Did the Rich Young Ruler Hear the Gospel?
As we continue our series comparing Protestant and Catholic paradigms and their respective explanatory value for the New Testament data, I would like to turn our attention to Jesus and his teachings. First off, let’s consider the case of the rich young ruler. When asked by this man what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments,” and more specifically, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Now at first glance this instruction appears odd if Jesus was indeed operating from a paradigm that said that our works can never contribute to our gaining eternal life, and that final salvation is only possible through the imputation of an alien righteousness received by faith alone. Yet as those holding this paradigm are quick to argue, Jesus is not betraying sola fide here at all, but instead is employing the “first use of the law” as a means to show this young man his sinful attachment to his many possessions, and thereby drive him to seek the forgiveness that comes from the gospel of grace alone. In other words, Jesus is not giving this man normative advice for gaining eternal life, but is seeking to demonstrate to him the impossibility of gaining eternal life by such a course.
On its face there is nothing particularly objectionable about this interpretation — this approach on Jesus’ part could very well have been valid and wise. However, I do not believe that this is what Jesus was intending to do. Rather, I think he actually meant what he said when he instructed the man to sell his possessions in order to gain heavenly treasure.
My first reason for saying this is the context immediately following this episode (vv. 23ff). Jesus tells his disciples that it is difficult for a rich man to enter heaven, whereupon the disciples express amazement, asking, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus’ response is important: “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The indication seems to be that what Jesus demanded of the rich young ruler was only impossible when attempted with human strength and the arm of the flesh, but was indeed “possible with God” and his power. Moreover, this seems to have been how Peter understood the Lord. After Jesus’ assurance, he replied, “See? We have left all and followed you. What then will we have?” If Jesus’ command to the rich man to leave his earthly treasure for heavenly was not intended to be taken literally or normatively, then it would appear that Peter failed to grasp Jesus’ point at all (and in fairness, it wouldn’t be the first or last time). But if this had been another of Peter’s blunders, we would expect Jesus to have rebuked him as he did at other times. But instead, Jesus actually assured his disciples that they, and all others who sacrifice their earthly possessions for him, would inherit eternal life. In short, if Jesus was merely dealing with the rich man in a pedagogical, first-use-of-the-law manner, then not only did his disciples miss his point entirely, but Jesus in fact reinforced their misunderstanding.
In addition to the immediate context, the broader testimony of the New Testament supplies ample justification for viewing Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler as normative instruction rather than a mere first-use tactic to highlight this man’s inability to sacrifice sufficiently to enter the eternal kingdom. Examples include: (1) Jesus’ instruction in the sermon on the mount to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. Are we not to understand this as normative? (2) Jesus’ beatitude in his sermon on the plain, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Is this not simply a shorthand way of teaching what the episode of the rich young ruler describes? Is this beatitude to be taken literally and normatively, or as merely hypothetical? (3) Paul’s instruction to “the rich in this present age,” who are not to “set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy,” who are “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” — is this instruction merely legal and pedagogical, or is it meant to be obeyed in order to gain a future reward?
The list could go on and on. My point is that when one’s paradigm insists that no human works, even if Spirit-wrought, can contribute to our eternal inheritance, then there is no other choice but to interpret our passage in a merely legal way, with Jesus’ instruction serving only to show the impossibility of gaining eternal life through sacrifice. But when Jesus says that this striving for eternal life is “impossible with men, but with God all things are possible,” he is plainly contradicting this paradigm.
If, on the other hand, Jesus’ paradigm were such that a person under the New Covenant can gain a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because it comes from Spirit-infused agape rather than strict obedience to the letter of the law, then he would have said to this young man exactly what the gospels tell us he said, namely, that the rich man’s having “kept all these commands from his youth” was not enough without his also having the Spirit-wrought love of God and neighbor that would induce him to sell his goods, give to the poor, and follow Jesus.
So while this episode can be understood through the imputation paradigm, such an approach causes the interpretation arrived at to be unnatural and somewhat inconsistent with the immediate and broader contexts. But a Catholic paradigm — whose understanding of the gospel involves salvation through Spirit-wrought faith and works of sacrifice, mercy, and love — allows Jesus’ words to be taken in their most natural sense without need for qualification or theological gymnastics to explain them.