of love?
Perhaps we can gain some insight by looking at an earlier passage which illustrates Jesus acting on His emotions.
In Mark 6:34, Jesus is described as having compassion for a crowd: When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.
Note that His response was to start teaching them. Could it be that Jesus’s love for the man led Him to teach the futility of works for salvation? This certainly seems to be what happened, but what is the value of such teaching without then providing a solution? While some had already followed Jesus’s call and abandoned everything, most people would not come to faith until after the Cross. At this point, Jesus’s work was as yet incomplete, so perhaps His instruction was for a later time. Let’s hold that thought, and continue walking through the passage.
And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” (vv. 23-26)
Jesus uses this encounter to teach that no amount of good works can earn one’s salvation. It’s important to realize that Jews at this time thought that the wealthy had special ability to gain God’s favor because they could do more good with their wealth. Hence the disciple’s surprise that wealth would actually be an obstacle. They expected the opposite, but Jesus flat out denied that, effectively saying that no matter how much good a person could do, it was not enough. It followed, then, that if a wealthy person could not earn entrance to Heaven, the poor and normal had no chance at all. Hence the disciples final question. If the rich couldn’t gain Heaven, who then could?
Jesus replied by forshadowing God’s ultimate gift of grace:
Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (v. 27)
In fact, salvation is not possible by any human effort, but is possible for anyone by God’s power. This is Jesus’ summary of his encounter with the rich man, and is the Lord’s final answer on the matter. It is a truth that applies to all, but let’s not stop here.
We noted earlier that Jesus’ instruction to the man may have been for a later time. Let’s jump ahead to a point roughly 50 days after the Resurrection. This was the Jewish festival of Pentecost, one of three times that the Lord required His people to celebrate in Jerusalem itself. As indicated in Acts 2:5, those who gathered were likely devoted Jews. Consider our rich young ruler, who considered himself spotless under the Law. Undoubtedly devout, where else might he have been during Pentecost than with the rest of the “men of Israel” to whom Peter preached (Acts 2:22a)? Let’s run with that, and see what we might learn. Picture the rich man in the crowd, and recall what happened at the end of Peter’s sermon:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. (Acts 2:36-45)
Notice what happens here. At the end of Peter’s sermon, the crowd becomes convicted of their need but they do not know what to do. In a manner similar to the rich man’s approach to Jesus, they ask what they need. Unlike Jesus, Peter does not give them an impossible work, but instead he presents the Gospel. Many accept the Savior, and once given the gift of the Holy Spirit, their lives are changed. No longer do they prioritize earthly things, but instead give priority to others and to learning more about the Savior. And in particular, the Spirit’s expression in their lives leads those who are property owners to sell their possessions and give to the needy.
Recall that this is just what Jesus had required of the rich man in their encounter. At that time, the young man couldn’t fulfill the Lord’s requirements. But now, under the power of the Holy Spirit, the response is spontaneous.
Could it be that Jesus’ love for the rich man led Him to prepare his heart for this time? Knowing how the man’s attitude about his riches were a stumbling block, Jesus’ demand would have taught that there was nothing he could do to gain salvation. This was, after all, the man’s original question: “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus taught him, and the disciples, that no human work could provide salvation. This could have set the stage for his encounter with the Gospel at Pentecost. What might the man’s response have been, with his heart personally prepared by the Savior? I imagine his was the loudest voice calling “what shall we do?”, and his the first property up for sale. Salvation for such a man would be impossible with human effort, but possible with the power of God.
In fact, this becomes a perfect picture of the truth that good works are not required for salvation, but are in fact, the supernatural result of it. The rich young ruler couldn’t save himself through works, yet those who were saved by Jesus’ work, did those very things. Jesus showed us that neither entering the Kingdom nor living as a Kingdom citizen is possible by human power. But at Pentecost, the Lord showed that both are possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, we don’t know that the rich man was among those who responded in the crowd. But we also don’t know that he wasn’t. Perhaps our choice of which to believe indicates whether we think salvation is due to man’s effort, or God’s. If we believe that wealth is a hindrance to salvation, then we must be looking at evangelism as a human work, for “with people it is impossible”. But if we believe evangelism is God’s work, then salvation of the wealthy must be possible, for “all things are possible with God”.
What does this tell us of the potential to reach the elite in today’s world? It certainly seems that they are hard to reach, but after considering two possible paths for the rich man’s future and testing my own heart, I have to wonder: Is the apparent difficulty due to the hardness of their hearts towards God, or because our hearts are hard towards them?
Now, if it is true that even salvation of the rich is possible with God’s power, then we might look for examples of such in Scripture. And it turns out that there are many accounts of rich, intellectual, and influential people coming to Christ. Check it out here.