This passage builds yet another contrast between the disciples and the response of others in the Jewish nation. The rich ruler represents the wealthy lay leadership in the nation and allows Luke to deal again with a theme that he has consistently kept before his readers: wealth and generosity (3:11; 5:11, 28; 6:23-26, 34-35, 38; 7:5; 8:3, 14; 10:34-35; 11:41; 12:13-21, 33; 14:12-14, 33; 16:9-13, 19-31; 18:22; 19:8; see Stein 1992:459). In fact, this passage reflects a theme that is central to Luke 18—19: the disciple's trust should lead to humble service (18:17).
The rich man lacks the trust of the blind man of verses 35-43, as well as the penitent heart of Zacchaeus (19:1-10). The rich man's attitude is more like that of the Pharisee of 18:9-14. The self-confidence he reflects, along with his sense of sinlessness, is condemned by Jesus. In contrast, by trusting and following Jesus, the disciples have given what he has asked for. They will have a rich reward, both now and in the life to come (vv. 29-30).
Most of the account's difficult aspects come at the start. When the rich ruler calls Jesus good, the teacher rebukes him. Apparently Jesus wants to warn the man not to be impressed by human credentials—a problem Jesus will face later in his own life, when the Pharisees challenge his authority (20:1-8). Being excessively tied to credentialed teachers might distract the man from pursuing God. God alone is good; he is the One who deserves attention and allegiance, a key Old Testament theme (1 Chron 16:34; 2 Chron 5:13; Ps 34:8; 106:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1). Jesus is not replying to deprecates himself, but qualifying how the man views the teaching office in general. The teaching role, even for one who does it well, is not to be overly exalted. Jesus' refusal to accept the man's flattery also warns the man that Jesus will shoot straight with him.
More important is the man's question. It matches what a lawyer asked in 10:25: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" He wants to know how he can be sure he will share in the life to come. Jesus' reply focuses on the standard of righteousness as represented in portions of the Ten Commandments. Avoiding adultery, murder, stealing and lying, as well as the positive call to honor one's parents, are specifically noted. The spirit of Jesus' reply fits with what was said in 10:25-28, where the commandment to love God and others was cited more generally. In this context the reply is significant, because the issue of money, which will surface shortly, can make us view others as means to an end, rather than as people. So Jesus concentrates here on commandments dealing with how we relate to others. In fact, in Judaism honoring parents might imply financial responsibility for them in their old age (Tobit 4:3; Sirach 3:3-16; L. T. Johnson 1991:277).
Jesus' reply has troubled some as being "too Old Testament" in tone. Where is the appeal to follow Jesus? One could argue it is implied in Jesus' words. By steering the man toward faithfulness to God, Jesus steers the man toward following him. Jesus could steer people to him through his teaching (6:46-49; 11:29-32) or remind them of the ethical standard God desires, as he does here. There is no contradiction in this for him. As Stein (1992:455) says, "For Luke true faith involved loving God with all one's heart and one's neighbor as oneself. . . . Likewise loving God with all one's heart . . . and one's neighbor as oneself involves faith in Jesus."
To trust God means to rest in him and his way. To pursue such a path is not works, but relationship with God. The entry into grace and relationship saves; the path and pursuit of righteousness follow.
Now the man's problem begins to surface. He is confident that he can stand before God on his own merit: he has kept all the commandments since boyhood. His confidence recalls the Pharisee of verses 9-14: he has kept the law.
Jesus wishes to check this confidence with a further demand that will reveal two things: (1) how generous the man is and (2) whether he will listen to Jesus. He still lacks something. Here Jesus is not asking the man to do something he asks everyone to do, since he will commend Zacchaeus's generosity in 19:1-10 without asking him to sell all. What Jesus does is test the man's heart and attachments. Is God placed ahead of worldly possessions in this man's life? Does the man really love God and others? So Jesus tells him that he lacks one thing: he must sell all his possessions.
But to stop here is to miss the point. Jesus goes on to promise the man treasure in heaven if he will follow Jesus. The need to come to Jesus, to trust him, is not absent from the passage. It is merely defined by reference to the obstacle that stands between the man and God: his security in his wealth.
The man's response says it all. He is very sad. The choice is a painful one, and he refuses to consider it. Grieved at the options, he chooses his wealth.
There is another premise in Jesus' response that may prompt the disciples' reaction. Wealth was generally seen as evidence of divine blessing and pleasure. If Jesus is implying that wealth is not such a guarantee, then how can one know God's blessing? Jesus had answered this question in 10:20 with regard to power, but here he raises it again with the issue of wealth and status, since to sell all and follow Jesus would mean that the rich man's social status would be changed forever. Jesus responds to the rich man's somber mood by driving the point home: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" He looks at the man as he says it. Wealth and the false sense of security that comes with it can prevent one from meeting God.
Jesus is not done. He explains that a camel can get through the eye of a needle more easily than a rich person can enter the kingdom. Now some have argued that Jesus is talking about a small gate at the entrance to Jerusalem named the "Needle's Eye Gate." But this view clearly blunts the force of his statement. How hard is it for a camel to go through a small gate? Not very hard, yet Jesus and the disciples agree that he is expressing an impossibility, at least for human beings (vv. 26-27). So Jesus is using his common style of rhetorical hyperbole (compare 6:41; 17:2). The hyperbole here makes it clear that a rich man on his own will never make a choice for the kingdom. It is impossible. The priorities it requires demand a new heart.
The disciples catch the tension and are shocked. If the rich cannot be saved and experience ultimate divine blessing, who then can be saved? If those at the top of the ladder who enjoy God's rich material provision do not get in, where is hope for anyone else?
Jesus notes that God can do the impossible. He can change hearts and priorities. God's power and grace yield the change. People do not save themselves or earn God's blessing; God provides it. This is why Paul calls the gospel the power of God in Romans 1:16-17. God deals with sin and changes the heart.
Now the rapid-fire dialogue reaches a high point. Peter remarks, probably seeking reassurance, that the disciples have done what Jesus has asked of the rich man. They have left home to follow him.
In the reply is the passage's major point. Jesus reassures Peter and the disciples that God is blessing and will bless their decision. Even given Peter's upcoming denial of Jesus, he has made the choice to follow Jesus. Not only is what Jesus has asked for possible with God, but indeed the Father has wrought it in the hearts of Jesus' followers, who live in relationship to the kingdom of God through him. So they have left many things, but they have received many times as much in this life and, in the age to come, eternal life. In Judaism, "the age to come" is another way to speak of future eternal life (4 Ezra [2 Esdras] 7:47; 8:1; Pirqe `Abot 2:8; L. T. Johnson 1991:279). What the rich man hoped for, but refused to embrace by following Jesus, these disciples are receiving. The lesson is in the contrast. The disciples, for once, provide the positive example. God has made the seemingly impossible possible for them (see 10:20-22).