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.