A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.’”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, 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.”
Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Luke 18:18-30; compare Matthew 19:16-29 and Mark 10:17-30)
I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on this story a lot recently through a lengthy conversation with a close friend. We disagreed on what was more central to Jesus: I believe that to Jesus the ruler’s heart and actions were equally important, whereas for my friend, the ruler’s heart alone was the most important. This relates, I think, to a more fundamental disagreement about what Jesus was teaching.
Much of Jesus’ teaching ministry was devoted to explaining and interpreting Torah and calling Israel to a new faithfulness to it.1 If one does not understand Torah, one cannot understand Jesus’ teachings. To begin with, the phrase “eternal life” has an important background in Moses’ preaching:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. (Deuteronomy 30:15-16)
So when the young ruler asks what he must to inherit eternal life, Jesus says, “You know the commandments.”2 The ruler responds that he has kept all these, but Jesus reminds him of the command to care for the poor, littered throughout Torah.3 This was the “one thing” he still “lacked.”
Jesus was deeply concerned about the young man’s obedience, though certainly his heart needed to be in the right place as well. (This is the reason Jesus constantly railed on the Pharisees, who were obedient but had polluted hearts.) Both remain important: faith and obedience. That simple, literal obedience concerns Jesus here becomes clear in Peter’s response to the encounter. He doesn’t point out that he has a purer (less idolatrous) heart or a better faith than the rich ruler, but rather that he is more obedient: “We have left all we had to follow you!”
1Interestingly, this is what the Pharisees were up to as well. Though for Jesus, there was one important distinction: He was also calling Israel to faithfulness to Himself. Faithfulness to God involves faithfulness to His commands and vice versa.
2The “kingdom of God” also has a broad basis in Torah: Genesis 17:6; Exodus 19:6; Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 17:14-20; compare 1 Samuel 8.
3See Exodus 23:6,10-11; Leviticus 19:10; 25:8-54; Deuteronomy 15:1-11; 24:10-22.