One of the political left’s favorite stories in the Bible is the one in Luke 18:18–29 regarding the rich ruler who wants salvation. He asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life, and Jesus says, in summary, keep the commandments. The man says he has done this. Then Jesus says (NIV version): “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.” The man then “became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.” Jesus then says: “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.”
In the simplistic view of many people, the message of this scripture is: “rich people are evil and don’t go to heaven.” This scripture has been used by generations of the avaricious to justify forcefully taking money from the rich to spend on various government projects.
I will argue in this post that one cannot understand this story without taking into consideration two other stories that immediately follow: the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, another rich man who does find salvation, and Luke’s version of the parable of the talents.
You can read about Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1–10. He is a wealthy tax collector (the worst kind of sinner), who climbed into a tree to see Jesus passing by. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus and says he should come down so Jesus can stay in his house. The people with Jesus muttered that Jesus was going to stay with a sinner, but then “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus then says: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
How are we supposed to understand this contrast? In the first case, the rich man lived an apparently good life and was told he needed to sell all of his possessions to inherit eternal life. In the second case, the rich man lived a bad life and was saved after saying he would voluntarily give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back the people he had cheated.
Well, the first lesson I take from this is: you don’t need to sell all your possessions to be saved, no matter how rich you are. These stories are more about the state of your heart. The first man was told to follow Jesus to be saved, but he concentrated on his wealth first, and because of this he was blinded from the obvious solution: follow Jesus with faith, and things will take care of themselves. This is Jesus’ lesson when he says: “what is impossible with men is possible with God.” Jesus then says: “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.” (see note 1 below).
Now consider what happened, in contrast, with Zacchaeus. He took the extra step of climbing into a tree just to get a glimpse of the Savior. His heart was already changing. He was in effect reaching out his hand to the Savior. Jesus recognized this and called out to him. Zacchaeus then spontaneously responded with earthly acts that showed his changed heart: he would voluntarily give half what he owned to the poor (Jesus did not even have to ask him) and he would also pay back four times the amount to anybody he had cheated. Jesus then said he would be saved.
So, the second lesson I take from these stories is: reach your hand out to the Savior. He will reach back, and he will begin to help you change into a more Christ-like person. As you do, you will voluntarily decide to help the poor and make restitution. But note that even with half his possessions Zacchaeus was plenty rich. It was not the wealth itself that made him a sinner, but instead his manner of acquiring it (extorting it from others and presumably taking a large cut for himself). If the rich need to give away all their possessions to be saved, why didn’t Jesus tell Zacchaeus to go do this?
The third story drives home the point that Jesus did not see wealth itself as evil. Immediately following the incident with Zacchaeus, Luke gives his version of the parable of the talents, which is very similar to Matthew’s. Three different servants are given money (talents or “pounds” in Luke). One took 10 talents and created 10 more. He is praised. One took five talents and created five more. He is also praised. The one servant who was given only one talent did nothing with it and is called a wicked servant, and his one talent is taken away from him.
Jesus then says: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:26).
What?! How can Jesus possibly be saying this? Just a while ago, he had told the rich man he could not inherit eternal life unless he gave everything he had to the poor, and now he is saying that the people who have many good things and riches will be given even more?! And not only that, but the poor will have the little they have taken away if they don’t do anything with their talents?! And why didn’t Jesus tell the person with 10 extra talents to give some to the layabout who only had one talent?!
It seems to me the placement of this story is not accidental. Either Jesus or the people who recorded his sayings knew that there would be many who misinterpreted the story of the rich man. Rich men are not evil because they are rich. They are evil if they let their riches control them and become their idols (which, admittedly, does happen to a lot of rich people). Zacchaeus shows us the path forward: reach out to the Savior, put your faith in him, go out on a limb to serve him. Once you do, your heart will begin to change and you will see that earthly riches are nothing compared to the riches of eternal life.
But the other message is: being poor or having fewer talents is no excuse for not acting. You cannot sit and expect others to take care of you. If you do, you are a wicked servant. Instead, you must do the best you can with your lot in life, better yourself and, of course, serve the Master. Is the poor person who does nothing with his life and rejects God worse off spiritually than the rich man who works hard and reaches out his hand to the Savior? The answer appears to be yes.
Note 1: I am assuming for the sake of this post that “eternal life” and “salvation” are all part of the continuum of drawing closer to God. There are those who would see the rich man and Jesus’ reference to “eternal life” as an argument that the rich man was farther along in his spiritual journey and may have already received “salvation.” But he could not move on to the next step without selling everything he had. I find this argument problematic for a variety of reasons, but if you want to insist on this reading, you must also recognize that the rich man was certainly not evil because of his riches if he had already received salvation.