Rich Young Ruler: Gospel Analysis
PENTECOST 19B Mark 10:17-31
The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.
Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 215.
The gospel for Pentecost 19B, Mark 10:17-31, is part of the Mark’s “travel narrative” where Jesus journeyed from Galilee to Judea/Jerusalem.
Matthew 19-20 is Matthew’s “travel journey” from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the capitol city of Jerusalem in the south. In Matthew 19:1, Jesus leaves Galilee. In Matthew 21:1, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem.
The Gospel of Mark has a similar “travel narrative” in Mark 10.
We have already studied Luke’s “travel narrative” which is longer and has many more stories (Luke 10-18).
In the “travel narratives” of all three gospels, Jesus travels an eighty-mile journey from Galilee to Judea and its capital city of Jerusalem.
We find the following stories in this section. As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, we see and listen to him as the master teacher. In this sequence of stories, we encounter Jesus the teacher more than Jesus the miracle worker. There is only one miracle (the healing of blind Bartimaeus) but there are several teachings.
Teachings of Jesus in Mark and Matthew’s “travel narrative.”
- *teaching about divorce and celibacy;
- *teaching about blessing the children;
- *teaching about the rich young man;
- *teacher about the eye of the needle;
- *teaching about rewards and punishments;
- *parable about landowner and laborers;
- *teaching (for the third time) about his coming suffering, death and resurrection;
- *confronting James and John about their need to be the most important disciples;
- *healing blind Bartimaeus as Jesus and his disciples were coming into Jericho;
- *encountering Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho;
- *being anointed with oil on his head by “the woman” to prepare Jesus for his burial;
- *entering Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday.
#251. Departing To Judea
Matthew 19:1-2, Mark 10:1, Luke 9:51
-Now, when Jesus finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea. Jesus had completed his healing and teaching ministry in Galilee. Jesus now sets his face to Jerusalem. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and John have Jesus going directly from Galilee to Jerusalem. Luke inserts his “travel narrative” (Luke 10-18).
-Large crowds followed him and he healed them there. We discover that the large crowds continued to follow Jesus. We remember that Jesus fed and taught large crowds of 4,000-5,000 people.
-And again, as was his custom, he taught them. (Only Mark). Circle the word, “taught.” Jesus was known primarily as a teacher, a teacher of the kingdom of God and what it meant to have your life ruled by God. As Jesus traveled south to Jerusalem and Judea, we discover that Jesus continued to be The Teacher. We are going to encounter several of Jesus’ teachings in the coming episodes.
-When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Only Luke) In the previous eight chapters of Luke, Luke gave us details of Jesus’ life during his travels southward to Jerusalem and Judea. We treasure all the stories that Luke saved for us e.g. his stories about the Good Samaritan, Mary and Martha, the persistent friend at midnight, the rich fool with many barns, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost (prodigal son), the unjust steward, the rich man and Lazarus, the ten lepers, the unjust judge, and the Pharisee and the publican. These are all classic stories by Luke. These episodes are stories more than they are teachings and we are forever grateful to Luke for preserving these gems for us. Life is so much richer for us because we have these treasured stories from Jesus’ life. Yes, we are grateful to Luke, the storyteller.
#254, 255. The Rich Young Man On Riches And Rewards Of Discipleship
Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30
This is the third teaching that we encounter as Jesus traveled southward to Jerusalem. We have heard Jesus’ teaching about marriage/divorce, the children, and now his teaching about money/riches. In all three of his teachings, Jesus amazed his disciples whose religious values and practices about marriage/divorce, children and money had been shaped by the Old Testament.
In this course, we have studied Jesus’ other teachings about money which are similar to the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Recall Jesus’ parable about the rich man, big barns and his need for bigger barns. Recall Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Recall Jesus’ story about the lawyer’s question on what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what the Old Testament said. The lawyer replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Yes. Do these and you shall live.”
Jesus told several stories and parables with similar themes of the love of money and material possessions, but each story is different and unique in itself.
-As he was setting out on his journey. In this section of the gospel, Jesus had left the familiar scenes of being in Galilee, near the Sea of Galilee, in his home town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee and was now heading eighty miles south to Jerusalem, the capital city of the land.
-A man. We will learn that he was a rich man. In the Gospel of Luke, he was called a ruler. That is, he was perhaps a Pharisee, a scribe, a lawyer, part of the educated elite of the day. In Luke’s gospels, he symbolized the Pharisees who were lovers of money. And hypocrites.
-Ran up and knelt before Jesus. This man demonstrates an enthusiasm for Jesus, running up to him and falling on his knees before him. Circle the words, “ran” and “knelt.” Write the word “enthusiastic.” By reading other stories about Jesus, we meet people who were initially enthusiastic about Jesus but later fell away.
-Good teacher. The young, enthusiastic man starts out with flattery. The way people think that you get on the good side of people is to flatter them, and this enthusiastic young man began this conversation with flattery. Circle the word, “good,” and write in the word “flattery.” This is the only time in the gospels where Jesus was addressed as “good” teacher.
-What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is the big question and write that in our margin: THE BIG QUESTION, all in capital letter. We all ask The Big Question: “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” What are the rules? Who is “getting in” on the Final Day? It is interesting that the identical question was previously asked of Jesus by a lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is the same identical question and that question became the occasion for Jesus telling the story about the Good Samaritan and showing mercy to your enemy. “What must I do to inherit eternal life” is THE BIG QUESTION for you and me.
-Jesus said, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Immediately, Jesus pokes a hole in his flattery and challenges the young man. Jesus was saying to the young man, “Don’t flatter me. Don’t focus on me. Focus on God and God alone is good.” It is like “flattery gets you nowhere” with Jesus.
-You know the commandments. Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness or lie. Do not defraud (a person’s family or possessions.) Honor your mother and father. There are two tables or sections of the Ten Commandments: The first set of commandments are commandments about our relationship with God. The second set of commandments are about our relationship with people. Jesus clearly spells out the commandments regarding people: avoid killing, avoid adultery, avoid stealing, avoid lying, avoid defrauding our neighbor, and honor our parents.
-Teacher, he declared, I have done these from my youth. That makes sense to us. The young man declares he is normal and civil. He is Mr. Respectable. He is Mr. Honorable. Mr. Upright. He has obeyed the basic Jewish moral law and has lived a respectable, honorable and upright life. He is like you and me. He avoids hurting people.
-Jesus looked at him and loved him. Circle the phrase, “and he loved him.” The other two parallel gospels do not report this significant little comment. Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Jesus had a sympathetic attitude towards the man. Jesus liked the man; he loved the man. Jesus wasn’t hostile to the young man. He did not want to embarrass him or harass him or belittle him.
-One thing you lack. We quickly think to ourselves when we hear these words, “Oh, oh, something bad is going to be said … about me.” Our mind continues, “How can you love me and criticize me?” We know that the person who loves us most is often the very person who is able to speak the truth to us. Jesus loved the young man so Jesus could also speak the truth to him: “Young man, one thing you lack.”
-Sell what you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Focus on and underline the phrase, “give to the poor and you will have treasures in heaven.” That is the way you lay up treasures for yourselves in heaven: “By giving to the poor.” Jesus said the same thing earlier in his Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus was asking for a positive action from the young man: “Do something positive for poor people.” In the Ten Commandments, people were commanded by God to avoid doing bad things to others. To avoid doing bad things is both good and proper. We should avoid doing bad things to others but that is not the same as doing good for others, especially poor people. Avoid doing something bad to someone is not the same as doing something good for them. We expect people to avoid doing bad to others…killing them, committing adultery with them, stealing from them, lying about them, defrauding them. But it is something else to do something beneficial for them. That is what this text is all about. The young man was Mr. Respectable, Mr. Honorable. Mr. Upright. He didn’t do anything bad to people but he didn’t do anything good for these poor people, to make their lives better, to share with those poor people the enormous financial resources that he had.
-Sell everything. (Only Luke) We recall that Luke has inserted the word, “all” or “everything” on previous occasions. In Luke 5:11, on page 22, “They left everything and followed him.” In Luke 14:33 on page 194, “”Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Here in Luke 18:22 on page 218, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” Luke inserts the word “everything” or “all” when the other gospel writers don’t.
It is important that we understand this passage and not take it literally. It is part of Aramaic hyperbole, overstatement or exaggeration in order to make a point. You don’t take these words literally or you get in trouble. Other examples of Aramaic hyperbole or strong exaggeration in language are “anyone who does not hate your mother and father and brother and sister cannot be my disciple.” Or, “if you hand sins, cut if off. If your eye sins, cut it out. If your foot leads you astray, cut it off.” These are all illustrations from the gospels where Jesus used Aramaic exaggeration to make a point. The message is: we are to generously share our economic resources with the poor and hungry of the world.
Following the same line of reasoning, we remember that Jesus did not ask Zaccheaus, who was the richest tax collector in town, to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus did not ask Joseph of Arimathea, who the Bible says was rich, to sell all had had and give it to the poor. Jesus did not ask Nicodemus, the wealthy man from the Jewish Sanhedrin or Senate, to sell all they had and give it to the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us today to sell all we have and give it to the poor. To think such thoughts would misunderstand Jesus and the text.
Jesus was putting the rich young ruler to a test to see whether he personally and specifically loved God and his neighbor more than money. This test was similar to the story about Abraham in the Old Testament when God asked him to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. God was testing Abraham to see if Abraham loved God more than his son. Similarly, Jesus was testing this rich young man to see if he loved his riches more than God. That is what the story is about. God is testing us to see if we love our money and material possessions more God. We remember Jesus’ teaching when he said: “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart.” The man’s heart was in his treasures.
-Give it to the poor. Focus on the word, “poor,” and circle it. “Poor” is a good word for Jesus. Jesus looked with love at people who were poor. In his very first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus stated that he had come to preach the good news to poor people. In his beatitudes in Luke, we heard Jesus say, “Happy are poor people.” Throughout his whole gospel, Jesus reached out to poor people like the lepers, maimed, blind and lame. Poor is a symbolic word that symbolizes people who need food/water/healing. Today, many people look down their noses on poor people and often think that poor people are lazy and slovenly. Not Jesus. Not the followers of Jesus.
-That you will have treasures in heaven. Jesus told us the same thing earlier in the Sermon on the Mount. As we give to poor people here on earth, we lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven where rust will not decay nor will moths eat holes in the heavenly linen. The way you lay up treasures in heaven is by doing positive actions for the poor here on earth. Jesus’ teaching was quite simple and direct. Jesus was inviting the rich young ruler to lay up for himself treasures in heaven by caring for the poor.
-Come and follow me. Jesus was asking the rich young ruler to follow him as a sheep follows as shepherd. Likewise in this sanctuary today, Jesus is inviting us to come and follow him.
Today, Jesus is also inviting us to be his disciples and to follow Jesus. Jesus will be our master, and we will be is disciples. Like sheep follow a shepherd, so also disciples follow their master. We follow Jesus’ values, practices and teachings.
Today, Jesus is also inviting us to be his servants and he will be our owner. Jesus wants to own our hearts, time and money.
-At this, the man’s face fell. He went away sad. All three versions in Matthew, Mark and Luke say the same thing. “The man’s face fell and he went away sad.” Why was the young ruler so sad at what Jesus had said? Mark said that he “went away” and we need to underline that statement. When the young man didn’t like what Jesus said, he went away from Jesus. That often happens to us when we hear things from Jesus we don’t like. We simply leave the presence of Jesus, so we will not hear his teachings.
In other words, Jesus was putting the rich young ruler to a test, and he did not pass it. Jesus was testing him whether or not he loved his material possessions more than God ruling is life. The young man failed the test. In the Old Testament when God tested the faith of Father Abraham, Father Abraham passed the test. The rich young ruler did not.
-For he had great wealth. The gospel of Luke says, he was “very rich.” Jesus had read the young man’s heart correctly. That is, the young man had come to love and trust in money, riches and material possessions. His heart was in his money.
-Jesus looked around and said to his disciples. We remember that the young man had left the company of Jesus, and so Jesus’ teachings were directed to his disciples.
-How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Why is it hard for people with riches to enter the kingdom of God? We can think of at least three reasons.
- It is easy to fall in love with money. Money and wealth is seductive and very easy to fall in love with. We become addicted to money and material possessions and like most addictions, we initially don’t realize that we are addicted.
- Wealth creates a false sense of security. We think that wealth will protect us from the disasters of life and we find out that it doesn’t.
- Money often makes people more selfish, so that the purpose of time, talents and energy is to serve ourselves rather than others, to preserve our wealth rather than share the wealth that God has entrusted to us.
A common mistake of American Christians is to forget that we live in one of the wealthiest nation in the world and that our standard of living is higher than 95% of people in the globe. Here in America, it is easy to think of “the rich” as being the top 1% of American society rather than the middle class which is wealthier than 95% of Christians living on this planet Earth. We think that “the rich” are people like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Paul Allen whose assets are listed in the billions. We think of “the rich” as being the 538 billionaires listed in the Forbes magazine in 2004. When we have such thoughts, this text is no longer about us and our own lives but about “them, THE RICH people in America, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Warren Buffet, or the professional athletes or movie stars. This text is about THEM, not me.”
-The disciples were amazed at his words. Why were the disciples so amazed at his words? The disciples knew the Old Testament teachings that a sign of God’s blessedness was to be rich. In the Old Testament, to be wealthy was a sign of God’s blessings on you. Jesus was teaching just the opposite religious values that the disciples had learned from childhood. From childhood, they knew that God would bless the religiously wise religiously obedient with great wealth.
-Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. Underline the word “children” because Jesus often referred to the disciples as children, people who were learning about the faith. Underline the word “enter” because that is what this text is all about. Jesus wants us to enter the kingdom and it is difficult. Jesus had earlier taught that the gate is wide that leads to hell, but the gate is narrow that leads to eternal life. This is the second time that Jesus has said this in the text. Jesus wants us to enter God’s kingdom. When we enter God’s kingdom and way of life, we love God more than home, family and money. It is as simple as that.
-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. Near the words, “go through,” write the word, “enter.” This text is about entering the kingdom of God. Christ wants us to enter the kingdom of God where God rules our life as the number one power in our lives. That is what the kingdom is all about. That God would rule us and we would love God more than our home, family and income.
Jesus’ teaching, “It is easier to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to the kingdom of God,” is very graphic. Almost all Christians remember the phrase, “the eye of the needle.” But what does that phrase mean? What does it mean that “it is more difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?” Was this teaching part of Aramaic exaggeration? Or was there actually a gate in the walls of Jerusalem that was called “the eye of the needle” and that this gate was so low that a camel had to stoop to get through it?
Biblical scholars reach varying conclusions about this issue (as they/we do most issues.)
On the one hand, some Biblical scholars conclude that this teaching is another example of Aramaic hyperbole, overstatement or exaggeration to a point. What was the point? That it is very difficult and almost impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Why? Because rich people tend to love their wealth more God. These scholars conclude that the “eye of the needle” was an Aramaic exaggeration that needs to be translated so that readers will understand that it was in the past and still is today very difficult for rich people to enter the kingdom of God.
On the other hand, some students of the Bible conclude that there was actually a low gate by which camels could enter the city of Jerusalem and that low gate was called, “the eye of the needle.” Just as a camel needed to be stripped of its baggage in order to squeeze through the small entry gate to the city, so a rich man needs to be stripped of his/her love of money in order to enter God’s kingdom.
See http://arkedmin.org/Writings/Lessons/CamelNeedle.htm for pictures and the logic/reasoning for Jesus to be referring to a low gate in the city.
The Camel and the Needle
According to this second group of Biblical scholars, in most cities that existed in Biblical times, there was a small doorway in the main gate to allow passage after the main gate was closed. This small gate was known as the "Needle's Eye.”
In "Zondervan's Pictorial Bible Dictionary" there is a picture of a city gate showing one of these doors. The caption under this picture reads as follows:
"The Jaffa Gate in the wall of Jerusalem, showing the "Needle's Eye." Small doors such as this were common features of the gates of ancient cities; humans could pass through fairly easily, but large animals, such as camels, had to be unloaded and then had to kneel to get through, even then with difficulty."
“We need to understand a few facts about this night gate. To start with this gate (the tunnel like gate) was 2 1/2 cubits high and 1 1/2 cubits wide, or the modern equivalent of about 3 feet in width and about 4 feet in height. The normal size person could get through this gate but they would have to bend over and they would not be able to carry very much of a load. This allowed the gate to be guarded from the inside by just one or two sentries as only one person at a time could pass through this gate in either direction. This was also true for the doorway. It was large enough for only one individual at a time to pass through. A camel could also get through this gate, or doorway, but it was more difficult. For the camel to get through, the camel master would have to remove all the possessions from the camel. The master would remove its load from the camel’s back. Once this was accomplished, the camel master would make the camel kneel and lead that camel through the gate/doorway as the camel crawled on its knees. Once \\ the camel was inside, the master would have to bring that camels load through on his own.”
“In order to enter the kingdom one must discard their earthly possessions, humble themselves, and follow the master.”
-The disciples were even more amazed. I like the RSV which says, “the disciples were exceedingly astonished.” The disciples thought to themselves “The rich cannot be saved? Whoever heard of such a thing?”
-And said, then who can be saved? The answer? “No one. Nobody.” This is THE SECOND BIG QUESTION. Circle the word, “who.” “Who can be saved? Can I be saved? Can you be saved? WHO can to be saved?” The answer: NOBODY.
-Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God.” This statement is pure grace. Salvation is a pure gracious gift from God. That is why the name of our congregation is Grace Lutheran Church, so we are reminded that we are all saved by God’s pure grace and not by anything that we have done. Write in your margins: PURE GRACE. We are all saved by pure grace.
Sometimes, we convert these words, “with God, all things are possible,” into a slogan to hang on the wall or we consume the phrase as a positive pep pill. It becomes “possibility thinking.” With the Sound of Music, we can sing, “Climb every mountain and ford every sea. Follow every rainbow, till we find our dream.” With the man from La Mancha, we “can dream the impossible dream and fight the unbeatable foe and bear with unbearable sorrow to run where the grave dare not go.” But these words from Jesus aren’t simply positive pep pills as much as we like positive pep pills. Rather, in these words from the text for today, Jesus is clearly telling us that we are saved by God’s grace. We cannot save ourselves but God can. God can save rich people and poor people, good people and bad people. God can save anybody. All things are possible with God; that is, God can save all kinds of folks, including you and me.
It is possible for rich people to be saved. In the gospels, Zacchaeus was rich and he was saved. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus’ body for burial, was a rich man (Matthew 27:37) and he was saved. Nicodemus, Joseph’s friend, was a member of the wealthy establishment and he was saved. God can save rich people too. Knowing that only God can judge the hearts of people, it seems that the gospels believe that Zacchaeus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus were saved.
-Peter said: We have left all and followed you. Peter is the spokes person. Peter is still puffed up. He has not been confronted with his bravado yet. This phrase is consistent with Peter’s bragging self-declaration that he would follow Jesus in all circumstances but shortly after that puffed up conceit, he denied Jesus three times and the cock crowed. Peter had a penchant for inflating himself.
Jesus replied, There is no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much. Circle the word, “home,’ and underline the words, “brothers, sisters, mother, father children.” Circle the word, “field.” These are our natural loves in life: home, family, income. Jesus was again stressing that our love for God is to be above all of these natural loves of life.
-A hundred times as much. This again is Aramaic hyperbole, overstatement or strong exaggeration to make a point. This is the third example of Aramaic hyperbole in the text. The phrase is equivalent, in one of Jesus’ parables, to a plant bearing one hundred fruit. Imagine a tomato plant with one hundred tomatoes on it. A person will receive from God great blessings, abundant blessings, overflowing blessings. This does not mean that those blessings will be material as much those blessings are spiritual and emotional.
-In this present age. The blessings from God will flow to us in this life on this side of the grave.
-And in the age to come. God’s blessings will be showered upon us in the next life as we live with God forever. In the story for today, Jesus invites us to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven by caring for the poor.
PAINTING AND IMAGINATION: THE RICH YOUNG RULER
A Chinese Painting of the Rich Young Ruler
What does the story about the rich young ruler mean to you and why?
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