Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Luke 18:18-30

The Rich Ruler

     18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

     19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”

     21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

     22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

     26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

     27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

     28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

     29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

I supposed most people who consider themselves followers of Jesus have at least a passing awareness of this story. But aside from knowing it’s about not wanting to give away wealth, most people probably don’t go much deeper than that. Which is a shame, because there are some details of the story that are easy to miss. And for people like us who live in an affluent culture, those details definitely demand our attention.

At the beginning of the story, the rich ruler greets Jesus as “Good teacher.” Jesus responds by saying “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone.” That seems odd to us. We know that Jesus really was good – in fact, we understand him as having been perfect. And we also know that Jesus was and is God. So some Bible scholars say it’s possible that Jesus was really trying to give the ruler a clue to his own identity as God in human form.

But other scholars say that this might just have been a common saying among religious Jews of Jesus’ time – a way of deflecting credit for goodness in order to give all the glory to God. It also seems possible that Jesus perceived the man as being insincere – just trying to manipulate he with flattery.

But in any case, the question on the ruler’s mind was how he might “inherit eternal life.” Jesus responds to that question by reminding the man of the commandments. But here’s one of the details that seem to matter: The scholars point out that Jesus only mentions the commandments that deal with our relationships with other people. So Jesus seems to be linking eternal life with being in right relationship with other people, which is sort of interesting. Lots of Christians would say that the way to eternal life is by accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior, but he doesn’t say anything about that in this conversation.

The rich ruler says he’s kept these commandments all his life. And apparently he’s telling the truth, because Jesus doesn’t dispute what he says. Jesus just goes on to add one more thing that he says the man lacks. He tells the man to sell all he has and give to the poor, and then to come and be his follower.

The more I think about this story, the more it seems that Jesus must have seen the man’s wealth as an impediment to his relationships with other people. It seems to me that Jesus must have in mind that as long as the man has great wealth, he will love that wealth more than other people. But if he can give the wealth away to the poor, his heart will be opened to those people in a new way.

Some of the most thoughtful Bible scholars have pointed out that the teachings of Jesus suggest that our love for God and our love for other people really can’t be separated from one another. So the way to eternal life includes manifesting love for our neighbors as well as accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

Of course, in the story, the ruler is said to walk away “very sad, because he had great wealth.” The assumption among Bible interpreters has always been that the man was not able to dispose of his wealth and follow Jesus. (But the story doesn’t really say that – it just says he went away sad. So it’s possible that he sadly went away and did as Jesus said, then came back to follow him.)

But Jesus notices the man’s sadness as he walks away, and he observes that wealth really does get a hold on those who have it. Jesus’ comment is always translated as “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.” But there’s a better translation, it seems to me. Jesus spoke Aramaic as his everyday language, and in that language, the word for camel was made up of the same three consonants as the word for rope. So that suggests that Jesus was trying to paint the strange mental picture of trying to get a rope through the eye of a needle.

A lot of readers think of the story as ending with what Jesus says about getting something through the eye of a needle. But it also seems significant that the disciples are so surprised by what Jesus says about the wealthy and the kingdom of God. That’s probably because in the Hebrew culture, having great wealth was taken as a sign that God looked upon the person with great favor. So the disciples would have assumed that a rich person had an inside track on heaven.

But Jesus says that the wealth that matters – spiritual wealth – comes from breaking ourselves loose from the world’s way of thinking. Being willing to dispose of your worldly goods – and even to sacrifice personal relationships, if necessary – Jesus says that’s the secret to finding eternal life. People who make sacrifices for Jesus in this world will be rewarded in the heavenly kingdom.

You might remember that in past Reflections, we’ve said that the Bible’s attitude toward wealth is not that it’s evil, but rather that it’s dangerous. It’s not money that’s the root of all kinds of evil, but rather the love of money. Worldly wealth can have such a hold on us that it comes between us and God – and between us and other people. Jesus didn’t tell every rich person he met to give it all away. But when Jesus saw that the person’s wealth had such a grip on him that his relationships with God and other people were compromised, he urged the person to break that grip – by giving it all away, if necessary.

The question for us, of course, is whether our affluence comes between us and any of our neighbors.

Let’s pray. Lord, many of us are richly blessed in the things of this world. Help us to be thankful for these material blessings, and to share them richly with those around us. Let them never become an impediment to our relationship to you in Jesus, or to the neighbors you call us to love and serve. Amen.



(The other readings for today are Psalms 62 and 145; Zechariah 10:1-12; Galatians 6:1-10. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on, the website of the International Bible Society.)