Theology 101

Understanding Luke’s Theology & the Story of the Rich Young Ruler

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Over the centuries, the story of the rich young ruler has been the subject of theological discussion between church leaders, biblical scholars, Christ-followers, and others. In the last article of this blog series, we examined the story in the book of Matthew and explored the text based on the context of Matthew’s theology. Now, we will take a fresh look at it in the context of Luke’s theology and learn more about the subjects of wealth, poverty, and God’s kingdom. 

When we turn to the Gospel of Luke, we find the same interpretation in the parallel version of the rich young ruler (Lk 18:18-27), but we must also consider some other strong statements related to selling one’s possessions.

“Sell your possessions and give to the needy” (Lk 12:33, ESV).

And even stronger:

“Therefore, anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33, ESV).

Wealth, Poverty & Christian Discipleship

The first thing to observe is that the Gospel of Luke (along with its companion volume, Acts) has much to say about wealth and poverty as they relate to Jesus and godliness. In Matthew, the language of reward and treasure is frequent though almost entirely metaphorical. While metaphorical references to wealth occur in Luke as well, the third Gospel also has a well-recognized emphasis on the poor in contrast to the rich, with the former portrayed as in God’s favor and the latter as in danger.

For example, in one of the songs that serve as an overture to Luke’s Gospel, we hear that God has exalted those in a lowly state and “he has filled the hungry with good things but he has sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Then throughout Luke we find many parables and teachings that sit directly on the issue of money: the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21), the parable of the unjust steward (16:1-13), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the repentance of the tax collector Zacchaeus (19:1-10), and the account of the widow’s mite (21:1-4).

In the book of Acts, the issue of wealth continues to be discussed. The early church exhibits the habit of sharing with each other to help meet each other’s needs, even across ethnic and racial lines (Acts 2:42-47; 4:33-37). In this the church models the kind of approach to wealth and possessions that Jesus commends in the Gospels.

So for Luke, the topic of wealth and poverty and Christian discipleship cannot be seen as only a metaphor for following Jesus; there are real issues at hand concerning money and its negative effect on souls. It is always important to hear the voice and witness of each individual Gospel writer and not be too quick to collapse their messages into one. Nevertheless, it is not wrong to assume that the same heart/internal righteousness focus in Matthew is also at work in Luke and particularly in these passages. This consistency will prove to be important as we examine two of the strongest statements about possessions and discipleship.

Earthly Possessions vs. God’s Kingdom

In the case of Luke 12:33 and its command to “sell your possessions and give to the needy,” we must interpret the statement in its literary and theological context. First, unlike the specific instruction to the rich young ruler, 12:33 is apparently a more universal statement in that it exists in a series of general teachings to all of Jesus’ disciples; it has a more general and universal feel and application than the specific command to the Jewish young man. Nevertheless, attending to the broader context shows that even this strong and generalized statement must be qualified in its application.

Note that 12:33 and its accompanying statement in verse 34 (“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also;” cf. Matt. 6:21) form the aphoristic conclusion to a lengthy section all dealing with the heart issue of trusting in wealth. This section begins with the parable of the rich fool (12:16-21) who is foolish precisely because he “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (12:21, ESV). Rather than a teaching against planning and sound business or farming practices, the point of this parable is that one must always be aware of and wary of the heart issue problem of treasuring something more than God. Evidence that this is the best reading is found in the concluding aphorism, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” in 12:34. 

But this reading is also indicated by what we can call the “front-loaded nimshal” of 12:15. Typical in many of Luke’s parables is an introductory statement that explains the point or take-home application (the “nimshal”) of the parable is that is about to be given. That is the case here, with 12:15 serving as the introductory explanation: “Pay attention and be on guard against all kinds of greed for life is not found in the abundance of one’s possessions.” The point of the parable (and really this whole section) is the heart issue of what one values most, concluded again with a reiteration in 12:34.

Between Luke 12:15-21 and 12:33-34 is material nearly identical to that found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-34). The point of these teachings is to encourage disciples that anxiety over money, wealth, and possessions is irrelevant to the real heart issue—that the heavenly Father knows our needs, cares for us, and will provide. Our part is to seek him and his kingdom, allowing God to take care of our external and physical needs. In this vein, Jesus then said to his disciples, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34, ESV).

In this context the hyperbolic and metaphorical intent of the command to “sell your possessions” should be clear in the same way that disciples are told not to think about what they will wear or eat or drink (Luke 12:22, 29). The command is not to live recklessly and insensitively to the realities of life—buying clothes, buying and preparing food—but the focus is on the heart issue of anxiety about these real-life matters. The same is true with the command to sell one’s possessions. It is not an absolute statement but an invitation to the freedom of living in a way that seeks first God’s kingdom rather than the riches of this world (Luke 12:21, 31). 

In the next article, we will continue to explore the story of the rich young ruler and examine it based on Luke 14:33 and the Book of Acts.

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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