If we look at the account across the three Synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-30) we notice several things about the Rich Young Ruler (RYR) as he approaches Jesus.
- He is running up to Jesus.
- He falls on his knees, which may be a sign of honor, but in this case is more likely a position of imploring (Matt 17:14-15; Mk 1:40).
- He addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher”.
- He asks what “good” must he do to gain/inherit eternal life.
The RYR has come with an urgent question and a desire to learn from Jesus, recognizing Him as one who teaches with authority (Matt 7:29). We can assume that he comes without an ill intent (unlike the Pharisees and scribes (Matt 19:3; 22:35; Mark 10:2; 12:13)), but is genuinely seeking to understand how to inherit eternal life (like Nicodemus in John 3).
Jesus’ response (as most commentators note) must have caught the RYR off guard.
Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
What was probably meant as a sign of respect has just become a theological lesson. This was probably Jesus’ way of forcing the young man to wrestle with the question: who do you say that I am?
In all three accounts, Jesus follows this question up with a reminder to the RYR that he knows the commandments and must keep them.
But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments
Depending on which account we read, various commands from the Decalogue and the command to love your neighbor (Lev 19:18) are given as examples. Jesus may have been trying to help the RYR call to mind some of the teachings that we find in the Sermon on the Mount. Particularly the teachings where Jesus explains the intent behind many of the commands just mentioned, through the phrase: “you have heard it said, but I say to you“. These teachings were probably part of what Jesus regularly taught, so we can safely assume that the RYR has heard some or all of them. The implicit challenge is: you may have followed the letter of the Law but the heart is what matters. Have you really loved your neighbor as yourself?
If that was the intent, it is missed on the RYR who affirms that he has kept the commands. We need to keep in mind, that in making this statement, the RYR may be claiming no more that what Paul does in Philippians 3:6 or what Luke writes of Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6).
What happens next varies by account. In Matthew, the RYR asks Jesus what else he lacks, but in the other two accounts Jesus tells the young man that he lacks something. We can assume that in the actual dialogue there was a discussion on what was lacking between the RYR and Jesus that has been captured differently by the Gospel writers.
The young man said to him,… “What do I still lack?”
The question regarding what was still lacking shows the marks of spiritual conviction in the RYR. He could have accepted Jesus’ answer, keep the commands, and walk away content that he was going to inherit eternal life. However, he senses that something is amiss and seeks clarification on how he might inherit eternal life.
As Jesus looked at him, he felt love for him and said, “You lack one thing”
Rather then expose the areas in the law where the man had failed to keep them, Jesus looks at the man. This idea of looking can carry the meaning of to consider or contemplate. Jesus evaluates the young man’s heart and sincerity and then points out the primary obstacle that stands between the RYR and eternal life. He does this through a request.
Go, sell whatever you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me.
Jesus is asking the RYR to come and follow Him. But, first the RYR must give up his possessions. Jesus’ request is designed to show the RYR what he lacks. [We should note that while the principle is applicable to everyone, the specific command is not.]
We learn in Matthew 16:25-26 that anyone who wants (or desires) to follow Jesus must be prepared to deny himself and be willing to lose their life. The latter phrase capturing the idea of giving up building one’s own kingdom and focusing on the kingdom of God instead.
The RYR’s heart was focused on the world and what he owned. He wanted to inherit eternal life but he wanted to keep his kingdom too. Jesus was helping him understand that he must choose. God or wealth. You can’t serve two masters (Matt 6:24). This is a theme that James (4:4) and John (1 John 2:15-16) will both repeat in their epistles.
But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.
The RYR walks away distraught. The word used for “sorrowful” is also used to describe the disciples when Jesus says one of them will betray Him, as well as His own state of mind when praying in the garden (Matt 26:22, 37). This sadness gives us insight. The RYR did not get angry or test Jesus. He fully understood the stark contrast in the choices he had before him. He knew the ramifications of his decision. With eternal life hanging in the balance, he counted the cost (Luke 14:27-33) of what it would mean to follow Jesus and chose wealth. His heart is exposed through the request and is shown to be like the soil that is choked by thorns (Matt 13:22).
whoever has [given up being a friend of the world] for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.
Jesus has made an appeal to this young man to choose differently. As Paul once warned the Corinthian church:
we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, “I heard you at the acceptable time, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” Look, now is the acceptable time; look, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:1-2)
The RYR has received grace. He has had an encounter with Jesus and had his heart exposed. He has been given the opportunity to follow Jesus. Yet the grace he received was in vain.
As the young man walks away, it is likely Jesus felt the same anguish that he expresses over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37):
I have longed to gather [you] as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it
The rest of the passage corrects a common misunderstanding that wealth was a sign that God was pleased with a person or that wealth indicated anything about their eternal state.
All three accounts are followed by a Passion prediction, reminding us that inheriting eternal life is impossible for people but is made possible by God because:
the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and experts in the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him severely, and kill him. Yet after three days, he will rise again.”
Like the RYR, we must all decide whether we will follow Jesus or not. And we must continually be on guard for the thorns/cares of this world that will pull us away from doing that.
In reflecting on this passage, I want to examine it within the context of the debate over monergism and synergism.
How can someone want, desire, or find it delightful (Matt 16:24) to become a follower of Jesus? And if one wants to become a follower, why are they asked to calculate the cost first (Luke 14:27-33)? Why is it harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23)? Doesn’t all of this imply that there is a decision that has to be made? And that prior to making the decision, the desire has to also be present? Clearly grace was at work in the life of the RYR. He had the desire to follow Jesus and receive eternal life. However, he also had the competing desire to remain a friend of the world.
How might someone receive grace in vain? For the synergist, it would mean receiving the ability to desire and choose to follow Jesus. But still being able to “have none of it”. Doesn’t Jesus’ interactions with the RYR demonstrate that He is trying to persuade him to make a decision? Like Paul (2 Cor 5:20) is he not in a sense pleading “Be reconciled to God!”?
What stands between the RYR and eternal life? What does he lack? For the monergist, what stands between the RYR and eternal life is efficacious (irresistible) grace. Without this grace no amount of pleading can convince him to sell his possessions and follow Jesus. Only this gracious infusion of new desires effected through regeneration will do this. Then, assuming free will is defined as acting on one’s strongest desire, faith and following Jesus become the necessary result of these new desires. But if this is how we inherit eternal life then the RYR clearly did not receive this efficacious grace. How then did Jesus show love for the RYR? Was Jesus offer to come and follow Him a genuine and sincere offer if it was impossible for it to be accepted?
Note: all passages are taken from the NET Bible