Who was the rich young ruler?

We really know almost nothing at all about this man personally. We don’t know his name, who he was, or his hometown. We call him the “rich young ruler.” But we know that much only by putting together details from three separate accounts in the Bible.
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Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of this man who came to Jesus with an important question (Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18-30). All three say he was rich. But only Matthew tells us he was young (Matthew 19:20); and Luke alone says he was a ruler (Luke 18:18).

What we do know about the rich young ruler

He is called a “ruler.” The Greek word refers to a “leader,” an “official” of some sort—someone with administrative authority. It’s unlikely that a Roman official would approach Jesus with a religious question, so the rich young ruler was probably a Jewish leader in the local synagogue or perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that dealt with religious issues in Jesus’ day.

He was young (neaniskos, Matthew 19:22) a term used for someone from their early twenties until about age forty. And he was not only rich, he was extremely (sphodra) rich (Luke 18:23).

The rich young ruler’s question

“Now as He [Jesus] was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, NKJV).

This question tells us a couple of things about the rich young ruler.

  1. It tells us that he must feel something is missing in his spiritual life. As we will see, he believes he has been scrupulously faithful in keeping all the commandments, but he senses that this alone is not enough.
  2. It tells us he believes that gaining eternal life depends on what he does, that salvation is something he can earn or deserve based on his actions.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these same two things are also true of most of us. We all tend to believe that we have to be good in order to be saved, and we all feel that we are never good enough—that something is always lacking.

Jesus' answer

Jesus replied, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).

At first glance, Jesus’ answer seems all wrong! Salvation does not depend on keeping the commandments. The Bible is clear that we cannot earn or deserve salvation no matter how good we are or how faithfully we keep God’s commandments (Romans 3;20, 28; Galatians 2:16). Salvation is God’s gift of grace that we accept by faith (Ephesians 2:8, 9). How, then, do we explain Jesus’ answer?

Jesus knows this young man sees eternal life in terms of keeping rules. He doesn’t understand that salvation is a matter of grace. So Jesus meets him where he is. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You think eternal life comes from keeping the commandments? Alright, then keep them!”

Of course, the rich young ruler believes he is keeping them. “Which ones?” he replies (Matthew 19:18). “Is there a commandment I’ve overlooked? Haven’t I checked all the boxes? Tell me what I’m missing.”

So Jesus lists several of the Ten Commandments, knowing this young man will insist that he has been keeping them all his life (verses 18-20). Jesus is trying to help him see that his approach is all wrong. The rich young ruler sees eternal life as a balance sheet in which the credits have to outweigh the debits. Jesus wants him to see that although it might be true in a legal sense that he has been keeping the commandments all his life, nevertheless in a spiritual sense he has not been keeping them at all.

After listing several of the Ten Commandments, Jesus adds, “And ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 19). This was what the rich young ruler lacked—love for his neighbor. He was attached to his riches. Jesus continued, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (verse 21).

The young man’s response

“When the young man heard that saying he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (verse 22). Keeping the commandments isn’t a problem when it doesn’t cost us anything to do so! Jesus summed up the young man’s response by saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (verse 24).

Wealth influences us and our spiritual life in three main ways:

  1. It fosters a false sense of independence.
    Wealth makes it easy to think that we can deal with any situation that arises—both in our daily lives and in our spiritual life. It can cause us to think that we don’t need God (Revelation 3:17).
  2. Wealth binds us to the things of this earth.
    Jesus warned, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
  3. Wealth tends to make us selfish.
    No matter how much we have, it’s human nature to want more. When we have “great possessions,” it’s easy for us, like the rich, young ruler, to turn away sorrowfully from helping others.

Ask yourself...

We don’t have to be rich to turn sorrowfully away from following Jesus. This story should raise some questions to ask ourselves:

  • What is most important to me in my life?
  • Am I trying to get to heaven by being good?
  • Is there something in my life I’m not willing to give up in order to follow Jesus?
  • Do I see following Jesus as a privilege or a sacrifice?
  • Do I place a greater value on things than I do on people?