This story about a Rich Ruler is noted in the Gospel of Luke as well as Matthew and Mark. One third of Luke’s Gospel can also be found in Mark’s Gospel, and 25% of Luke’s Gospel was gleaned from Matthew’s Gospel. All three Gospel’s report this particular story which makes it important to the disciples to be sure.
The author of Christian tradition suggests that it is Paul’s companion, Luke, a physician by trade. What we can gathered from the literature is that the writer is not an eye-witness but a 2nd or 3rd generation Christian who lived about the Christians of his day. It was most probably written between 70-90c.e. and was part of collected cannonical materials as early as 140c.e. From literature we can speculate that Luke was well-educated and culturally proficient. Furthermore, Luke knew the Greek Old Testament, which may imply his familiarity with the Greco-Roman world. It further suggests he was a Hellenistic Jew. Luke is also consider to have authored the Acts of the Apostles and knew a great deal about the church evolution and how Jesus’ teaching would have impacted the believers at that time.
The Gospel is written as an orderly account of the history of Jesus to “Theophilus” meaning friend of God. To keep the spirit of the intent of the author in tact let us remember his orderly account of the Jesus’ life story from 6b.c. to 30c.e. as only he can tell it. The story for Luke begins with the promise of a birth to a couple struggling with infertility. Zechariah & Elizabeth had given up on children in their old age, but God looked with favor on them and a child was born (Luke 1.13, 57).
As we look across the pages of the bible it is easy to discover the importance of birth narratives of women who could not conceive a child – Abraham & Sarah (Gen. 21.1-7), Isaac & Rebekah (Gen. 25.21), Jacob & Rachel (30.1-2, 22-24), Ruth & Boaz (Ruth 4.13), and Elimilek & Hannah (1 Sam. 1.6, 20) of great importance. Zechariah & Elizabeth’s little baby would grow up to become the prophet John who was known in the country around the Jordon River as the “baptizer” – an act of repentance (Luke 3.3).
The story goes on to unfold as Jesus, the Messiah, is born to a young maiden named Mary (Luke 1.31) and her husband Joseph (Luke 1.27). He was presented to God on the eight day as tradition, and at the age of 12 was found in the Temple courts learning from and giving lessons to the Jewish teachers (Luke 2.46). The author explains the importance of John’s calling which points to Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus is baptized, and only then does he begin his ministry at the age of 30 years. Jesus’ ministry within the Jewish community rests on his family inheritance – he was truly a Jew. Luke then reports Jesus’ lineage by naming all the men who where part of his family tree pointing the way all the way back to creation itself.
Inheritance was very important to Jewish tradition. The first-born male would inherit a double portion of his father’s family business while the other family members would get only one portion. The first-born would be the next patriarch having followed along with his father to learn how to run the family household and business. Inheritance is the first-born’s responsibility to ensure the continuation of the family. Across the stories of the bible, we discover that God has a way of disrupting the family norms. For instance David was the youngest of eight but was chosen by God to lead all of Israel (1 Sam. 16.1). The reason why women are not named in the family tree is that they were joined to their husband’s family at the time of their marriage. This was a tribal culture – patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal (Richter, The Epic of Eden, 21-46). Before you get a bit uncomfortable with your egalitarian cultural thinking, remember the culture was designed to ensure survival of an entire family.
Next we see Jesus’ being rejected by his community of Nazareth. In a tribal culture this would have had to search out another community to connect with to ensure his survival. From Nazareth Jesus goes to Capernaum in Galilee and teaches at the synagogue on the Sabbath casting out demons and injecting a new teaching that amazing the people. Jesus then settles into his new home of Capernaum, staying with Simon Peter and his family.
After being rejected by his hometown of Nazareth in Galilee, he travels to Capernaum in Galilee then south to Judea (the southern region of Israel) preaching in the synagogues (Luke 4.44). He will eventually preach all over Galilee (The northern part of Israel above the hill country of Ephraim and the hill country of Judah in Joshua 20:7). In the time of Jesus’ Galilee, Herod Antipas governed Galilee and Perea (the area just across the Jordon River). Jesus devoted most of His earthly ministry to Galilee (the northern territory), being known as the Galilean (Matthew 26:69). The area between southern Judea and northern Galilee was Samaria. Then he would eventually travel onward to Jerusalem (in Judea), the holy city, destined to become the place of his death as many prophets before him had died.
Enter into Luke’s Gospel story a rich ruler asking about his inheritance. We can only speculate what kind of earthly inheritance the rich man has gained but with this tribal culture to be sure he has inherited the family household and business. He has followed every spiritual law observing all the commandments since his birth. He has been groomed to ensure the survival of his family. This young man’s life was not unlike Jesus’ in that they were both in line for an earthly inheritance. Jesus was the first born on his father Joseph with his wife Mary. Jesus would have been expected to assume the lead role in the family tree taking on the family business as the next patriarch. That was the expectation of the Jewish culture.
The rich ruler opens up his conversation with Jesus with a powerful question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (Luke 18.18).
Goodness. Jesus has a response ready to address his deep probing question about his inheritance. First, Jesus points out that his reasoning is flawed. The rich ruler needed to understand who God is and who he himself was not. Jesus says, “No one is good – except God alone.” Jesus immediately addresses his identity and pushes him into crisis mode with the internal question of the meaning of goodness. Jesus points out that the ruler is recognizing his goodness, but Jesus points to the goodness and says this trait only comes from God himself. In essence Jesus is inviting him to believe in him. That was step one.
Obedience. Jesus then begins answering this question by affirming the commandments: do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, and honor your father and mother. Jesus reviews the Commandments as a litmus test of sincerity of this ruler. When the ruler responds with an affirmation, Jesus questions him again about his possessions – his inheritance. Moving beyond the “to do list of right and wrong” gets us to the heart of the matter. But Jesus draws our attention to the heart matter that is just below the surface of the situation. It is a condition that binds us here to the earth – our possessions are only the outcropping of how we think. It is our responsibility to gain all we can, save all we can to ensure that our family survives. Yet, Jesus calls us to give all we can.
Wesley had it right we he gave us this formula for success – gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. Wesley calls us to become stewards of our possession, not owners of our inheritance. For John Wesley preaching about stewardship was third on his list of important topics following justification and sanctification. Money matters are of grave importance not only to John Wesley but first of all Jesus.
Sustaining. Here in our text the rich man had worked hard to sustain himself. He gained all he could and saved all he could, yet, Jesus requires him to give it all away so that he could have his eternal inheritance.
Wesley gives instruction on how to choose how we gain our living. Choose a career that will not damage your physical body. Choose a career that does not cause you emotional harm. Choose a career that keeps you in companions who do no harm to you. Seek to work and live in such a way that does not harm your soul. Wesley instructs us to choose to gain all we can in light of love of God and neighbor. Choose a career that leads others to their health not destruction.
In saving all you can Wesley instructs us to not be wasteful in self-indulgence. Do not cultivate a taste for foods that lead to gluttony, nor are we to purchase extravagant clothing with accessories. Avoid unnecessary furniture, decorations, portraits, books, and the like so as not to lead your neighbor down the path of spending money they do not have. Set the example of living meagerly. Do no spend money on expensive gardens. Do no spend your money to gratify your vanity with praise and admiration from others. Expensive food, clothing, and furniture can lead us down the wrong pathway and guide others to great debt in their lives. Do not focus on saving an inheritance for your children that might lead them to destructive spending patterns.
And, now to the final piece of advice from Wesley – give all you can. First, provide for your basic needs of food and clothing plus whatever keeps you healthy, and the same for your immediate household. Next, do good to those in the family of faith to ensure that they have basic needs of food and clothing plus the necessary things that keep them healthy. Afterwards, work for the good of all humanity in the same way. Keeping in mind that God requires a tithe to sustain the community of faith.
Jesus offers us quite a comical illustration in this story: can a camel fit through the eye of a needle? With these instructions from Wesley we are preparing our hearts to enter into the Kingdom of God and allowing King Jesus to rule our earthly and heavenly inheritance.
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” Mark 10.24-25
This passage requires deep change for each one of us. Jesus invites us into the Kingdom of God via the disposal of our earthly inheritance. Jesus offers us a vision of our new future in the Kingdom of God in which we can’t take our earthly inheritance with us. Peter offers us the motivation to off-set this incredulous request when he says, we’ve already taken these steps to giving up our earthly inheritance. Testimonies about how people give are witnesses to God’s goodness in our lives. Wesley calls us to analyze for ourselves what our spending is like with four key questions: In spending this money, am I acting according to my character? Am I acting not as an owner, but as a steward to my Lord’s goods? Am I giving this money in obedience to God’s Word? In what scripture does God require me to spend this money? Can I offer up this action or expenditure as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ? Do I have reason to believe that for this very work I will receive a reward at the resurrection of the righteous?
And, now we are called to go about the task of making this new teaching happen in our everyday lives. In our living and our dying we are to waste nothing on sinfulness or foolishness. When you stand before the Almighty, we must give an account for how we have spent our earthly inheritance. Give to God what belongs to God, i.e., tithe. Give to yourself, your household, the family of faith, and all of humankind in such a way that you can give a good account of your stewardship. Spend so that every act will be a sacrifice pleasing to God. Brothers and sisters, we can either become wise and faithful stewards or we can squander our earthly inheritance on ourselves indulging our sinful nature. Intentionality is key. This is the key to your heavenly inheritance as told by Jesus in this passage today.
As we enter into the season of Thanksgiving and Advent we are all faced with an assessment of our spending habits. Many opportunities are before us to give in accordance with God’s Kingdom inheritance in mind. Whatever you find your thoughts dwelling upon, your hands grasping, and your feet planning… do it all in light of God’s Kingdom.
Reflections from John Wesley’s sermon entitled “The Use of Money” (Kinghorn, 320-334).