Luke 18:18-23

Intro: As we continue the journey with Jesus to the battleground of Jerusalem where He will war with Satan over the souls of men, Luke allows us to do some people watching on the way. He shows us a “good” man who is sad (18:18-30), a blind man who can see (18:35-43), and a lost man who is found (19:1-10).

The good man who is sad stands in stark contrast to the little children of the previous story – his moral achievement vs. their helplessness.

Luke refers to wealth and wealthy persons four times more often as Matt and Mark. Some individuals of financial means play positive roles in Luke-Acts including Joseph of Arimathea, Barnabas, Roman centurions, and Lydia. Not one of them is described as rich, however.

In Luke, people are designated as rich in 13 instances, but only once is it positive (Zacchaeus). 

We cannot say that wealth is a categorical evil in Luke, but we must say that it poses and unquestioned danger to faith and discipleship.

No account of wealth in Luke illustrates the danger better than the present story because unlike 6 other references in Luke that link wealth with unrighteousness, this rich ruler proves to be somewhat righteous.

The possessions and authority of the ruler are a striking contrast to the simple children of the previous story. Both stories are surprising, the first because incapable infants are offered the kingdom, and second because a Law-righteous ruler is not!

We are to imagine this man as having been present for Jesus’ instruction about the little children in the preceding text. His question for Christ is motivated by what he has just seen and heard.

Luke 18:18 Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

This is the second time someone has asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. This instance is different than the first because there does not appear to be any antagonism here. 

If one must receive the kingdom of God as a child, how might a ruler gain eternal life?

In Luke 10:25, the teacher of the Law sought to justify himself with the question. It seemed he did not really care to learn the answer. But this ruler was serious. He wanted to know.

Here was a man who worked hard for everything he had, therefore he expected to pay full price for eternal life.

To quote him more literally, “Having done, what will I inherit? Eternal life?”

He clearly wants to achieve eternal life by his own efforts. His focus is on the future. The implication was that he could do one great deed that would secure his salvation.

He assumes that a certain standard of performance will secure eternal life for him in the future. The idea of eternal life has significance for him only for that future.

Luke 18:19 So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God.

Addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher” is extraordinary because Judaism only calls God or the Law “good” but never rabbis.

This ruler is engaging in word games rooted in community status. According to this first century language system, one respectful compliment deserves another.

It is best to understand that Jesus is responding to this ruler’s tendency to overdo it with flattery, hoping for his words to boomerang.

The ruler starts with “Good Teacher” and expects something like “Noble Ruler” as a reply from Christ.

“No one is good but One, that is, God” can also be translated “No one is good except the one God.”

In saying this, Jesus was not denying that what the man said was true. Jesus was a good teacher – the very best!

But He wanted the man to see that He was something more than just another articulate rabbi; He was also the Son of God!

“Why do you call Me good? Do you mean what you are saying? ‘Good’ is only appropriate for God. Are you serious in applying this title to me?”

But the ruler does not answer. It seems Luke wants his readers to wrestle with the answer themselves.

Let’s also recognize that Jesus, indeed, accepts the title of “Good Teacher” and has no trouble being placed in the same category as God Himself.

Three verses from now, Christ will tell this man to “follow Me,” as His definitive answer to what the person must do to inherit eternal life.

If Jesus thought it inappropriate to be described in a way that only applies to God, then at that point, He would have instructed the ruler to sell all he has and “follow God,” instead of following Him.

Should not these words send the ruler into double deliberation? Does he not now have two questions to answer? What does it mean if Jesus really is good? Where does that leave me if I am one of those who is not good?

Luke 18:20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

Jesus directs the ruler to the commandments he already knows, saying in effect, “…keep my commands and live” (Prov 4:4)

The 10 Commandments define right behavior as they point us to God.

Here is a list of five older requirements to obey that emphasize being loyal to family and having a proper attitude towards property.

This selection of 5 of the 10 Commandments, re-ordered in a list as 7, 6, 8, 9, 5 is deliberate. Understanding what the list emphasizes and its parallel list in v.29 is the key to understanding the whole section. 

We will discover a very simple truth that is impossible to accomplish apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

#7 do not commit adultery – loyalty to family
#6 do not murder – do not destroy a person’s body
#8 do not steal – respect for property 
#9 do not bear false witness – do not destroy a person’s reputation
#5 honor father and mother – loyalty to family

The list Christ gives in Luke 14:26 is similarly arranged. There is an introduction and a conclusion with seven specifics in the center.

Luke 14:26 If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.

The high points of the list are the beginning (father) and the end (self). These two are the highest demands for loyalty than anyone in the near east could or can imagine.

We have noted the special emphasis on family and property in the list of commandments Jesus offered.

Luke 18:21 And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

What the ruler specifically said was, “all these I have kept since my bar-mitzvah.” I have sought faithfully to keep these commands since the day I became a “son of the commandment.”

The ruler seems perplexed. “The Ten Commandments?” he said. “Is that all there is to it? Everyone knows that you must keep those. In fact, I have made it my daily practice to keep them. Isn’t there something else I can accomplish to guarantee eternal life?

The man’s response was as common then as it is today, when many think of the 10 Commandments as a short list of bad sins they almost never commit.

Therefore, most people are self-righteous and think they are able to keep God’s law well enough to impress Him sufficiently to get into heaven.  

Surprisingly, this claim was not unprecedented. And it was not nearly as scandalous to those who heard him say it as it is to our modern ears.

We Christians remember what Jesus taught in His sermon on the mount about the intentions of the heart being equivalent to the deeds, so we are immediately skeptical of the ruler’s claim to have kept those commandments since he was young.

But it is important to remember that, with the lone exception of the final commandment against coveting, the 10 Commandments require actions – and these could literally be kept – even if the heart was not in the obedience.

The Talmud reports that Abraham, Moses, and Aaron kept the whole law.

Recall that Paul himself boasted of having been blameless in his moral activity as a Jew.

Phil 3:6 concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

The rich, young ruler seems to calmly put himself in rather exalted company.

We can assume that he has indeed kept those 5 commands since Jesus does not challenge his claim.

Nevertheless, Christ does not let him off the hook.

If this man was keeping God’s law, then surely he was keeping the first commandment which says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3).

So, was God first in the ruler’s life, or was something else in the way?

Luke 18:22 So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

“You still lack one thing” – The ruler’s hopes rise. Here, then, is the “thing I can do” that I was asking about!

Turns out, though, that the “one thing” was too much.

The new requirements to obey are: (a) sell everything (b) follow Me – family and property immediately tumble down the list of priorities.

The idea of “one thing lacking” also follows the question of eternal life back in Luke 10:41-42 when Jesus visited the home of the two sisters Mary and Martha.

Luke 10:41 And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.
Luke 10:42 But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

The one thing that Mary has but Martha lacks is an evident expression of loyalty to the person of Jesus.

This ruler lacks the same thing.

Jesus was identifying the one area of the ruler’s life where he refused to let God be God.

He wanted the good life more than he wanted eternal life, and this was keeping him from following Christ.

illus: The ruler was like the rich plantation owner that John Wesley met once in America. Wesley toured the man’s vast estate, riding on horseback for hours, yet seeing only a fraction of the man’s property. At the end of the all-day ride the two men sat down to dinner. The plantation owner eagerly asked, “Well, Mr. Wesley, what do you think?” Wesley replied, “I think you are going to have a hard time leaving all this.”

The ruler had the same difficulty. Rather than telling him to do something, Jesus tells him to get rid of something. Subtract everything in his life that was standing between him and the Lord.

For Luke, the one thing the ruler still lacks is to come to the point where things in his life are actually lacking!

Unfortunately, he considers the new requirements to be too difficult.

The demands themselves (“sell everything” & “follow Me”) aim at the heart of the same two primary values suggested by the rearranging of the commandments by Jesus in v.20, namely property and family.

In the middle east the family estate is of supreme value because it is a symbol of the solidarity of the extended family. Great honor is granted to intact, unified extended families. They will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain the ancestral home.

Therefore, what is Jesus demanding of the ruler? Give up for My sake that thing that brings you enormous honor in your community.

“Give Me first priority; Give Me greater loyalty than what you give to your family and what you give to your family’s estate.”

Abraham set the first example of giving God this priority over both property and family.

He left his colossal estate in Ur of the Chaldeans when God appeared to him and instructed him to go to a land the Lord would show him. He passed the property test.

Next, on Mt. Moriah, God required that Abraham be willing to put his obedience on a higher level than his loyalty to his own family.

Gen 22:2 Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Gen 22:9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 
Gen 22:10 And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

Abraham passed the family test in the most dramatic fashion.

The ruler failed even on the first type of test.

The command, “sell everything,” says, “I have a new first family.”

The command, “Come, follow Me,” means to become an official, public disciple of Jesus.

Perhaps if he had measured up to the first demand of “sell everything,” he might have received back his estate as a gift of God to be used for the Lord’s glory.

Peter, Andrew, James, and John were not commanded to sell their possessions to follow Jesus.

This particular mandate is a clue that the ruler’s exceeding wealth exerts a power over him that the boats and the nets did not exert over the first four disciples. 

Luke sees a direct relationship between the quantity of your possessions and the difficulty of your discipleship.

The irony between the ruler and the little children in the former story is palpable.

The children possess nothing of their own, yet the kingdom of God is theirs; the ruler possesses everything, yet he lacks something.

Only when he becomes like a child, that is, sells all he has, will he possess everything.

The ruler appeals to his past record – “I have obeyed since I was a boy.” Jesus summons him to a different kind of obedience – “Come, follow Me.”

The implication is clear: the ruler’s love for God, which is the subject of the first half of the 10 Commandments, was not as impressive as his duties to others in the second half. 

Apparently, the ruler was better at doing things for God than loving God.

Jesus told him, “If you follow Me, you will have treasure in heaven.” The man secretly wonders, “If I divest of all my wealth, what will I get in return?” Jesus answers, “You will have Me in return. I will be the substitute for your lost possessions.”

This story began with the ruler claiming to be receptive to the gospel, but he is surprised to learn that he is not.

Luke 18:23 But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. 

What a contrast to his initial confidence that he was a successful son of the commandment.

How tragic to see a man who knows the commandments but does not know himself.

The ruler leads an exemplary life. He even endears himself to Jesus. Yet, he remains an idolater.

He was devastated.

Faced with the wholesale rejection of his own understanding of God and of the world, he hangs his head in defeat.

But his sorrow is not just because he loved his wealth. More than this, the painful reality that he cannot earn his way into God’s grace was equally grievous to him. 

People of wealth are often proud of their own achievements.

He had worked especially hard to achieve his elevated status. But status in God’s presence cannot be earned. It can only be received with gratitude.

To learn that his efforts were in vain concerning eternal life was extraordinarily deflating.

Kenneth E. Bailey – The self-confidence of the self-made person crashes and dissolves like a mighty wave on a sandy shore when eternal life is at issue.

The ruler grieves in silence. His brash self-confidence is destroyed. 


In some ways, this one of Jesus’ unsuccessful stories. 

The wealthy ruler comes searching but at the moment of discovery, he turns away. Christ calls a man to follow who says, “no.” He refuses to embrace life with Jesus.

Jesus disappointed this man. He made the sincere ruler sad. How will you respond if you meet up with Jesus, and He does not cater to your feelings? What will you do when His will wrecks your plans?