Theology in 3D

Diagnosing the Rich Young Ruler’s Problem

Layton Talbert | June 20, 2019
New Testament

We know him as “the rich young ruler” though no Gospel writer actually uses that phrase. The designation is a composite of bits and pieces gathered from all three Synoptic accounts. Luke alone tells us he was a community official of some sort (Lk 18:18); only Matthew mentions his relative youthfulness (Mt 19:20, 22), though Mark does picture him running up to Jesus and kneeling (Mk 10:17); and all of them end with the observation that he was wealthy (Mt 19:22-23; Mk 10:22-23; Lk 18:23-24).

The question I want to raise here impacts not only how we exposit and apply this pericope, but also how we prepare our expositions and applications when we have parallel passages in the Synoptics.

In my primary personal Bible (a straight-text, wide-margin NKJV), I found the following note penned in at Lk 18:20 — “Jesus omits ‘Do not covet'” — with an arrow pointing down to the final phrase of v. 23: “for he was very rich.” It seemed obvious to me at the time that Jesus was clearly setting this young man up in order to pinpoint covetousness as his besetting sin. I should have read the parallels before reaching my conclusion in Luke.

Did Jesus omit the 10th commandment? It seems obvious to me now that he did not. Luke has the briefest account of Jesus’ interchange with that young man of means and position. In all three Synoptics, Jesus mentions Commandments 5-9. But Mark adds that Jesus also included, “Do not defraud” (Mk 10:19), which commentators generally identify as an applicational equivalent of “Do not covet” — “fraud being a manifestation of coveting” (Wessell). If this is the case, then Jesus isn’t intentionally omitting the 10th Commandment as a sort of trap; he recounts the entire second table of the law. Matthew seems to corroborate this reading.

To Commandments 5-9 Matthew adds “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mat 19:19; cf. Lev 19:18) instead of Mark’s “Do not defraud.” This, too, may be a functional equivalent to the 10th Commandment (which uses the phrase “your neighbor” three times); but the admonition is, in effect, a far more sweeping summary of the entire second table of the law.

In other words, if you base your exposition and application exclusively on Luke’s account, and conclude from what Jesus says — and especially from what he doesn’t say — that Jesus is pinpointing covetousness as the man’s root problem, you may well be missing the bigger issue.

The man’s problem and Jesus’ answer revolve not around the 10th Commandment, but around the 1st Commandment. The root issue was not the second table of the law, or any particular part of it; it was the first table of the law. Clearly the young man had another god that he valued more highly than Yahweh — one which, in the moment at least, he was unwilling to part with. That’s not a violation of “You shall not covet”; that’s a violation of “You shall have no other gods before me.”

But if his wealth was his god, doesn’t that still mean that he was covetous? Doesn’t it come back to covetousness in the end anyway? In short, no. A person can love wealth and still be scrupulously “legal” in how he goes about pursuing it. The rich do not necessarily acquire their wealth by constantly desiring what someone else has, and certainly not by fraud. Some inherit it. Some work hard to attain their own personal goals with never a begrudging or envious glance at their neighbors’ possessions. In fact, it’s entirely possible even to be extremely wealthy without loving money at all. (Consider Job.) Otherwise wealth itself would be inherently sinful. The only people who think that are those who, themselves, commit the sin of coveting the wealthy.

So what does all this mean in practical terms of our exposition and application of this pericope? Preaching or teaching this passage as primarily a warning about covetousness misses the bigger picture — a picture that includes all of us, not just some of us. The most textually accurate, and therefore weightiest, application is this: man’s fundamental problem is not with anything on the second table of the law; it’s with the first.

The rich young ruler demonstrates that you can, for all practical purposes, keep the second table “from your youth” without keeping the first.* But you cannot keep the first without inevitably keeping the second (Mt 22:35-40). Any infraction of the second table starts with an infraction of the first. No one’s chief sin is covetousness, or adultery, or murder; every murderer’s or adulterer’s or coveter’s first and chief sin is idolatry. We’re not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are, at heart, idolaters.

Paul teaches that all covetousness is idolatry (Col 3:5). But not all idolatry is covetousness. Idolatry takes many forms. It could even be said that all sin is idolatry. Every sin is a decision to choose something else over God. And every choice of anything over God, no matter how legal or legitimate the object itself may be, is idolatry in its most native form: self-worship.

* Perfectly, no; but that’s not the point. Jesus didn’t argue with the man’s imperfect keeping of the second table of the law; he illustrated the man’s utter failure to live by the first table.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert


13 responses to “Diagnosing the Rich Young Ruler’s Problem”

  1. Etienne Jodar says:

    Thank you for this post. I reached the same conclusion when I prepared a sermon on the rich young man in my Bible Background class with Dr. Stiekes. The problem is with the first table of the law, not the second. The young man loves something more than God (his wealth), and this can change only by divine intervention. Rejecting our rival love (wealth or anything else) is impossible without God, but with him it is possible because all things are possible with God.

  2. Ken Casillas says:

    Finally got around to reading this as I’m preparing to preach on this pericope tomorrow. Good stuff, and I agree that Jesus’ focus is idolatry. Do you think the text is also indicating that the rich young ruler was legalistic or self-righteous (specifically in his initial response)? Your asterisked comment seems to say that this idea is off point or at least not possible to determine based on what the text states.

  3. Thanks, Ken. Coming as it does on the heels of Luke 18:9 and following, it could be that Luke uses the rich young ruler as a live example of the Pharisee in that immediately preceding parable. On the other hand, I have a hard time imagining the kind of Pharisee Jesus describes in that parable coming to Jesus with the searching sense of lack and emptiness that the rich young ruler expresses. Maybe. But it seems significant that the rich young ruler pericope doesn’t end at Luke 18:23 but at 18:30. In that extended discussion of the incident, Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be pinpointing self-righteousness (“How hard it is for those who trust in themselves to enter the kingdom of God!”) but idolatry, which in his case took the form of wealth (“How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!”). But let me know what you decide to preach:)

  4. Ken Casillas says:

    I agree. I think that if self-righteousness is a theme here, it is a secondary/indirect theme. I think the same about the similar incident that led to the Good Samaritan parable in chapter 10. I have various other questions and comments coming to mind, but I’d better stay on task….

  5. Tyler says:

    All of this is fine, but I think it ignores that Luke omits the command about coveting for a reason. And if it is present in the other synoptics, the fact that it is absent from Luke’s version of the story is noteworthy. Particularly because I don’t know of anyone who believes that Luke was written prior to Mark and Matthew. Luke used their accounts to make his story, and he conspicuously left coveting out of it.

    Which means, at least for Luke, he does appear to be drawing attention to the RYR’s covetousness and lack of neighborly love.

    This is not at all unusual in Luke-Acts – The Gospel writer has very little positive things to say about wealth in any form. The only time that wealthy people are spoken of positively in Luke-Acts is when they are in the process of giving that wealth away.

    So I think the point about idolatry is good, but I think if we try and read the point of Mark and Matthew’s versions of the story onto Luke, we’re going to miss what Luke is trying to do. Which is namely to call out the greed and un-neighborliness that is required to become as wealthy as this individual has.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  6. Thanks for reading and interacting, Tyler. I agree with you that Luke omits the tenth commandment for a reason; that’s essentially the point of the post. It appears, however, that we disagree over why he did so. It’s not clear to me how omitting the 10th is a way of emphasizing it, especially since we know that Jesus most certainly did cite the 10th (according to Mt and Mk). I’m not at all arguing that covetousness is not a problem for the RYR, only that it is not the root issue. Every offense of the second table is symptomatic of a deeper offense of the first table. That’s why I argue that if we make covetousness the whole point, and stop there, we’ve missed the bigger problem that Luke (by omitting the 10th) underscores perhaps even more clearly than Mt or Mk: the RYR has another god. That surely is the bigger, deeper problem.

  7. Chuck :) says:

    This we know but is worth repeating: first thing the Lord seems to confront is the rich young fellow’s misunderstanding of His nature (“excuse me, good moral teacher”) – this appears to be the order of priority. When people ask me what I talk about when witnessing to, say, JW’s or Mormons, the Lord’s deity is what is to emphasised first, the “I’m not that bad of a sinner” is confronted thereafter – I base this off this text (that Jesus is the Father of eternity and created the eons- He created time [Isa 9:6 & Heb 1:2] are the most oft used verses, along with His upholding the universe and indwelling all believers, after that the two different faith’s in Luke 18 are also discussed).

  8. “One thing you lack”… > Mt.22:37
    “and Jesus loved him…” > John 3:16
    interesting statements by the RYR’s creator in this pericope.

  9. Howard Nelson says:

    When you break the First Commandment. It is easy to grasp that you have broken them all. Isn’t that what Jesus said?

  10. Allen Grosser says:

    Hi. I am not a priest nor seminary student, but I have been puzzling about this scripture for some time now. I believe the whole point of the story is about judgement, especially from Luke who includes the two stories immediately prior to it.

    In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, there is obvious judgement on the part of the pharisee, who sees himself as a good man, and not like that tax collector. The tax collector sees himself only as a sinner and pleads for mercy.

    In the next story, Jesus blesses the children, who were infants. What do infants have that is special? Infants don’t judge anyone. They see everyone the same, with that childlike trust that they were born with. In fact, we have to teach our children Stranger Danger to prepare them for this world, and that begins them down the whole journey of not trusting your neighbor (the stranger) and judging the stranger without knowing their hearts.

    Then comes the rich young ruler. This man sees himself as a good man, having kept all those commandments since his youth. Also, the fact that he is rich would be a sign to him and others of being a good man, as that was deemed to be God’s reward to those who are good. Likewise, those who have sinned are thought to be punished, as shown by the disciples in John 9:1-2

    In his question to Jesus, the very first response from Jesus was the question: Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God. The man had probably heard the stories of a teacher coming around who spoke with authority and who healed the sick. The RYR might have thought Jesus to be a prophet, but he without a doubt believed him to be just a man. Jesus is making the point that no man is good – only God. He might instead have replied with “No one is good but God. It is right that you call me good.” But he does not.

    Listing the commandments that he did, he gives the RYR the opportunity to show that he is a good man. But then he tells him he lacks one thing – sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me.

    Why would he say this? I think it is because he is telling the man, and us, that if you want to judge other men, then you have to do what Jesus did. Jesus gave up all the riches and wonder of heaven to come and live with us and share the gospel. And only Jesus has been found worthy to judge man. So, if we want to judge, we have to make the same sacrifice that Jesus made. We have to give it all away. Everything. Sure, that is hard for a rich man to do, but is no less difficult for a poor man to do. I’ve never know anyone who has given everything away for the sake of the gospel.

    And so, in my opinion, even though the next teaching to the disciples talks about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter into heaven, the truth is that it is equally difficult for a poor man to enter into heaven. In fact, whether you are rich or poor (a purely subjective thing), there is nothing that you can do to get into heaven. It is impossible with men, and only possible with God.

    Am I way off the reservation here? I want to speak on this as a devotional at a church meeting later this month.

  11. Robert Towson says:

    I found your comments to be very helpful and illuminating on the spiritual condition of the RYR. I recently used his example as part of a message on the necessity of repentance, pointing out the possibility of his thinking that Jesus would recognize the young man’s adherence to The Commandments as a doorway to salvation. As you pointed out, being rich is not a sin, neither does it indicate a covetous heart. His problem IS at the first commandment and certainly rooted in idolatry- the springboard for all sin, as you contended. King David, a man after God’s own heart, and a hater of idolatry, repented when faced with Nathan’s declaration from God of his own adulterous behavior. Thank you for “pealing back some layers of this onion” in the story of Jesus dealing with the RYR.

  12. Steve says:

    Matthew 6:20-24 sums it up pretty well, his eye was on his material treasure. You cannot serve 2 masters, Jesus says either your eye is single and whole body full of light or your eye is EVIL!!! The light he believed he was full of was darkness, HOW GREAT IS THAT DARKNESS. You can do nothing to inherit eternal life, it is a gift from GOD. I liked many points made in this discussion, and each one is good. He definitely forgot the 1st commandment and that is the key because there is only one GOD and you are to have no other gods before HIM… Ye cannot serve GOD and mammon. Praise the Lord Jesus

  13. Borge Vassbo says:

    Reading the version in Luke, I can’t help getting the impression that Jesus telling RYR to sell what he owns and give it to the poor is His way of challenging RYR on the 10th commandment.

    1. Jesus was a great teacher and in the discussions and stories he wanted to make people learn more about God and also themselves. Still he was true to the word of God. In this text Jesus clearly quotes commandment 5-9 (or actually no 4-8 in my Norwegian church tradition), that deal with practical situations. RYR’s answers to the questions can be checked as they deal with actions, so witnesses would be able to confirm or question RYR’s answers. But if Jesus was to ask him if he coveted what is mentioned in the 10th commandment, then RYR could have answered “no” and actually would have passed the test showing that de earned eternal life. What would then be the outcome of the discussion? Obviously Jesus could then have told him that his answer couldn’t be true, but with RYR most likely being a Jewish ruler, people wouldn’t have appreciated Jesus confronting him without evidence. Also this would probably have caused a heated discussion between Jesus and RYR, which would have reduced RYR’s chances of eventually deciding to follow Jesus. To avoid this situation, and to teach RYR more about himself and the meaning of the 10th commandment, He tells him to live his life according to the 10th commandment, which means not coveting earthly possessions and being willing to give it all up. So Jesus doesn’t judge him, but He teaches him the true meaning of the 10th commandment and (without actually saying so) makes him learn that he isn’t living according to God’s will after all. It kind of reminds me on how he dealt with the situation of the woman caught in adultery. No new teaching, just a teacher who gives people more knowledge about themselves and God’s will.

    2. Jesus doesn’t make new rules. I haven’t been studying theology but read the Bible with enthusiasm. To be honest I can’t think of situations in the Old Testament where God has told the people that they shall not have possessions at all, but sell everything and give to the poor. It would definitely be a good deed, but is it a commandment in the Old Testament? Giving 10% yes, but giving everything? Please inform me if I have missed something. My point is that if this isn’t teaching from the Old Testament, it would be very surprising if Jesus introduced this new rule and expected a ruler to accept it. Jesus fulfilled the law, He didn’t change it. Obviously a ruler and other Jews would protest to Jesus proclaiming to be able to change the rules of the Law. So my suggestion is that Jesus was challenging RYR to show the 10th commandment in practice.

    Please comment on this if you have relevant information that suggests my theory must be false, as I would be happy to learn.

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