The Time Jesus Offended an All-Around Good Guy

Remember the time a certain ruler with a glowing CV and a sterling track record for good behaviour asked Jesus a question about inheriting eternal life?

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

(Luke 18:18)

Jesus’ response left the man unhappy and sorrowful. You’re no doubt familiar with the encounter (Luke 18:18-30).

However, let’s first clarify what the man was asking.

The Question

While our English word “eternal” means “forever and ever”, the Greek word it’s attempting to translate does not.

The Greek word (aionios) refers to an “age”, referring to a specific period of time. The phrase “eternal life” (aionios zoe) means “age life”, referring to the quality of life, not the quantity. In other words, the phrase refers to the fullness of life or the God kind of life.

For more on the meaning of aionios, see What Does Aionios Mean?

In fact, it’s a synonym for the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ primary message. Jesus explicitly associated the man’s request with the Kingdom of God. Immediately after disappointing the man, Jesus said:

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!

(Luke 18:24, italics added)

So, what was the man asking?

This self-sufficient, self-made man was asking the self-actualising question, How can I maximise life? How can one enjoy fullness of life?

Now. In this life.

The man had obviously heard Jesus’ message on the Kingdom of God and was intrigued. Clearly competent and capable, a man of means and influence, he wanted in. In fact, he wanted it all.

Importantly, he was not asking, “How do I get to heaven?”

Okay, with the man’s question clearly in mind, let’s turn to Jesus’ response.

The Answer

Jesus’ initial answer was weird … and clearly hinted at the fact that He sought to draw the man out. He first asks the man if he’s kept the Law, rattling off commandments five, six, seven, eight and nine of the Ten Commandments. (Obviously, Jesus’ usual response was, Repent and believe the Gospel—not What’s your score keeping the Law?)

The man revealed himself, smugly announcing that he scored full marks in all the areas mentioned since, well, his first pimple.

Jesus then poked at his core:

You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

(Luke 18:22)

Jesus exposed and confronted the idol in the man’s heart: his self-reliant pride harnessed in the school of fine privilege and considerable affluence.

Based on other passages (for example, His encounter with Zacchaeus on the next leg of His route, Luke 19), we know that Jesus was not advocating that the man should bankrupt himself financially. Nor did He imply that following Him required emptying our bank account in a one-time rampage of good works.

Jesus didn’t poke at his bank account but at his vested interests. The point was that for all this man’s religious piety, he had profited from a system in which he placed his dependence, using his privilege for his own advancement and gain. While seemingly an all-around good guy, the man felt entitled, and his vested interests in the system blinded him from what he genuinely sought.

Jesus called him to renounce his self-advancing orientation to life and to give himself to advancing the Kingdom. And Jesus called the man to this new way of life with a personal invitation:

…and come, follow Me.”

At the very least, for this man of influence, it meant using his privilege to serve those impoverished by the system that afforded him status and opportunity.

Dejected, he could not give up his addiction to the system: “he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.” (Luke 18:23). It is extremely difficult to give up our dependency on systems that have enriched us for so long; having, in large part, made us who we are.

Jesus concluded the incident by saying, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God! For 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.” (vv. 24, 25).

Fretfully, the crowd then asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v. 26). Jesus’ reply? “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (v. 27).

There are two important thoughts to point out here.

Some Implications

Firstly, this passage is certainly not extolling the virtues of poverty. For there are none! Rather, Jesus taught the necessity of smashing our dependence on the systems that enrich and profit us. And indeed, if we don’t demolish our allegiance to the systems in which we’re enslaved, it is “impossible” to follow Him. Not because of any unwillingness on His part, but because of the disabling nature of this dead-weight alliance.

Secondly, Jesus did not claim the man’s salvation was at stake or that he was in danger of missing heaven. After the man left dejected and sad, Jesus didn’t chase him down concerned about his post-mortem fate.

Unfortunately, we again kick the question the crowd asked, “Who then can be saved?”, into a discussion on the afterlife.

This was not how Jesus’ audience thought. Nor did it frame their question.

The word translated “save” stems from the Greek word sozo, which means  “to deliver out of danger and into safety”. Thus, it meant “to rescue, to heal, to preserve, to deliver”.

Jesus’ audience anticipated a Saviour who would deliver them from the oppression of Rome, one who would establish His Kingdom on earth, providing liberty, safety and opportunity. They were seeking deliverance from an earthly system of oppression. To put it crudely, they weren’t seeking post-mortem fire insurance.

When Jesus offended the otherwise good man, a man who seemed to have it all together, the crowd was perplexed. If the rich ruler, with all his privileges and means, was somehow coming up short, what chance did they have of enjoying fullness of life?

Jesus, fully confident in His Father’s ability to work in the heart of the ruler and the hearts of His audience, left them pondering, thinking, seeking. He didn’t give them a pat answer. Or turn the moment into an altar call.

Peter then finds his voice, as he always did, and points out the fact that “we have left all and followed You” (v. 28). *Nudge, nudge, wink, wink … me and the boys, we’re good, right?*

Jesus answered,

Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or parents or brothers or wife or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times more in this present time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

(Luke 18:29, 30)

Following Jesus requires renouncing our self-preserving, self-enriching and self-advancing bent. In another passage, Jesus explained this concept in these words: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

Yes, that uncomfortable idea of dying to self.

What this exactly meant for Peter was different to the rich ruler, and it’s different for me and different for you. It’s what makes following Jesus essentially a personal decision, a personal relationship and a personal journey. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all arrangement.

The assurance that Jesus offered Peter (and us) in the above reply is powerful.

Dying to self is the path to fullness of life.

Following Jesus, dying to self, makes me a better human. Grateful for any privilege afforded me, I use these privileges to serve those less privileged, especially those impoverished by the systems that enrich me. That’s just reasonable and responsible. And humane. Like Jesus.

In following Jesus, we’re invited to partner with Him in making a better world. And we do so fuelled with the hope of the age to come—when the new humanity enjoys unhindered, unfiltered, undiluted fullness of life.

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