38 – The Rich Young Ruler

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

(Revised: April, 2000)

  And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible (Matt. 19:16-26).

The theocentric principle here is the kingdom of heaven. God has established standards of entry. The Ten Commandments are the summary of these standards, Jesus told the enquirer. But there is another barrier to entry: faith in God rather than riches. The previous section had dealt with the same theme: entry into the kingdom. Men must become as little children, Jesus said. That is, they must trust God with the same confidence that a child trusts his father. In His answer to the enquirer, Jesus amplified this principle. Those who trust in money have transgressed one of the standards of entry. They have substituted a rival faith.

Access to Eternal Live

The young man was a ruler (Luke 18:18). He understood something of the doctrine of the resurrection. He sought eternal life. Jesus then referred to the kingdom of heaven. The entry into eternal life takes place in history. The kingdom of heaven must have manifestations in history. What men do or fail to do in history, Christ implied, determines their inheritance.

Can men earn their way into heaven? The young man thought so: he had kept the commandments. Jesus showed him that he had more to do: sell his goods and give them to the poor. But this seems to make access to heaven a matter of good works. He implied that the young man had not done enough by keeping the commandments. He had to do more.

Taken at face value, this passage teaches works religion: man can earn his salvation. Such a view of salvation is antithetical to biblical religion. Then why did Jesus not verbally challenge the man to rethink his religion? Why did He imply that the man could buy his way into heaven? Why did He tell the man to give away his money to the poor? Was this what is always required of those who would follow Jesus?

Trust Not in Riches

What was Jesus really telling this man? The parallel passage in Mark makes Jesus' position clearer: "And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:24). David had said something similar a thousand years earlier: "Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about? They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him" (Ps. 49:5-7).

Jesus returned to this theme repeatedly in His parables and His dealings with rich men. Solomon had, too. "The rich man's wealth is his strong city, and as an high wall in his own conceit" (Prov. 18:11). The rich man trusts in his power to get wealth. He trusts in the creation. Moses warned against this: "And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth" (Deut. 8:17). It is the sin of autonomy. It is the belief that man is the primary source of wealth.1 It is also the belief that this wealth is the coin of the realm in God's kingdom. But it isn't. "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:26).

The lure of wealth is a powerful lure. Wealth seems to offer to man the ability to buy the good things of life. Money is the most marketable commodity. It seems to be a surrogate for wealth. This outlook proclaims: "Anything can be bought; every man has his price." Jesus warned that this is a false premise. So did David: "For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth for ever" (Ps. 49:8).

The enquirer had not understood Jesus' warning about the worship of God rather than mammon. "No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24).2 The enquirer had not examined his own soul. He had not seen clearly regarding his faith. He still trusted in his riches.

What did his wealth buy him that was worth access to God's kingdom? Wealth can buy many things: luxury, safety, fame, deference by others. But all of these are as fleeting as riches. Remove the wealth, and everything that wealth had bought disappears. Mammon is a fickle god. It leaves without warning, taking with it all that it had previously purchased. This leaves the formerly rich man weak to the extent that he had relied on his wealth to provide his strength.

Give to the Poor

"If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." Jesus called this would-be disciple to a complete rejection of his former way of life. Why? Does He call all men to the same rejection? If not, why not?

He told the man to sell his wealth and give the money to the poor. But to do this, he had to sell his goods to someone. His wealth was not to be burnt on a pyre; it was to be exchanged for a more liquid asset: money. Money can be handed out in discrete units, a little at a time. The rich man was to learn how to give money away. Then he was to follow Jesus — not before.

This was a two-fold transfer of wealth: to those who bought it for money and to those who received the money. The rich young ruler was to become a middleman in the transfer of wealth. The more he received from the sale of his wealth, the more he could give away. He was to negotiate a top price from the buyers, and he was then to become a wise giver. He was to become more skilled as an administrator of capital. He was to put it to better use: service to God.

Others were allowed to buy his wealth. Did this mean that Jesus was condemning the buyers to eternal torment? Is wealth illegitimate? No. "A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children's children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just" (Prov. 13:22). The question, then, is the context in which the wealth is held: man's or God's. The issue is theonomy vs. autonomy. To whose use is the wealth to be put? Does the owner see himself as a steward of God?

The rich young ruler had a problem. He was at a turning point in his life. But so was Old Covenant Israel. His wealth was held by means of a legal framework. He was under the authority of Rome. So was Old Covenant Israel. His wealth was no safer than this hierarchy. A generation later, Rome would crush Israel's political revolt. Most wealth owned by Jews would be destroyed by war and their subsequent dispersion by Rome. Unless he died young, he lived to see this great destruction of wealth. Mammon cannot be trusted.

The young man was beguiled by his possessions. Jesus offered him a pathway to clarity regarding his priorities, but he went away troubled.

Jesus asked him to become poor. Wandering around Judea with a group of unemployed disciples was not a way of life preferred by most rich men. Matthew-Levi was an exception, but there were not many.3 Jesus called him into poverty as a way into the kingdom of God. This man's priorities were arranged differently from those required for faithful service in an era of definitive covenantal transition. He did not understand the times.

Hierarchies of Faith

"Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (vv. 23-24). This indicates that a rich man is rare in the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven operates in history. We enter it in history.

The disciples replied: "Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible." Why did they ask this? There are few rich people in any population; the bell-shaped curve assures this. Jesus would later say, "many are called, but few are chosen" (Matt. 22:14). This was not a startling doctrine for Jews. There were no gentiles in the kingdom at that stage of Jesus' ministry. Why should the disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" Just because a rich man cannot be saved, why should this raise any question about poor men?

Jews expected victory in history. They did not believe they would be under foreign domination forever. They had read Deuteronomy 28: "Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out. The LORD shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways. The LORD shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. The LORD shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, and walk in his ways" (Deut. 28:4-9). They expected earthly rewards at some future time. "For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the LORD, they shall inherit the earth" (Ps. 37:9). Yet here was Jesus telling them that these blessings would constitute a threat to Israel's salvation. How could this be?

Jesus answered that with God, all things are possible. That is, such salvation would be abnormal but possible. Jesus' point was clear: wealth is a great temptation. Those who get wealthy risk being snared by the doctrine of autonomy. The Old Covenant warned the rich man not to take advantage of the poor or to imagine that he was beyond the circumstances that afflict them.

Jesus' answer indicated that wealth is a snare. Proverbs had said the same thing. "Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain" (Prov. 30:8-9).

The lure of autonomy is strong. Those who possess any special advantage that provides them with a barrier against life's common burdens are tempted to regard themselves as beyond God's negative sanctions. These advantages include wealth, power, beauty, and health. But wealth is the most universally sought after, for it offers the broadest range of immunities from the common burdens of life. Of course, it adds new burdens. With an increase in the number of choices (wealth) comes responsibility.

The message is clear: we should not expect to see many rich people subordinating themselves to God through the gospel. The rich are not willing to pay the price, namely, a transfer of their faith from wealth to Christ. Wealth seems to be under their control; Christ isn't. Wealth extends their power; faith in Christ extends God's dominion. They appear to be at the top of a hierarchy of wealth; not so with the kingdom of God. The rich man prefers to be at the top.

Continuity and Discontinuity In Jesus' Teachings

Jesus did not break with the Old Covenant's view of wealth and its inherent risks. What made His teaching different was His lack of emphasis on the covenantal basis of corporate wealth. There is not much in His teaching about the relationship between covenant-keeping and a society's accumulation of wealth. There are only occasional reconfirmations of the Old Covenant's system of corporate sanctions. "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). This cites Psalm 37:11: "But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace." Jesus placed most of His emphasis on wealth as a snare to the individual rather than as a tool of dominion. There is no doubt that this New Testament emphasis is overwhelmingly on the side of great wealth as a risk to the soul.

There is nothing in the New Testament that indicates that economic growth as a goal of society is wrong. There is nothing wrong with reducing the number of poor people by increasing their productivity. Capital accumulation increases men's productivity. Better tools make men more productive. Personal thrift increases capital accumulation. Men have discovered no way to increase the supply of capital in society other than to allow investors to reap the fruits of their investments. The goal of greater personal wealth is the lure that increases per capita investment in a society. That which is dangerous to the soul — the quest for wealth — is what reduces the number of poor and also their degree of poverty. Not charity but thrift and wise investing are the secret of reduced poverty in society. This crucial fact is not taught in the New Testament. It is implied in the Old Testament, however, which teaches the legal and moral right of private ownership and the legitimacy of wealth. The legal framework of the Mosaic Covenant produces a capitalistic social order.4

There are those who argue that Jesus did not adopt Old Testament standards. In fact, most Christians affirm this. But they affirm it selectively. At some point, they are forced to admit that sometimes He assumed the continuity of Mosaic standards. For example, conservatives5 insist that Jesus was not opposed to the free market, and was even favorable to it. Yet they also insist that He did not affirm a theocratic system of civil government, or any other political system. Liberals6 insist that He opposed both the free market and theocratic civil government. Trapped between the two are pietistic Christians who say that Jesus was indifferent to social issues; He was concerned only with personal salvation. They can appeal to the obvious fact that He was as silent on the free market social order as He was on theocratic civil government. Why this silence? Because He implicitly accepted both? Because He implicitly opposed both? Because He implicitly accepted one but not the other? Or because He was indifferent to both?

Theonomists assume covenantal continuity in the absence of specific annulments or a change based on the end of Israel's status as the Promised Land of the priestly nation.7 So, theonomists insist that Jesus accepted both the free market and theocratic civil government, since the Mosaic Covenant mandated both, and there is nothing in the New Covenant that annuls either one. He did not break with Moses on either point. His emphasis on the spiritual danger of wealth did not break with Moses. He just skipped over the legacy of the Old Covenant that affirmed the legitimacy of great wealth, with Abraham and Job as leading examples. This was a matter of emphasis. The emphases of the two testaments are different. This does not mean that the testaments are in opposition. For instance, the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the resurrection; the Old Covenant mentions it only twice: Daniel 13:1-3, Job 19:25-27. Jesus was far more concerned with the doctrine of eternal life than the doctrine of economic growth.

The personal economic goal of the Old Testament was middle class wealth (Prov. 30:8-9). There is nothing in the New Testament that would call this goal into question. Paul wrote, citing the account of the manna (Ex. 16:18): "As it is written, He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack" (II Cor. 8:15). But in a world without manna from heaven, output sufficient to fill most men's stomachs will make some men rich. Like the poor, the bell-shaped curve is with us always. Output sufficient to feed all men will make some men very rich. The question is: What will these rich men do with their wealth? Share it? Accumulate more of it? The rich young ruler had his answer straight from Jesus. He went away troubled.

Conclusion

The rich young ruler had a problem with the content of his faith. He trusted in what he thought he could do and had always done: keep all of God's commandments. Jesus showed him that his faith was in himself and therefore defective. His faith was leading him to eternal death. His law-keeping and his wealth had become his high walls. By challenging him to tear down the second of these two walls, Jesus forced him to reconsider the content of his faith. His problem was not his good works or his wealth; his problem was his belief in the spiritual efficacy of works religion. He could not earn eternal life.

To show to him how wrong he was, Jesus went to the heart of his faith: his wealth. He was a follower of mammon. What he had to do in order to gain eternal life was beyond his ability. What all men have to do to gain eternal life is beyond their ability. It is the task of the evangelist to identify whatever it is that an anxious enquirer cannot do or will not do for the sake of the prize: the good work that is just too much for him, the wall that he cannot climb over. The evangelist must then confront the enquirer with the existence of this wall, which is a barrier in between him and the eternal prize. Then the enquirer may be ready to hear the correct answer: "Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). How does a man deny himself? By affirming faith in Jesus Christ, as Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer: "And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 16:31).

Jesus placed the attainment of personal wealth very low on any man's list of priorities — far lower than generosity to the poor. He also did not place per capita economic growth high on the list. The second point follows from the first, for without men's willingness to save in their quest for wealth, there can be no widespread reduction in poverty: insufficient per capita capital. Jesus also did not place the elimination of poverty high on the list. The third point follows from the first two. He emphasized personal charity, which ameliorates individual cases of poverty but does not solve the problem of widespread poverty. Only economic growth does this, but economic growth is the product of widespread personal wealth-seeking: thrift. Many religions emphasize charity, but only in the West, where Christianity and especially Calvinist theology had its roots, has a two centuries-long period of compound economic growth appear.8

Compared to eternal life, economic growth is a pale sanction indeed. But this does not deny the legitimacy of economic growth. It need not be a negative sanction. John Wesley's refrain is valid: "Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can." 9 It was this outlook that moved Methodists out of grinding poverty into middle-class respectability — and theological liberalism — in less than two centuries. The history of the twentieth century mainline denominations is evidence of the truth of Christ's warning to the rich young ruler. Better to be a Methodist layman in a wretched hut in 1740 than a Methodist theologian in a wretched seminary today.

The economic goal of both testaments is the same: middle-class comfort for the masses. This takes generations of compound economic growth. It was not achieved in any society until the twentieth century, in which Western Christianity went into spiritual decline. Like the poor, the rich we shall always have with us. But if the way to riches is by serving consumers, as it is under free market capitalism, the more rich people we have, the less grinding is the poverty of the poor. The problem is, when the poor have become less poor because entrepreneurs have been allowed to get exceedingly rich, both rich and poor can fall into the trap: "And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth."

The modern pietistic Protestant hymn is correct: "I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold." But the theonomists' goal is better: "I'd rather have Jesus and silver and gold." So far, no society has achieved this. Without widespread conversions and widespread obedience to biblical law, no society can.

Footnotes:

1. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981).
2. See Chapter 14, above.
3. Chapter 21, above.
4. I wrote seven volumes on the economics of the Pentateuch to prove this point. It is the responsibility of critics of my thesis to produce something comparable that proves otherwise.
5. Those in the Scottish Whig tradition by way of Edmund Burke.
6. Those in the French Revolutionary tradition.
7. Seed laws, land laws, and priestly laws. See Gary North, Leviticus: An Economic Commentary (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), pp. 639-43.
8. Whether it can continue in the face of widespread apostasy, increasing debauchery, and legalized abortion remains to be seen.
9. Sermon 50 (1743): "The Uses of Money."

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