“Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22).
The rich young ruler in this passage came to Jesus with a genuine question on how he might receive eternal life but his problem starts from his question, “What must I do?” He had a wrong mind set and this would be his undoing.
It would appear that he was either a Pharisee or at least following their teaching. Jesus asked if he had kept the commandments relating to human relationships and the ruler claimed that he had always kept them. Was that presumptuous? Maybe, but Jesus then gave him a command that did not fit within his framework of reference, his spiritual laws.
He had kept the letter of the moral law. He had kept the ceremonial law but what Jesus asks is that he observe the first two commandments by doing something that didn’t fit within his framework.
- You shall have no other gods before Me
- You shall not make yourself a carved image …
It didn’t make sense to give everything away. His wealth was the evidence of his goodness and God’s blessing. His own law had overshadowed Jesus’ commandment. The fact is that this young ruler had made a god of the law.
Was he not a spiritual man? He obeyed the commandments and fulfilled all the rituals. To any observer he was a righteous man, but not to Jesus.
We are at risk of doing the same. The apostles Paul and John both warn against such people. They create a god out of moral law (but only to a level they can attain) and ritualistic practice to observe and believe that they are spiritual if they can maintain these. They also impose these on others as a measure of spirituality (legalism). The form has become their god.
Jesus’ direct command to the ruler fell on unhearing ears. What Jesus commanded did not make sense to one who bases their spirituality on outward observance and material blessing. He could justify that to other men but he could not justify giving all his wealth away. That looked foolish.
A few verses (9-14) earlier Luke has recorded a parable that Jesus spoke of a Pharisee who loved to pray in public. Is prayer wrong? No, of course not but this man’s idea of prayer is wrong. He wanted public prayer so that he could show others how spiritual he was. He was proud of his (supposed) greater spirituality than the tax collector.
Jesus says it was the tax collector who was righteous not the Pharisee.
Oswald Chambers makes the valid point that it is what a man does in the private place with God that matters not what he does in the public arena before men. One wants to be seen of God and the other wants to be seen of men. The latter can always justify himself before men the former only seeks to be justified before God.