If you think the story of the rich young ruler is about one’s possessions, you are partially correct. The teaching also goes beyond how our possessions capture our heart. Today we will look beyond material wealth and examine this teaching with an eye on our spirituality. The rich young ruler reveals to us how our resistance to deconstruction is the thing beyond the thing.
For the sake of context, Luke chapter 18 is a string of parables that teach us one of the most important things in all of spirituality. The Persistent Widow, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Children coming to Jesus all reveal a paradoxical view of justice along with access or proximity to God.
Justice & Proximity. These are really big issues. If you’ve ever felt like God hasn’t answered your prayers. If you’ve ever felt like life wasn’t fair. Then this is for you.
These parables set us up for the story of the rich young ruler in verses 18-30. In this story, the rich man approaches Jesus, calling him “Good Teacher” asking what he must “poiéo” (do, perform) to receive eternal life-(Seems like a reasonable question). Jesus’ answer is interesting because he first questions the man as to why he calls him “good” because only God is good. Our labels reveal our internal frameworks. A title is a way to index another. Right away Jesus is revealing that if the man thinks Jesus’ has proximity to or is God, then he’s already relating in the wrong way. He’s approaching God with transaction.
Have you ever “bartered” with God?
Jesus doesn’t tell him to approach him in a different manner. Instead he runs the man’s transactional framework to its failure point. Jesus goes on to say: “You know the commandments….” and then lists off half of them. The rich man says to Jesus, “All of these I have kept from my youth.” So Jesus sees the man justifying (justice) himself by his transactions and then gives him a transaction that will deconstruct everything: to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. At that, the man became “perilupos” (sad unto death) and went home. The rest of the passage Jesus is explaining how difficult it will be for “the rich person” to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Religion confuses people because everyone plays along. Our default mode is herd mentality, acceptance through compliance. People struggle to “enter the kingdom” because it’s paradoxical. It opens through deconstruction which we, like this rich man, avoid. Down is the way up. Giving is how we gain. Dying is how we live. Justice is restorative not retributive. We are all like the rich young ruler in that we hate taking what we believe are backwards steps. If you think Jesus was being a bit “unfair”, its because he used the mans own “unfair” basis for justice back on himself.
The rich young ruler came saying all the right things as so many people do. His words were depicting a heart that desires access or proximity to God. Jesus uses the ten commandments to reflect back to the man his own moral framework and sense of personal superiority and meritocracy. In other words, Jesus could see that this man wanted Jesus to agree with him and console his soul based upon his surface level performance matrix. He thought Jesus would respect his achievement. He assumed Jesus basis for justice was retribution. However, God looks upon the heart. Jesus is basically saying: “Oh, you think this is about religious performance, let’s see if you are willing to deconstruct your sense of justice and everything that gives you your power and identity? ” The man said he wanted eternal life, but he wanted his temporal life more. Lip service doesn’t cut it.
In eight years of online ministry I’ve met many “believers” who on the surface want to discuss the deeper things of God. It immediately becomes apparent to me that their real agenda is to try and take me to task, or to debate something. The real heart is not about coming to know Christ in a deeper way, the real heart is to be right or to win. I’m open for any discussion, but I don’t debate. I’ve asked many people if they would give up Christianity or their religion if they could have Christ instead. Most can’t make sense of the question. Which means they have no concept of deconstruction nor the paradox of the proximity to the Kingdom.
The rich young ruler is the religious false self, also depicted in the previous verses by a pharisee who went to the temple to pray. This is the person who wants access via the top rather than undergo the deconstruction which places us at the bottom. Contenders are those who are already convinced of their access. This is the Christian, Muslim, Jew, Atheist or any religious person who will not let go of their “system” with which they identify in exchange for the identity of Christ, because they think God’s justice is based in transaction, they miss the kingdom which is based in transformation. Like the rich young ruler, their system gives them security, an identity, and a way to live…it gives them great wealth. Most will return to this “wealth” and religion all offended, but without Christ.
Do you have a religion, a practice, a merit badge faith? Or do you have Christ?
We must never claim we want to be closer to Christ and then reject his unconventional deconstruction (v.22), humility (v.14), or persistence (v.5) which will be required. Scripture continuously reveals that religious people are the most lost people of the human race. They are more lost than the worst sinner because they can’t or won’t see how lost they really are. They want to advertise their deity and show off their morality or credentials, while putting on a good show for others. We all know people like this. These are the ones that argue, intimidate others, and eventually retreat into their religion when Christ sits unimpressed by their side-show.
Perhaps you are someone who says: “I’m not religious, but I also don’t really want or seek out Christ in my life.” What can you expect? Simply look at how your heart views others. If you feel superior, smarter, or better than others, then you are the rich young ruler and you have missed the kingdom. If you can see yourself in the worst of humanity, then the kingdom is not far off from you. You, like the tax collector in v.14 have probably undergone some deconstruction and are in proximity to the kingdoms kind of justice, that of restoration. The soul question is this: would you rather see yourself in others, or cling to those things which give you power over others?
Mark 2:22 says if we truly want the new wine, we must abandon the old wine skin for the sake of what is expanding in us. Jesus is inviting all of us (religious and otherwise) into a bigger reality, but we must first be willing to deconstruct the small reality we’ve known thus far. Religious people, please take the earnest heed (Hebrews 2:1) from the rich young ruler. If you are not willing to forsake your religion, your practice, your framework, your support system, your well being, wealth, and yes even your very life, then you are presently as close to God as you can get until that changes.
Access to God is not a meritocracy. It is the humble owning of who we are and who are not. It’s willingness to just be our weak, flawed, amazing self. According to Jesus, this true/authentic life comes at a cost which at first seems impossible to pay, but after letting go of pretense, ambition, possessions, and outcomes, we realize we were clutching onto vapor, and the fake ID fades away. The required deconstruction process will always make us perilupos (very sad unto death). It feels like going to the back of the line when the circumstances of life require us to part with our wealth, our status, our power, our frameworks, our institutions and habits…but that is where new life begins. It will be a sadness unto death, because it IS the death of our false self, and the beginning of new life and authenticity.
It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for the religious false self to enter proximity with God.