I’m sure we are all familiar with Capital One’s credit card commercial with the Samuel Jackson saying, “What’s in your wallet?” It’s a commercial about debt management. It’s a commercial that appeals to our consumerism. It’s a cute commercial with a clever tagline. But it is also a commercial that sells a false dream, and that dream is: You can actually save money by spending more money than you actually have. Consider these 2016 statistics: The average household in the United States owes:
- $16,061 in credit card debt.
- $172,806 in mortgage debt.
- $28,535 in automobile debt.
- $49,042 in student loan debt.
- $266,444 total debt per household.
What’s in your wallet? Well…not much!
The Rich Ruler
One of the unique aspect of Luke’s gospel is his emphasis on caring for the poor and the marginalized in society. We have seen this emphasis throughout our study and have repeated it with the phrase, a radical reversal of all things. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus discusses wealth and the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of riches.
Luke records, “A certain ruler asked (Jesus), ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 18:18) Matthew’s telling of this story mentions that the ruler is “young” (Matthew 19:22). More than likely, this young man, though he was Jewish, was some type of governmental official instead of a synagogue leader. If he were a religious ruler, Jesus would have said so. This ruler asked the same question a religious expert asked in Luke 10:25, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Though an important question, it’s a flawed question. You don’t do anything to receive an inheritance. You receive an inheritance because you are a child of the benefactor. Thus, you inherit eternal life because you are a child of God, and you become a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ! Eternal life is inherited by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone.
This man shows respect for Jesus by calling him, “good teacher.” But respecting Jesus is not the same as recognizing who He is. Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good?…No one is good—except God alone” (Luke 18:19). I think what Jesus was saying was, “If you don’t recognize me as divine, which is what I have claimed to be, then you cannot say I am good.”
Next, Jesus answers the original question, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother” (Luke 18:20). Though not given in order, Jesus quotes the second tablet (commandments 6 through 9) of the Ten Commandments. For some reason, He leaves out the last commandment about coveting. The first five commandments (the first tablet) are about our relationship with God. The commandments Jesus references (the second tablet) are about our relationships with one another. (See Deuteronomy 5:6-21 for a list of the Ten Commandments.)
As a Jew, this ruler would have known these commands. As a religious Jew, he would have kept them. He replied, “All these I have kept since I was a boy” (Luke 18:21). Jesus doesn’t question this man’s motives or his claim to piousness. He simply says, “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” (Luke 18:22). This ruler’s problem was not with commandments 6 through 10. His problem was with commandments 1 through 5, especially commandment #1: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7). His gold had become his god and he was unwilling to sacrifice what was most important to Him. “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth” (Luke 18:23). The implication is this rich young man walked away, rejecting Jesus.
Luke continues, “Jesus looked at him (while he was walking away) and said (to His disciples), ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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’” (Luke 18:24-25). Jesus’ example of a camel going through the eye of a needle is best understood as hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. What is the point? Nothing less than total abandonment of everything the world values is necessary to follow Jesus. To put it another way, A follower of Jesus is completely committed to Him.
The question is, Did Jesus really mean what He said? Did He literally mean for the rich man to give everything away and become poor? The simple answer is, YES! Jesus was asking this rich guy to give up everything to follow Him. There is no way around what Jesus is saying. Any attempt to “spiritualize” what He is saying is an injustice to the text. The rich man took Jesus’ words literally, and so did Jesus’ disciples!
Luke continues, “Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God’” (Luke 18:26-27). There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Even giving everything away doesn’t save us! Only God’s grace saves us, forgives us, and grants us eternal life. Only God can do the impossible.
“Peter said to him, ‘We have left all we had to follow you!’” (Luke 18:28). One can sense the urgency, and anxiety, in Peter’s words. Jesus is talking about eternal life and how difficult it is to abandon everything to follow Him. Peter reminds Jesus that when He called himself, and the others, they “left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Peter was saying, “Jesus, we are ok, aren’t we? We are not going to be left out, are we? We have done all you have asked us to do, haven’t we?”
Jesus reassures Peter, saying, “I tell you the truth…no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30). Jesus was saying that Peter was fine, and so are all those who forsake everything to follow Him. Jesus requires total commitment, but in return He gives us abundant (and eternal) life. It doesn’t get any better than that!
There should be no doubt about what Jesus was asking the rich ruler to do, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me” (Luke 18:22). But what about today? Is Jesus asking us to do the same thing as this rich young ruler? The question is, Is Jesus asking us to sell everything and give it all to the poor? I think this question deserves careful consideration. I don’t think it is wise to quickly explain this question away. What is it Jesus is asking us to do with the resources He has given us?
First, we need to recognize that Jesus meant what He said and said what He meant. We are all rich. God has blessed each of us more than we deserve. Many of us have taken what God has given us and made a golden calf out of it. We take the blessings of God and build an idol in place of God. Jesus is asking all of us to abandon everything for the kingdom of God. He is asking us to give up everything to follow Him.
Does this mean we need to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? Does this mean that redistribution of wealth is a biblical principle? I don’t know! God may be telling each of us something different. You need to listen to His voice and obey what He is asking you to do. Are you feeling uncomfortable right now? Are you worried with where I am going? If so, that’s my second point of application: It is good to be made uncomfortable by Jesus’ teaching. The problem with many of us is that it has been a long time since our faith has been challenged. We have become comfortable and complacent in our walk with God. Following Jesus should push us out of our comfort zones and cause us to ask, and answer, the difficult questions.
The question still remains: Is Jesus asking us to sell everything and give it all to the poor? There is no doubt that is what He was asking the rich ruler to do. But what about us today? Well, the best way to interpret Scripture is by Scripture. So, what does the bible say? More specifically, how did the first Christians, who first read Luke’s gospel, apply this story? Fortunately for us, we know the answer in Luke’s other New Testament book, Acts. In Acts, Luke writes the following:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
How did the first Christians apply the story of the Rich Ruler? First, they established a community of shared commitment. Luke says, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” They shared all of life together. They worshiped together, learned together, ate together, prayed together, and took care of each other.
Second, they shared sacrificially. Luke writes, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Not every single believer liquidated all their assets, but when there was a need, they did whatever was necessary to meet that need, even if it meant selling land and cars and flat screen televisions.
Third, they addressed the problem of poverty in their community seriously. How did they do this? Luke tells us in Acts 4:32-37 and even gives us an illustration:
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.”
Fourth, as a result of their commitment to God and care for one another, evangelism naturally occurred. Luke writes, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” God’s kingdom is expanded as we use our resources to help those in need. Generosity attracts people to the gospel. Greed repels them.
What does Jesus mean by telling us to “sell everything you have and give to the poor?” He means to always by willing to open up your hands and your hearts and your wallets, to let everything go, and join His community of followers.
What’s in your wallet?
I think another way to ask that question is, What is of the upmost importance to you? What can you not live without? Whatever that is, are willing to let go of it in order to be a follower of Jesus? Will you answer that question, or will you walk away sad because you are unwilling to abandon it all for the sake of the kingdom of God?
 Parenthesis is added for explanation.
 The story of the Rich Young Ruler is found in all three synoptic gospels; Matthew 19:16-30 and Mark 10:17-34.
 Some church traditions claim the rich young ruler came back to Jesus and followed Him. But there is not textual evidence of that.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.
 Parenthesis added for explanation.
 Some say there was actually a gate entering the city of Jerusalem called “eye of the needle.” This gate was small and a camel had to unburden all his cargo and crawl on his knees to get through this gate. However, there is no archeological evidence of such a gate. More than likely, this is an “urban legend.”