Theology 101

The Story of the Rich Young Ruler Through the Books of Luke & Acts

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Historically, the theological debate about the biblical story of the rich young ruler has been both long and wide. People around the world have offered various interpretations as to what the meaning of Jesus’ command to the ruler really was and what it means for those seeking to follow Christ today. In the last article of this blog series, we examined this story in the context of Luke’s theology and learned more about subjects like wealth, poverty, and God’s kingdom. We will now continue our discussion and gain additional insight into the story as we examine other key passages in Luke and Acts.

The Call to Weigh & Choose Carefully

By the time we arrive at Luke 14:33—both in reading Luke and in our discussion in this blog series—much ground has been covered, and the argument has been made that issues of wealth and discipleship are ultimately matters of the heart, even while acknowledging that there is a real potential danger in possessing wealth precisely because of its great potential for heart control. Nevertheless, Jesus’ command in 14:33 is perhaps the strongest and starkest statement about wealth and what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and it must be faced with openness and receptivity. Followers of Jesus in his own day and down to today are meant to feel the weight of Jesus’ bold statement; it should not be quickly or summarily dismissed.

Once again, paying attention to the context offers the best opportunity to hear the message that Jesus in Luke intended to convey. Luke 14:33 is the aphorism or “so what?” statement that concludes the pericope of 14:25-33. The sense of this section is that disciples must weigh and choose carefully when deciding to follow Christ. To make the decision lightly would dishonor both the issue and the person at issue. To be a disciple means to follow as a whole person the one whom Christianity regards as the center of the universe, the God-Man Jesus.

The call to weigh and choose carefully is full of high and exalted metaphorical images and analogies meant to convey the significance of the matter. Jesus said that one cannot be a disciple who does not “hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life” (Luke 14:26, ESV). To be a disciple means to carefully consider the costs, illustrated by a building project (14:28-30) and a king going out to wage a potentially losing battle (14:31-32). All of this concludes with the similarly hyperbolic statement that one must “renounce all things” or one cannot be Jesus’ disciple. That this is meant metaphorically and hyperbolically is evinced by the parallel to the necessity of hating all of one’s family (14:26). A literal application of this could not be farther from the meaning of Jesus, who is the teacher and model par excellence for loving others. 

The Call to Let Go & Entrust

This hyperbolic, heart-issue interpretation is also evidenced by the verb choice in the statement. Luke 14:33, with its high and strong language, does not say baldly that one must sell or give away all of one’s possessions to be a disciple, but rather that one must renounce, forsake, or take leave of them. The verb (apotassomai) in its most common usage refers to formally saying goodbye when departing (e.g., Luke 9:61). But it can also be used figuratively, as here in 14:33, to refer to letting go of those things that are precious to us, entrusting them to God. The figurative point here, along with the many other metaphors (such as hating one’s family), is that one’s possessions must not have a binding hold on one’s heart, affections, or life decisions. 

The Call to Discipleship & Stewardship

This reading is finally confirmed by the variety of ways in which Jesus called people to follow him in Luke’s Gospel. As with Matthew, it is important that if the calls to sell everything are taken as literal, absolute statements, rather than the principle of weighing and choosing, it would be inconsistent with the wide variety of calls to discipleship we find in Luke. For example, the first four disciples/apostles left behind their fishing gear (Luke 5:11), but the next person cleansed and converted by Jesus, a former leper, apparently returned to his normal life (5:12-16), as did the paralytic (5:17-26). The same can be said of the centurion in 7:1-10 and the widow and her son in 7:11-17.

Possibly the most telling example is the famous (short) story about another new disciple, Zacchaeus (19:1-10). Like the rich young ruler and Levi (another tax collector; 5:27-28), Zacchaeus was apparently wealthy, and his encounter with Jesus radically changed his heart and attitude toward money. But Jesus made no demands upon him to sell his possessions and give to the poor. Rather, out of his own initiative, Zacchaeus chose to sell half of his (apparently extensive) possessions and give the proceeds to the poor while also paying back anyone he had defrauded with generous interest (19:8). The call of discipleship and its effects on each individual concerning wealth and possessions proves to be a heart issue to be worked out in various ways according to one’s calling.

The Call Based on Calling

We also have additional insights from Luke’s follow-up work, Acts. Here we find the same pattern: different people were called to handle their giving and possessions according to the perceived call of God on their lives (inevitably more subjectively determined after Jesus’ physical ascension). For example, Joseph-Barnabas without compulsion sold a field that he owned to help with the fledgling church and its needs (Acts 4:36-37). There is nothing to indicate he sold all of his possessions in this situation, nor that he was required to.

By contrast, the story follows of a couple who also sold a field as an offering to the church, with the apparent difference that they indicated that the purchase price was all donated, when in fact it was not (Acts 5:1-11). The Apostle Peter condemned them, not for keeping a portion back for themselves, but for their public deceit. Indeed he rightly noted that they could do what they wanted with the field and with the money (5:4a). The issue was their heart of deceit (5:4b).

Overall, taking into account the historical, literary, and theological context, we see once again that even the apparently strongest statements that Jesus made concerning selling one’s possessions to be a disciple need to be understood with proper qualification and nuance that take into account the whole story. In the final article of this series, we will explore the ways that we can faithfully apply what we have learned about the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus’ commands regarding wealth in our modern-day era. In addition, we will examine how we can best utilize the wealth and possessions God has given us for his glory.

Editor’s Note: This series is adapted from the IFWE research paper, “Sell Your Possessions And Give To The Poor” A Theological Reflection On Jesus’ Teaching Regarding Personal Wealth And Charity, by Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington. Read the full paper here.

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