Why Did Jesus Tell the Rich Young Ruler to Sell All that He Had?

We all know the story: A ruler comes to Jesus and says “what must I do to inherit the eternal life?” Jesus, instead of saying, “believe in me,” says “You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother” (Luke 18:18-19).

Already, this seems strange. We would expect Jesus to say: “Believe in me.” But instead he seems to say: “Keep the commandments.”

The rich young ruler then responds: “All these I have kept from my youth” (v. 21). To which Jesus responds: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (v. 22).

Why didn’t Jesus say “believe in me?” Why did he seem to tell this person that he would be saved by obeying the law?

A common interpretation is that Jesus was showing this guy his sin. Jesus’ point was not that he would be saved by keeping the commandments; his point was: “you haven’t kept the commandments, so you must be saved by another way — namely, by faith in me.”

Some people say that this interpretation is importing a theological system onto the text. That it seems too complex of a treatment of the passage.

But I don’t think it is. This becomes clear when you consider the account in Luke. For, in Luke, right before this Jesus had just told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

We all know that parable as well: The Pharisee came to the temple and said “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” (Luke 18:11-12). The tax collector, on the other hand, wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven, and said “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (v. 13).

Which one of these was justified?


No. Only the tax collector. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (v. 14).

Here’s the point: The rich young ruler failed to learn the lesson of the Pharisee and tax collector. Jesus had just pointed out how the guy who claimed to have kept all the commandments was not justified. He then told us how we do become justified — namely, by acknowledging that we are sinners, like the tax collector, rather than law-keepers. It is after this that the rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and says “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

When Jesus says “you know the commandments,” and the rich young ruler responds “all these I have kept from my youth,” he is echoing the Pharisee from the passage just a few verses earlier. He, like the Pharisee, thinks he is a law keeper.

This stands out starkly in the text, simply due to the proximity of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, and the story of the rich young ruler. I know someone might say “well, these things might not have occurred so close together in Jesus’ actual ministry.” That might be true. But either way, the proximity in which Luke places them in his gospel tells us something about Luke’s intent and the point Luke wants to make.

And so, with the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector coming just before this (with the instance of the children coming to Jesus right in between — which makes the same point as the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector [“whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it”]), it is hard to escape the conclusion that Luke is indeed seeking to drive home the same lesson. It is hard to miss the similarity between what the Pharisee said about himself being a lawkeeper (18:11), and the rich young ruler claiming to be a lawkeeper (18:21).

Since the point of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector is that the Pharisee was not a lawkeeper, but that all of us are like this tax collector — that is, sinful and in need of mercy (18:13-14), we ought to read the rich young ruler’s claim to have kept the commandments and say “no, you haven’t.”

And that’s what I think Jesus’ point is. When Jesus responds to him by saying “go sell all that you have,” Jesus is challenging him. Jesus is pressing further to make him see that he is not, in fact, a law keeper. Jesus is essentially saying to him: “OK, you don’t get it. So I’m going to show you that you aren’t a law keeper by challenging you on this point.” So he challenges him with the first and tenth commandments — to have no other gods and not to be covetous — by saying “go, sell all that you have.” And when the rich young ruler becomes sad at this, it shows that, like the tax collector, he is not a lawkeeper after all — he has broken the tenth commandment and first commandment by preferring money over God. (And by breaking these commandments, he has broken them all — for the tenth commandment is a restatement of the first, and the first commandment is the essence of all of them.)

But now the rich young ruler is actually in a good position. Jesus has just shown him that he is not a lawkeeper. He should now, like the tax collector, acknowledge his sins and turn to God for mercy. And Jesus even hinted at this when he also said “come, follow me” (v. 22).

Here’s the point: When Jesus said to him “you know the commandments” and even “go, sell all that you have,” Jesus was not saying that we become saved by keeping the commandments. That would contradict the point of the parable he had just told before this about the Pharisee and tax collector (18:9-14).

Rather, his point was to reinforce the point of that parable — that none of us are lawkeepers but are only justified by acknowledging our sinfulness, as the tax collector did (18:13-14). This is what it means to receive the kingdom of God as a child (18:17) — you don’t rely on your own efforts, but simply cry to God for mercy. Jesus was bringing the rich young ruler to see the same point about salvation that he just made in verses 13-14 and verse 17.

One objection: After the rich man goes away, Peter basically says “Hey, look, we did what you told him to do — we did leave our homes and follow you” (18:28). So does this indicate that, since Peter did do what Jesus told the rich young ruler to do, Jesus was actually saying he would be saved by selling all his possessions?

Not in the slightest. For if you look back to when Peter left everything to follow Jesus, you see something striking. After Jesus demonstrated his power by enabling the large catch of fish, notice what Peter did:

“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.'” (Luke 5:8).

Notice that this is also in the gospel of Luke. Luke clearly intends for us to remember this. Here’s the point: Peter entered the kingdom just like the tax collector in the parable. He entered the kingdom by, like the tax collector, acknowledging his sinfulness and looking for mercy. And Jesus gave him mercy, and then Peter left everything to follow Jesus.

Acknowledging our sin and looking to Christ for mercy comes first. Then, lawkeeping follows. Those who think they are following the law without having humbled themselves like the tax collector (18:13-14) or a child (18:17) or Peter (5:8) are not following the law and are not saved.

But those who, like Peter and the tax collector, know that they are sinful and look to Christ for mercy — these people are then able to follow Jesus in radical obedience. But humbling ourselves by looking for justification apart from works comes first. Then, out of that, radical obedience flows — sometimes even to the point of, like Peter, leaving all our possessions in following Jesus.

September 13, 2011 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 19 Comments 


  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I think you have it right.

    Jesus is exposing us and our sinful nature.

    He is looking for those who know their need of a Savior, and not those who believe they are being obedient.

    But He provides all that is necessary for those in need, who are REAL sinners (the kind we all are).

    I think that is the point.

    Even as believers we are quite a mixed bag. One day (or hour) obedient, the next moment, not so much.


  • http://hispeaceuponus.com Dustin

    Also significant is that in the next chapter of Luke is the story of Zacchaeus who is described as “a chief tax collector” and “rich” (Luke 19:1). I think this sets up the question, “Who will Zacchaeus be like? The tax collector or the rich man?

    Note also that the point of the Zacchaeus story is not that he was short and did something unusual to see Jesus, but that Jesus himself has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Salvation has come, not because he gave away half of his goods and gave retribution to those he cheated, but because “he also is a son of Abraham” (v. 9).

  • Matt

    Great point. This also shows us what Jesus _would_ have said if the rich young ruler _had_ sold all.

    For since Zacchaeus essentially did do that (“half of my goods I will give to the poor”), we don’t have to guess what Jesus would have said to the rich young ruler. We see what he would have said in his response to Zacchaeus: Not “_therefore_ you are saved,” but, as you point out, “salvation has come to this house _because he is a son of Abraham_.”

  • Herb

    The rich young ruler heard Jesus, and, “…he grieved.” You, along with other commentators, state that he failed, but when someone grieves, they’re giving up something. If he chose to keep his riches, he would not be grieving, would he? Where is it stated that, as you declare, he went away and did NOT sell all and followed Jesus? Why is there NO possibility he saw his need to give up his riches, and grieved the loss, but did so (cheerfully, sadly, whatever) and then followed Jesus? Am I missing something? Respectfully, Herb.

  • Matt


    The way the text reads is that he grieved because he did not want to give up his riches. “But when he heard these things, he became very sad, _for_ he was extremely rich.” Further, in the next verse we read that Jesus “look[ed] at him with sadness.” It doesn’t seem like Jesus would be sad for him if he was giving up his riches and gaining external life. The rich young ruler’s reaction, further, is the occasion for Jesus saying how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God–indicating that the rich young ruler is just such an instance of wealth being a barrier. The disciples, on the other hand, point out that they have done what Jesus required of the rich young ruler (v. 28), so I think the disciples are intended as the example of those who did forsake all; and then in chapter 19 Zacchaeus is an example of a rich person being saved (and, in that case, apart from giving away all that he had, probably [depending on how much repaying fourfold would mean]).

    This is not to say that the rich young ruler may not have changed his mind later. AW Pink thought so (though his motivation in arguing that was that in one of the parallels it says Jesus “loved him,” and Pink wanted to argue that God only loves the elect). It could be that the rich young ruler did change his mind and give up all that he had; but it seems to me that every indication in this text is that he did not do so at this time, at least.

  • Pingback: “Boundaries with Consequences” Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler «()

  • JoJo

    Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor because the rich young ruler kept all the commandments pertaining to loving people but when it Cam to not having a god before God he didn’t want to let go of his life…Jesus said to sell his possessions and give then to the poor and follow Jesus…”deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me…” in order for the rich young ruler to do so he had to deny himself and pick up his cross first…he didn’t want to because he loved his life and possessions more than God and His mission

  • tom

    I really liked this ! I had in my mind the question as to why he (rich young ruler)did not know he was saved ! Thats the big question , why did he not know ? His keeping of the law should have made it very plan to him , right ! “For the law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul”Psalm 19 “..and in keeping them there is great reward.”
    Here is insight of a covenant man (Old covenant)and we see that he has been rattled by Jesus !Dazed and confused by what he must have heard just earlier , as the author of this artical suggest. I have seen a bit of light . The Law was good , but just not as good in them as it was in Jesus , as Jesus kept the Law ‘perfectly’. Thats why He went about teaching how sick (spiritually ) they all were . For healthy man needs not a physician , but only a sick man does Mark 2:17. He was showing how sick we all were ,even though some did not seem to get it, that they really were in need of a physician. Gal.3:21″…for if there had been a law given which could have given life , verily righteousness should have been by the law . But the scripture has concluded all under sin , that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”It goes on to say that the law was just a school master ,showing us the need to be justified by faith .! Just like the first one that was jusified 1930 years earlier (Abraham)!Hes the father of faith .Your father ,my father ,the father of all who believe in Jesus !

  • http://www.whatsbestnext.com Frisco Vigario

    Ephesians 2:8
    For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God

    From the above text it appears to me that there is no work of any kind that can give us eternal life, it is a free gift requiring that we accept that gift by faith (belief). So, I continue to be perplexed as to why Jesus asked the rich young ruler to go and sell everything he had – clearly a work.

    One may argue that the rich young ruler had an impediment in his life that required to be eliminated before he could receive the free gift but that in itself opens up a different can of worms – the requirement to get rid of whatever impediment we have in our lives that prevents us from receiving the free gift. Since we are all sinners we all have something that we hold on to before we are saved. So, was Jesus saying that everyone needs to get rid of whatever we hold dear to us (a work) before we can receive the free gift of eternal life?

    If I believe the gospel do I receive eternal life? What kind of belief is required?

    The other issue about the rich young ruler is that he was Jewish – what if he had been a gentile, what is the answer now?

    Still trying to understand this story, thank you nevertheless for your article.


  • Al

    Jesus’ main aim here was to convict the young man of the fact that even though he thought he was right with God, that he was mistaken.

    Jesus was taking on the role that the Holy Spirit has with us. The Holy Spirit convicts us, then it’s up to us to respond. Jesus could have phrased his words in other ways such as, “you are putting your riches first. They are your god. See you haven’t obeyed all the commandments”. But the way Jesus did it, would have driven that fact home like a slap in the face.

    It was the conviction and realisation that Jesus was driving home, not the action of actually giving up the riches.

    It was the mindset of the young man Jesus was trying to shake up. The young man could have responded, “Yes Jesus, I see where my priorities have been wrong. Yes I’ll follow you and I’ll put the importance of my wealth in its proper place”.

    Don’t get hung up on the physical aspect of giving up the riches, it was the conviction of where the young man’s priorities lay that Jesus was aiming at.

  • Daveed

    I think there are many opinions here. But in keeping with the whole contexts of the lesson etc. Should keep in mind that pharistical teaching taught that if one had wealth he was blessed of G-d. So to give up hiis wealth was to give up his favor of G-d. True he failed in breaking this commandment to have only one G_d….but he also failed in following the correct law of G-d.he was a ruler so to say

  • Daveed

    He belonged no doubt to the doctrines of the pharasee sect. They taught mishanic law and promoted this above following the torah. This was their error…this is why they could not follow the teaching of Yeshua. Eternal life could be obtained by belief in him…not in the sacrifical law..or mishanic law. To go on trying to be justifed by the sacrfical law did not merit men rightful place in eternity…but be not confused G-d told us to obey his law. Not to follow errantcy or errant doctrine. This ruler was guiltly of breaking those commands..but yeshua explains to him if your really intrested in gaing life eternal …forsake your idol…put faith in me..the son of G-d…accept that he forgives sins and he will have eternal life. The ruler was grived that he could not forke what had or the belief he had.


  • Paul

    I respect your opinion. I do not see the Savior’s words as a challenge. I view his words as an “invitation” to become an apostle. I don’t doubt this young ruler was a charitable man to begin with but was not ready to give up “all he has” to follow the Savior. We take it for granted that we know the Savior was crucified and died for our sins. This young man did not have that experience to build upon. Only his faith in following God and he was being asked to follow someone he did not yet understand was his Savior and Redeemer.

  • Simon Evans

    You’re bang on the money here.
    This is a point reflected in Wayne Jacobsen’s book He Loves Me when examining this passage.
    As readers our reaction of “that standard is too high – I’m not good enough” is the seminal moment.
    What we do with it is crucial: go off sad, or be saved undeservedly and unfairly (in our favour).

  • wade

    Jesus loving brings us into a knowledge of our condition before a holy God(sin, and without life)
    and offers to us life (Jesus’s life,not the old adam renewed)

  • Gary

    Salvation is actually a much simpler event that what many evangelicals
    make it out to be. Lutherans believe
    that salvation occurs solely due to the will and work of God. The sinner is a passive participant in his
    salvation. The sinner DOES nothing.

    The Lutheran
    interpretation of Scripture on the Doctrine of Justification/Salvation is often
    confusing to evangelicals. Why? Understanding what the Bible really says depends
    upon your world view.

    Most Christian evangelicals, and all other world religions, come
    from the viewpoint that: “I must do SOMETHING for God to
    love me and want to save me! I can’t
    believe that God would just give me his love, his grace, his mercy, his peace,
    his forgiveness AND eternal life…based on absolutely nothing that I do. Can it really be true that God gives me all
    that, in addition to the fact that he gave his only Son to die for
    me…not based on any good quality, trait, or deed that I can provide to earn
    his good favor, and not even based on me making a decision that I want
    his gift??

    That is INCOMPREHENSIBLE, illogical, unreasonable, and makes no sense!

    But that is what the Bible says that God does: He gives us the free gift of
    salvation based on his love for us …alone.

    “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still
    sinners, Christ died for us.”

    So if you are able to remove YOU from the act of
    salvation, here is how the Bible says that GOD does it:

    occurs by only one means: the power of God’s declaration of righteousness/the
    power of his Word.

    In the New Testament, God says that he uses his Word to
    save and forgive sins in two situations: when the Word is preached, and when
    the Word is spoken with the application of water…Baptism.

    It’s that simple.

    Who do Lutherans baptize? Answer: We baptize anyone who comes to us, or is
    brought to us, seeking God’s free gift of salvation and the forgiveness of
    sins. Do you have to be baptized to be saved? No. But why
    would you refuse this beautiful act of God? Why would you refuse God’s
    gift of the forgiveness of your sins? Do you really have true faith?

    As Christ says in Mark 16:16, it
    is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of belief/the lack of
    true faith that damns.


  • David

    Jesus is clearly reiterating His requirement that to be saved you must take up your cross and follow Him. This is impossible with man but possible (through the Holy Spirit) with God.

  • Sarah

    “Do not love the world. Neither the things that are in the world. Whoever has the love of the world, the love of the Father is not in Him.” Yes we need grace to be saved. But saving faith surrenders to Jesus and makes Jesus the only God in our life. “My children, stay away from idols.”

  • Roger

    I think Matt has given a pretty fair explanation of the meaning of these verses. At least it cleared things up for me. There is one thing though, we need to remember (I say this after reading some of the responses) that at the time of Jesus’ ministry here on earth, salvation, as we know it today, was not available. It was after his (Jesus’ ) death, burial, and resurrection that this/our salvation was made available. Jesus was the fullfilment of the law. He followed the law perfectly and that is what he taught. Not as the Pharisees taught it (they swallowed a camel and strained at a gnat). So in my humble opinion, Jesus was not offering this rich young man salvation as we know it today, Jesus was teaching this young rich man the law, perfectly. Showing the rich young man that he was not completely following the law, though he thought he was. Thank God today we are not encumbered with having to follow the law. It was our schoolmaster, Gal. 3:24. For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified, Gal 2:16. The only two things we must do now (after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection) to be saved (sozo) is, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved, Rom. 10:9. Thanks be to God for his mercy and longsuffering.