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 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, over God, not just something else but something he hates and forbids. 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

4 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….

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